Coca-Cola Campaign
Just the Facts

May 2002


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 mandatory.

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 cents each).

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.

  Contact Us © Zero Waste USA ©
Archive maintained by Laughter On Water