Coke's Broken Promise To Recycle
October 1999

The Coca-Cola Company promised in 1990 to use recycled plastic in their soda bottles. Here is an excerpt from the Coca-Cola company's original press release, subtitled 'Closed Loop' Process Turns Bottles Back Into Bottles.' Interestingly, the Coke official quoted in this and subsequent releases is none other than M. Douglas Ivester, chairman and C.E.O. of Coca-Cola until February 2000. Clearly, Mr. Ivester knew the right thing to do back then.

"Producing new plastic beverage bottles with a blend of recycled plastic is a significant step ahead in plastics recycling," said M. Douglas Ivester, senior vice president, The Coca-Cola Company and president, Coca-Cola USA. "The technology will allow the 'closed loop' recycling of our plastic bottles, just as our other suppliers use recycled aluminum and steel for cans and recycled glass for glass bottles."

-- PR Newswire, December 4, 1990

When Coke started test marketing the new bottle in Charlotte NC:

"This market introduction signals a new phase of development for plastic packaging," said M. Douglas Ivester, president, Coca-Cola USA. "The bottle made with recycled plastic represents the latest breakthrough in our on-going commitment to the environment through minimizing virgin raw materials used in our packaging. ... One of the primary benefits of this package will be to encourage greater recycling of plastic soft drink packaging by consumers," Mr. Ivester said. "More than half of all soft drink cans are recycled and we want to reach and exceed that level with plastic packaging."

-- PR Newswire, March 12, 1991

After the test marketing:

"The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE: KO) today announced plans to expand the introduction of plastic soft drink bottles made with recycled plastic soft drink bottles into southeastern and midwestern markets, beginning in September. Today's announcement signals the completion of a successful, five-month market test in Charlotte, N.C.

"We're extremely pleased with the results from Charlotte," said M. Douglas Ivester, president, Coca-Cola USA. "Consumer acceptance of the first-ever commercial use of soft drink bottles made with recycled plastic soft drink bottles exceeded our expectations." . ...

"Expanding the availability of bottles made with recycled plastic into additional markets helps the Coca-Cola system further demonstrate 'closed-loop' recycling while encouraging greater recycling of plastic soft drink packaging by consumers," Mr. Ivester said.

-- PR Newswire, August 27, 1991

Here are some other sources:

"Coke and Pepsi took their long rivalry to the environmental arena yesterday, with each company saying it would be the first to sell soft drinks in plastic bottles made with materials recycled from used bottles."

-- New York Times, December 5, 1990

"With their pledge to start using bottles made in part from recycled resins, [Coke and Pepsi] will begin to reduce dependence on petroleum-based resins."

-- Editorial, Chicago Tribune, December 14, 1990


The commitment to make recycled plastic soda bottles was made, in part, in response to the threat of minimum content legislation and container deposit legislation in several states. Coke even took their recycled bottle to Congress in the early 1990s and showed it off in testimony aimed at stemming the call for mandates (according to Lance King, GRRN campaign consultant). Both Coke and Pepsi used some recycled plastic in select markets for several years -- until about 1994 or 1995 when public interest in recycling appeared to wane and the threat of legislation seemed to disappear. Coke currently uses zero recycled plastic in the 8 to 10 billion plastic soda bottles it sells in the U.S. each year. Likewise, Pepsi uses no recycled plastic.

Coke says it costs too much to do what almost everyone agrees is 'the real thing' -- buy recycled content bottles. This may make sense in a strict, internalized-cost sense. But in the larger sense, it is clearly not true. The external costs to society of not recycling are skyrocketing.

Coke notes proudly that they use plastic bottles with recycled content, as well as environmentally preferable refillable bottles, in other countries, due to strict governmental mandates on recycling. Coke has spent millions of its $1.6 billion annual global advertising budget fighting such mandates (minimum content legislation and bottle bills), especially in the U.S. We have seen how far voluntary promises to recycle plastic got us. Perhaps what Coke is really saying is that they need a little push from mandates to make good on their voluntary commitments?


About PEPSI: Pepsi has done no better than Coke. GRRN is focusing on Coke because it is the market leader (44% of the U.S. market compared with Pepsi's 32%; 50% of the world market vs. Pepsi's 20%). If Coke decides to change its ways Pepsi will follow Coke's lead just like it did in 1990. Who knows, if Pepsi were smart, it would pre-empt Coke -- maybe even leapfrog to embracing deposits and refillables!

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