Just the Facts
THE ISSUE: In 1990 the Coca-Cola Company
promised to begin making plastic soft drink bottles sold in the United
States with 25 percent recycled plastic (as reported in the New
York Times on December 6, 1990). Today, the company sells
over 25 million plastic soda bottles (coded #1 PET, or polyethylene
terephthalate) in the U.S. every day -- and Coke uses almost no recycled
plastic. As quickly as those bottles are tossed away, the plastics
industry extracts more non-renewable resources and spews more hazardous
emissions to churn out millions of new ones.
In a year's time, 10 billion plastic Coke bottles that contain
over 800 million pounds of virgin plastic are discarded. While
certain industries incorporate used soda bottle plastic into a host
of products, from pillow stuffing and fleece jackets to carpets and
auto parts, 64 percent of all used soda bottles become waste or litter
-- largely because Coke refuses to "close the loop" by taking
them back and using them again. Moreover, the increasing use
of virgin plastic bottles is replacing aluminum and glass containers,
which have relatively high recycled content.
HELPFUL HISTORY: In the late 1980's and early 1990's,
when the garbage barge placed waste and recycling squarely in the
nation's headlines, many companies like Coca-Cola made promises
to use recycled materials. Coca-Cola promised to take
a leadership role by using recycled plastic in its soft drink bottles
sold in the United States. Coke used 25 percent recycled
plastic in selected markets until 1994, when it abandoned recycled
plastic entirely, citing high costs.
Since the flurry of programmatic and legislative activity around recycling
in the early 1990's has come and gone a lot has changed -- and not
for the better. The percentage of plastic soda bottles sold
that are collected for recycling (known as the recycling rate) has
dropped dramatically for three years in a row, from 50 percent in
1994 to only 36 percent in 1997. No other recyclable material
has dropped by more than 5 percent in the last decade, and none has
dropped for two years in a row. In late 1996 and early 1997
the market price for reclaimed PET plastic reached record lows.
As a result, the recycling infrastructure for PET has become unstable.
WHY ARE WE BACKSLIDING? We are losing ground because
manufacturers like Coca-Cola have shirked their responsibility.
Coke's actions have had a significant role in dismantling
an important part of our nation's recycling infrastructure.
The public does its share by diligently separating recyclables and
funding programs to collect and prepare recyclables for market.
But the system depends on companies like Coca-Cola to use
recovered materials in new packages and to help develop collection
infrastructure, or the entire system falls apart.
The concept is called "producer responsibility" and that's where our
system now falls short. In numerous countries abroad producer
responsibility for the waste generated by products and packaging is
WHY TARGET COKE?
The Coca-Cola Company is the overwhelming soft
drink industry leader, with 44 percent market share in 1997.
If Coke chooses to act responsibly, Pepsi and other soft drink
companies will follow. Coke is a highly profitable company
that industry sources say is reaping windfall profits from increasing
reliance on plastic packaging in the U.S. If any company has
the resources and the capability to take responsibility for its products
and packaging, it is Coca-Cola .
ARE RECYCLED CONTENT PLASTIC BOTTLES PRACTICAL?
Coke sells bottles made with recycled plastic in Australia,
New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden. The US Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) has approved several recycled content PET bottle technologies
that Coke can choose from, including one that uses 100 percent
recycled plastic. Coke also uses refillable plastic bottles
in several countries -- and refillables are even more environmentally
friendly than recycled content bottles.
THE TRUTH ABOUT COSTS: The cost to use recycled
plastic rather than virgin resin is only slightly higher using current
FDA approved technology. According to the industry trade publication,
Plastics Recycling Update, if Coca-Cola were to buy
25 percent recycled content plastic bottles it would only cost about
one-tenth of one cent per 20 ounce bottle (which costs Coke over 6
The shift to virgin plastic packaging, and away from glass and aluminum,
has resulted in a windfall profit for Coca-Cola. Between
1995 and 1996 the price for virgin PET plastic dropped dramatically
from more than 80 to about 40 cents per pound. That price drop,
which was due in part to overproduction caused by Coke's signal
to its suppliers that it would increase its use of plastic in soda
bottles, added more than $150 million directly to Coke's bottom
line according to Plastics Recycling Update.
Meanwhile, the drop in virgin PET prices caused a drop in prices for
reclaimed PET from 20 to only 4 cents per pound. So, while Coke
reaped tens of millions, many plastic recyclers were driven out of
business and community recycling programs suffered.