Coca-Cola's plastic perception

Lily Holbrook reports how the global drinks manufacturer may not be as transparent with their recycling policies as we thought

Lily Holbrook
10th February 2020
Coca-Cola has been in the spotlight after the company’s Head of Sustainability Bea Perez said the drinks giant will not stop producing plastic bottles because the public still want them.

In the last few years plastic pollution has become an increasingly pressing issue, therefore it’s not surprising that Coca-Cola’s decision has been met with controversy. 

The company produces an estimated 3 million tonnes of plastic annually, equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute. Compare this with the 8 million tonnes entering the oceans each year and it is clear how Coca-Cola has become one of the biggest polluters of plastic on the planet. 

According to Bea Perez, ‘business won’t be in business if we don’t accommodate consumers.’ But like many big industry players, Coca-Cola don’t seem to understand that without significant interventions, there will be no business at all. 

When it comes to packaging, there are many misconceptions about the definitions of biodegradable, compostable and recyclable. Despite different meanings, the terms are often used interchangeably. So, let’s set the record straight.

Biodegradable means a material will eventually break down, but the word ‘eventually’ is key here. With most plastic, even those claiming to be biodegradable, it may take years to fully disappear, and even then they’re only being broken down into smaller pieces so they never fully go away. 

Compostable means a material will decompose into non-toxic components if given appropriate conditions. Materials that require more heat, water, oxygen and microorganism action than is provided in a basic compost heap can be sent for industrial composting. 

Recyclable means a material can be reprocessed into a useful form after serving its original purpose. However, whether the material actually is recycled is a different story. 

Unfortunately, manufacturers often capitalise on public confusion surrounding these terms to convince the public that their products are more eco-friendly than they really are.

Coca-Cola’s pledge to make their plastic bottles 100% recyclable sounds like a step in the right direction, but it means nothing if the bottles are not recycled. 

It's identical to the difference between saying you’ll go for a run and actually putting on trainers and getting outside: there’s a difference between saying a product can be recycled and actually going through with the process. This then results in quite a lot of the responsibility is on the consumer. 

If Coca-Cola are to be successful in their eco quest to collect and recycle one bottle or can for every one they sell by 2030, the public needs to be on board. Arguably the best option would be to stop buying Coca-Cola in plastic bottles. But for the millions of Coke-lovers around the world, this is unlikely to happen overnight.

A campaign designed to help consumers is an initiative whereby plastic bottles can be returned to specialised stations in exchange for half price vouchers to UK attractions. These recycled bottles require 60% less energy to manufacture than virgin plastic, helping to drive the circular economy.

So, what is a circular economy? A circular economy is built upon the principle of sustainability where everything can be reused and recycled. More circular economy means less reliance on raw materials, helping to conserve our finite supply of oil resources which are used to produce virgin plastic. 

Whilst these ideas may look good on paper, the return station solution is only temporary. No doubt clever marketing has helped portray Coca-Cola’s action plan in a pretty light but at the end of the day, they’re still producing millions of plastic bottles with no sign of slowing down. 

If the consumers don’t buy, the big corporations are rendered powerless. Unfair as it may seem to place the blame on the consumer, our influence may be more powerful than we suspect.

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AUTHOR: Lily Holbrook
MA Media & Journalism student and science sub-editor for the 20/21 academic year.

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