[This article appeared in the winter 1998 issue of Earth Island Journal. Marti Matsch is with Eco-Cycle in Boulder Colorado.]

Coca Cola: Recycling Outlaw
by Marti Matsch

In the next 24 hours US consumers will use 50 million #1 polyethylene terepthlate (PET) plastic soda bottles. As quickly as we toss them, the plastic bottle industry extracts more nonrenewable resources from the Earth to make 50 million new soda bottles for us to throw away tomorrow. Some soda bottles make it to a recycler who must scramble to find a buyer, and often ends up selling the bottles at a loss to an entrepreneur who makes carpeting, benches, or jacket-fill -- anything but new bottles.

And what is the plastic bottling industry doing to create a stronger recycling market for its product? Nothing.

The GrassRootsRecycling Network (GRRN) hopes to change that. GRRN's aim is to pressure corporations to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of its manufacturing processes, materials and resource-use and to urge them to invest in reduction, reuse and recycling practices.

In 1990, amidst the heat of the cola battles with Pepsi, Coca-Cola loudly announced their pledge to help create a market for #1 PET bottles. Coke officials promised to begin using recycled plastic in #1 PET bottles in the US (just as they are doing successfully in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other countries). It was great news that the largest beverage company in the world was going to set a precedent and show sound corporate leadership.

Eight years later, Coca-Cola has still not followed through on its promise. And Coca-Cola's failed promise has been a major factor in the collapse of the soda bottle recycling market.

The "chasing arrows" recycling symbol on plastic containers invite consumers to "please recycle." GRRN decided it was time someone asked Coca-Cola, "Recycle them where?" In March 1997, GRRN wrote Coca-Cola, asking for four voluntary actions:
    • Live up to its promise to use recycled content in its plastic bottles,
    • Label the post-consumer recycled content on the recycled bottles,
    • Begin using refillable bottles, and
    • Establish a voluntary deposit on Coca-Cola containers.

When Coca-Cola failed to respond to GRRN's requests, GRRN members staged a rally outside Coca-Cola's global headquarters in Atlanta. Coke ignored the protest. Georgia State Senator Donzella James has repeatedly attempted to communicate these concerns to the company without success. As of print date, Coca-Cola still had not responded.

"Coca-Cola is a mega-corporation," says GRRN member Eric Lombardi. "They believe they are untouchable. We plan to show them they're not. They may ignore state senators and other officials, but they can't ignore thousands of people who won't use their product if they don't do their part for recycling." GRRN's efforts have not gone unnoticed by the plastics industry. The June 1997 issue of Plastics News reported that American Plastics Council President Red Cavaney was well-aware of "recent pressure from the GrassRoots Recycling Network to convince Coke to use more recycled content."

GRRN is keeping the pressure on. They have initiated a petition asking Coca-Cola to "Do the Real Thing" and support recycling. When GRRN posted information on the Internet, 25 independent voluntary actions against Coke were staged across the country. Boycotts are being planned on university and college campuses in many different states. The Cost To Do The Real Thing
What would it cost Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the soda bottle industry to use 25 percent recycled plastic in their bottles? One beverage industry publication reported that soft drink bottlers were making a profit of more than 21 cents per bottle. Adding 25 percent post-consumer recycled content would cost only one-tenth of a penny per bottle. Profits would still be 20.9 cents per bottle!

Making bottles from recycled plastic resin is far less toxic, since the real damage from plastics manufacturing occurs in the original production cycle and not in the production of recycled bottles. Fourteen percent of airborne toxic emissions come from plastics production. The average plastics plant can discharge as much as 500 gallons of contaminated wastewater per minute. According to the EPA, between 1980 and 1987, 16 percent of all US industrial accidents -- explosions, toxic cloud releases, fires and chemical spills -- involved plastic production. Consumers not only pay for hauling the bottles to the landfills and incinerators, we also pay for the toxic waste cleanups.

If Coca-Cola took action today, the next 24 hours could look very different. If soda bottles were made with even 25 percent post-consumer recycled content, the market for plastic recycling would be stronger and recyclers would no longer have to take the material at a loss. Coca-Cola's packaging would be far less polluting and the 100 million Americans who recycle would have somewhere to take their bottles. Municipalities would no longer have to pay to landfill or incinerate discarded bottles. Better yet, if Coca-Cola brought back their practice of using refillable glass bottles, the strain on our over-burdened resources could be reduced even more significantly.

Large corporations have a lot of financial power which they habitually wield to stonewall legislators and public interest groups. But corporate giants can be forced to change if enough consumers stop buying their product. Consumers shouldn't be left holding bags of empty bottles full of empty promises. What You Can Do: Call Coca-Cola's toll-free Consumer Affairs line [(800) 571-2653] and tell them to do the Real Thing: "Bring back refillable bottles and use old bottles to make new ones!" Or log on to Coca-Cola's web site [http://www.cocacola.com] and ask: "If you do it in Europe, why not HERE?"

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