Beverage Shareholders Campaign

Last modified: March 23, 2019

[From Plastics News - April 23, 2002 - reprinted with permission]
[Plastics News] ignores usefulness of citizen advocacy

Bill Sheehan
GrassRoots Recycling Network

In its March 25 Viewpoint, Plastics News congratulated Pepsi-Cola Co. for finally joining Coca-Cola Co.'s breakthrough announce-ment to use 10 percent recycled content in their PET bottles ("PET recycling effort depends on supply," Page 6).
This is a significant event for recyclers. Adding perhaps 70 million pounds of new demand each year to the approximately 100 million pounds previously committed by Coke will be a major boost for the economics of PET recycling in an industry that only processed domestically 527 million pounds in 2000, of which just 54 million pounds went into beverage bottles.

Improving the economics for local programs (bottle markets pay about 7 cents more per pound than fiber markets) will, over time, increase the supply of material. Increasing supply is critical for plastic reclaimers that presently have substantial excess capacity.

So certainly, congratulations are in order. But let's not forget how this all came about and what remains to be done.

In 1990, then-Coke Senior Vice President (later Chief Executive Officer) Douglas Ivester committed the company to voluntarily use 25 percent recycled content in an effort to head off legislative mandates.

However, as the political winds shifted with the election of a Republican majority in Congress in 1994, Coke quietly withdrew its promise because, the company claimed, recycled-content bottles produced with depolymerization technology (which was the only one available at the time) were too expensive. That explanation did not seem convincing, since the high costs of depolymerizing resins back to their monomers was known from the start.

This is the situation that languished until March 1997 when the GrassRoots Recycling Network initiated its Coke campaign in a letter to Coke's then-CEO Roberto C. Goizuetta. There followed several years of direct and highly visible actions by GRRN - including ads in the New York Times - that spurred shareholder actions and the formation of Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling. Then, in April 2001, Coke came through with its commitment to use 10 percent recycled content across its product line by 2005, now joined by Pepsi.

We do not mean to imply citizen advocacy can, by itself, accomplish everything. Had there not been a changing of the guard in Coke's executive suites, it is far less likely Coke would have looked for ways to constructively respond to legitimate public concerns.

And, had innovative bottle manufacturers not developed new, less-expensive technologies to use recycled content, the crushing economics of depolymerization would have made it impossible for bottom-line companies like Coke and Pepsi to move off the dime.

But GRRN was one of the major actors in this saga. Without us, the move to recycled content, and all the benefits it holds for recycling, would never had happened. Coke environmental manager Ben Jordan conceded as much at last year's Plastics Encounter conference in Atlanta, when he said that one of the reasons for the company's new public-spirited approach was public pressure.

Like Plastics News, GRRN has not lost sight of the soft drink makers' 1990 goal of using 25 percent recycled plastic. Clearly 25 percent recycled-content plastic bottles can be achieved by 2005.

GRRN believes that increased recycled-content levels need to be accompanied by dramatically increased supply of recycled PET, and that deposit or redemption laws are the best way to accomplish that. Whether that will happen, however, will depend upon there being a healthy dollop of citizen activism.

GRRN will be there, and we hope that others in industry who are dependent upon successful recycling will appreciate us for the critical role concerned and activated citizens constructively play in the process. Credit ought to be given where it is due, even if that means recognizing those with whom one disagrees.


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