Coke - Take it Back!
Questions & Answers

May 2000

Q: What is the problem that you are calling on The Cola-Cola Company to address?
A: Plastic beverage container waste is a growing problem throughout the world. In the United States, plastic beverage container recycling rates have plummeted since 1994, while waste has more than doubled. Coca-Cola has created a plastic bottle waste crisis for the environment, recycling and taxpayers.

Q: Why are you focusing on The Cola-Cola Company?
A: Coca-Cola is the soft drink industry leader in the United States (44.6 percent market share in 1998) and worldwide (50 percent market share). With leadership comes responsibility. By using plastic bottles with little or no recycled plastic, and by opposing the very programs responsible for high recycling rates (container deposits, or 'bottle bills'), Coke is leading the industry in the wrong direction. We believe that if Coke keeps its promise and sells beverages in recycled plastic that the industry as a whole will follow suit. Moreover, Coke is the most aggressive corporate opponent of container deposits.

Q: Coke is telling consumers who ask that they are already using recycled plastic in their bottles, but that they are having trouble getting enough recycled plastic. Is this true?
A: In April, 2000, Coke stated for the first time since our campaign began that it would use 10 percent recycled plastic in a quarter of its bottles this year. That 2.5 percent is a big and welcome step. However, Coke has yet to state their future plans either for increasing recycled plastic or for ensuring that more bottles are collected. GRRN asks Coke to make a public statement laying out a graduated schedule for increasing recycled content in their bottles to 25 percent while working to increase recycling rates so that existing users of recycled soda bottles are not dislocated.

Q: Coke says that beverage containers have the highest recycling rates of any packaging. So why focus on plastic bottles?
A: Coke would rather talk about recycling rates of all beverage containers (which include aluminum and glass) rather than recycling rates of plastic containers because the latter is so dismal. Recycling rates for all plastic containers (including fruit juice, sports drinks and water) has fallen for five consecutive years, to 23.7 percent in 1999, according to industry data. Plastic carbonated soda bottles have fallen from a peak of 50 percent in 1994 to 35.6 percent in 1998 (the rates combine high rates in the ten states with container deposits with near-single-digit rates non-deposit states).
In other words, three out of every four plastic Coke containers -- and two of every three plastic Coke soda bottles - wind up in dumps, incinerators or as litter. Between 1994 and 1998, the amount of soda bottle plastic wasted in the U.S. doubled. And this is at a time when the U.S. recycling industry remains well under capacity and could use much more material.

Q: Coke claims they spend $2 billion each year in the U.S. on recycled materials? Is that true?
A: Coke's figure for spending for recycled content materials is primarily for aluminum cans, which is still the dominant soft drink container. But Coke is moving away from recycled-content aluminum and glass, to plastic with little or no recycled content. Coke's greatest growth in sales in the past five years has been in plastic bottles - especially in 20-ounce plastic bottles that are typically consumed away from home, in places with little recycling infrastructure. Coke has all but abandoned glass, which has 25 percent recycled content. Aluminum cans have 50 to 70 percent recycled content.

Q: What is Coke doing to increase plastic container recycling?
A: For nearly 30 years, Coke has spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat or repeal the most effective container recycling programs - financial incentives in the form of deposits on beverage containers. Overall beverage container recycling rates (including aluminum, glass and plastic) in the ten states with container deposits is around 80 percent, compared with about 35 percent in non-bottle bill states, according to the Container Recycling Institute. The difference for plastic bottles is even greater -- bottle bill states recycle three or more times as many plastic bottles as non-bottle bill states.

Coke's attempt to claim credit for beverage container recycling rates is ludicrous in light of Coke's vigorous opposition to container deposit legislation. Coke opposes bottle bills because they make beverage producers like Coke share responsibility (with consumers) for recycling used containers.

Coke has recently, through its trade associations, subsidized trials in several cities to increase plastic bottle collection by funding collection bins. However, most observers see this as a publicity gimmick. The millions of bins needed to achieve national recovery rates comparable to deposit programs would be incredibly expensive to establish and maintain - and a cost ultimately borne by taxpayers (whether they consume Coke or not).

Q: Coke says it never made a 'promise' to use 25 percent recycled plastic, but rather a business decision. How would you respond?
A: Coke's promise is reflected in the public record. Coke's numerous public statements in 1990 and 1991, 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. National publications and television stations carried stories about Coke's promise. For example, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune (December 14, 1990) applauded the announcement: "With their pledge [emphasis added] to start using bottles made in part from recycled resins, [Coke and Pepsi] will begin to reduce dependence on petroleum-based resins."

In fact, many people mistakenly believe even today that the recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic Coke bottles means the bottle is made with recycled plastic. When Coke stopped using recycled plastic bottles in the United States five years ago, they did not launch a similar public relations campaign to announce Coca-Cola's abandonment of recycled plastic. So from the public's perspective, nothing has changed. But the promise has been broken.

Q: Coke says recycled plastic soda bottles cost too much. Why should Coke pay more to use recycled plastic?

A: The information we have from industry sources is that adding recycled plastic to soda bottles would cost about one-tenth of one cent per bottle. The cost to recycle is small compared to Coke's profit of 21 cents per container in cases of 20-ounce plastic soft drink bottles, and little in relation to Coke's $3.5 billion profit last year.

But more importantly, Coke is creating waste that is a burden on taxpayers and local governments. Let's be perfectly clear: the public pays for Coke's waste, while Coke profits. The public pays because we subsidize the cost of recycling and landfilling billions of Coke's bottles. Taxpayers also pay for roadside litter pickup and the cost of cleaning up environmental pollution from making new plastic bottles.

Q: Is safety of recycled content bottles an issue for Coke?

A: No. Coke used recycled plastic in soft drink bottles for four years, between 1991 and 1995. Coke presently uses 25 percent recycled content in its bottles in at least Australia, Sweden and Switzerland - and even uses refillable plastic bottles (even more beneficial, environmentally) in some countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 55 different applications to put recycled plastic in food-grade packaging, from milk to juice to soft drinks.

Q: Coca-Cola spokespersons claim that this is a campaign of 'fringe elements.' How do you respond?
A: The campaign has the support of ten local government bodies in Florida, Minnesota and California, of a dozen major 'socially responsible' investment firms, and of key businesses in the plastics recycling industry. As a result of the campaign, the City of Los Angeles has required 25 percent recycled content in all future contracts for beverage containers sold on City property.

That is in addition to 150 endorsing national and local organizations, and to tens of thousands of consumers who wrote Coke in response to our ads in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and to alerts sent by the Working Assets Long Distance telephone company. Students from seven Ivy League colleges demonstrated with a 20-foot Coke bottle in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Americans have a solid consensus that recycling is the right thing to do. Coke has been exposed as an obstructor and greenwasher, not a leader in recycling. It is Coke that is out of touch with the mainstream on recycling.

Q: What do you want Coke to do?
A: The GrassRoots Recycling Network - together with ten local government bodies, a dozen socially responsible investment firms, 150 endorsing organizations, and tens of thousands of consumers, activists and students -- wants Coca-Cola to take responsibility for their plastic beverage container waste. We call on Coke to help increase the recycling (collection) rate of used soda bottles by supporting - or at least not opposing - container deposits; and to use significant quantities of recycled plastic in their bottles as new supplies become available.

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