This response was crafted because Coke's reply to interested folks cleverly obfuscated the fact that they haven't actually been using recycled plastic in their bottles with the fact that their bottles are recycleable. (As of March 2000.)


Dear Friend of Recycling:

I am writing to respond to the letter you received from The Coca-Cola Company concerning issues raised by the GrassRoots Recycling Network’s recent New York Times Op Ed page ads.  We received an identical letter when we wrote Coke to ask them to live up to their promise to use soft drink bottles made from recycled plastic. 

Coke’s spokesperson claimed: "Soft drink containers … are America's most recycled package.  In 1997, 58.7% of all soft drink containers were recycled." Coke is trying to switch the subject, from plastic soft drink containers to all soft drink containers, and from the recycled content of bottles to recycling rates of empty containers.

Recycling rates for plastic soda bottles, which is what we're concerned about, have fallen dramatically from a peak of 50 percent in 1994 to 35.6 percent in 1998, according to industry data. In other words, 2 of every 3 plastic Coke bottles are now wasted, either going to dumps or becoming litter.  And the bottles that are recycled are going into carpet and pallet strapping, for which recyclers get paid very little.

Coke's attempt to claim credit for high overall beverage container recycling rates is ludicrous in light of Coke's vigorous opposition to container deposits --  the very system that is responsible for the high recycling rates of beverage containers. The overall beverage container recycling rate in the ten ‘bottle bill’ states where a deposit is required on every container is 85 percent, compared with 35 percent in non-bottle bill states, according to the Container Recycling Institute.  Over the years, Coke has spent tens of millions of dollars in state legislatures across the country to defeat or repeal bottle bills.  Coke opposes bottle bills because they make producers like Coke share responsibility for recycling used containers.

Coke also claims that "each year we spend over $2 billion on recycled content materials and supplies in the U.S. alone." Coke's figure for spending for recycled content materials is primarily for aluminum cans, which are still the dominant soft drink container.  But Coke is switching away from recycled content glass and aluminum to plastic with no recycled content.  Aluminum cans have 70% recycled content. Coke has all but abandoned glass, which has 25% recycled content.

Coke also argues in their response that they didn't break a promise to the public to use plastic with recycled content. But Coke's promise is reflected in the public record.  In fact, Coke's current chairman and CEO, Douglas Ivester, was the point person in their early public relations campaign.  Mr. Ivester's public statements, taken together, create a clear public impression that Coke promised to use recycled plastic soda bottles to protect the environment.  Consumers and public officials concerned about plastic waste took it as a promise.  In fact, many people today mistakenly believe that the recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic Coke bottles means the bottle is made with recycled plastic.

Coca-Cola claims that "because of the additional cleaning and processing necessary to make recovered plastics safe for food use, it costs significantly more to recycle recovered PET into bottles than it does to make as many as 50 new products such as fiber, carpet and car parts."

In reality, the extra cost of using recycled plastic in three layer plastic bottles (currently used by Gatorade and Verifine juices) is little or nothing, but Coke apparently does not want to invest in new machines for this technology.  Another process available to them is blending recycled plastic soda bottles with virgin resin resulting in an additional cost of only one- or two-tenths of one cent per bottle, according to one industry source. 

At the same time, profit per bottle in cases of 20-ounce pet soft drink bottles is more than 20 cents per bottle, according to industry sources.  Ironically, Coke presently uses 25% recycled content in its bottles in Australia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Coke says the limited test they conducted in 1991 was "unsustainable." But Coke's failure to recycle is not sustainable for our communities, which currently subsidize the recycling of these plastics, is certainly not sustainable for our environment. With plastic waste increasing ten times faster than the recycling of plastic bottles, Coke needs to take responsibility for the waste it is producing.

The fact is that Coke does not use recycled plastic in the 10 billion bottles it sells every year in the U.S., despite promising to do so in 1990. And Coke’s failure to honor its pledge has stunted the market for recycled plastic, burdening our cities with more waste and pollution.

I hope that this letter clears up some of the misconceptions Coca-Cola was attempting to create in response to your concerns.  We appreciate your taking the time to contact Coca-Cola and your continued interest in holding corporations accountable for conserving resources.

Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.
Network Coordinator

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