Coca-Cola must invest in Asian DRS instead of complaining about recycled plastic prices, says NGO
17 Feb 2023 --- The world’s worst plastic polluter for a fifth consecutive year (2022) The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) is allegedly “struggling” to source plastic at a “reasonable price” in Asia.
“There are well-known ongoing challenges around meeting the supply demands for sourcing high-quality food-grade recycled PET globally,” a TCCC spokesperson tells PackagingInsights.
“Together with our bottling partners, we are investing in building a sustainable system for packaging circularity across Southeast Asia.”
This comes after it was reported that at The Economist’s Sustainability Week event Rethinking the future of plastics on Feb 7, Russel Mahoney, vice president of public affairs for communication and sustainability at Coca-Cola, said the beverage giant was unable to access recycled plastic in Asia because Europe “soaked up” the supply.
He added that it was important that governments “level the playing field” for recycled plastic. We speak to TCCC to verify what the company is doing to tackle the situation.
“We are supporting new PET bottle-to-bottle recycling plants in the Philippines and Indonesia, collaborating with recycling partners to strengthen the supply chain of recycled materials, working with partners to enable livelihoods within the informal sector and driving recycling awareness within communities. All of these help drive availability of materials in a sustainable way,” TCCC spokesperson tells us.
“Easy way out”
PackagingInsights spoke to the Plastic Soup Foundation, which earlier reported that Coca-Cola has a track record of broken promises.
“Coca-Cola has a very poor track record [of making pledges that are not achieved]. It has not achieved even one of its sustainability pledges. In 1990 it promised to use an average of 25% of recyclates in its PET bottles. Now, three decades later, that percentage is only 10%,” the non-profit previously said.
“Over the years, the recyclate goal has been constantly readjusted, the last time as part of Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste initiative. It now says that in 2030, its bottles will be made of 50% recycled material.”
The foundation tells us that “it’s an easy way out” for a consumer giant such as Coca-Cola to say that recycled plastic is difficult to source in Asia.
“Companies like TCCC that sell millions of single-use bottles should implement a proper bottle return and recycle system. Bottle-to-bottle recycling should be the standard. If a company like Coca-Cola wants to recycle its bottles properly, it can do so. As a market leader, they should show how it is done.”
Setting up DRS in Asia
The Plastic Soup Foundation confirms that fashion is competing for PET streams in Asia. “There isn’t enough PET on the market (and virgin plastic may be cheaper) as other beverage companies are also buying PET from the market to make bottles and the textile industry buys most of it to make clothes from PET.”
“Also, since 2018, China has not been importing waste plastic from Western countries. Coca-Cola could’ve chosen for a deposit return scheme (DRS) – in that case, there would be no need to look for recycled plastic in the region.”
The foundation opines that for decades Coca-Cola has used any means possible to work against the introduction of a DRS because of its higher operational costs.
“PET is collected by waste pickers as the only plastic with some value, although they get very little for it.” However, rather than paying a premium to waste pickers to source PET bottles, Plastic Soup Foundation recommends establishing DRS in Asian countries where it is lacking.
“The bottles are already polluted and not usable for beverages anymore. Give the waste pickers a job in collecting the bottles before they end up in the environment or a waste dump. The bottles can be truly recycled and the job offered to people involved is of much higher and safer standards.”
Recycled plastic in Asia
The Plastic Soup Foundation details that PET bottles can be recycled in different ways.
“Firstly, truly circular systems: bottle-to-bottle recycling. To do this, you need a system that collects and separates empty bottles from other waste streams. A DRS creates such a system – the returned empty bottles are clean and not polluted; these bottles can hence be recycled into PET bottles.”
“This is already happening in many European countries – in 2029, DRS will be mandatory throughout the EU.”
The non-profit adds that the other option is to recycle PET bottles by downcycling – from a bottle to another material, such as polyester for clothes.
“The bottles that end up in ordinary waste streams can’t be recycled into bottles again due to hygiene rules. The bottles can be downcycled into other applications.”
“Polyester for fashion is very popular. These are marketed as ‘recycled’ clothing. However, some of the clothes labeled as fast fashion can be washed only five times, for example, before they become waste. Polyester clothes are difficult to recycle and can end up in waste dumps.”
Taking responsibility for climate action
Last month, GAIA published a waste assessment and brand audit report revealing that consumer brands based in the Global North have been overproducing single-use plastics and flooding Asian markets with disposable, throwaway packaging.
This, at the expense of citizens and local governments who end up footing the bill and enduring the long-lasting environmental health effects associated with plastic pollution.
“Climate action and plastic pollution are two sides of the same coin. To make plastic bottles, you produce CO2,” Plastic Soup Foundation tells us.
“Glass as a material is heavy to transport. The best solution is adopting the universal bottle, which can be refilled and used 40 times. It is much cheaper, causes less pollution and reduces CO2. Please ask the company why they are reluctant to do so!” the organization slams.
The TCCC spokesperson answers: “Our goal is for all of our bottles to be collected and recycled so they can have another life. That’s why we’ve also committed to using at least 50% recycled content across all our packaging materials by 2030.”
“We recognize there is more to do, so we will continue to partner with other businesses, NGOs and environmental organizations and governments to support collaborative action on the critical issue of plastic packaging waste.”
Last November, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released its Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report revealing that the member companies will miss key 2025 targets while returning to virgin plastic usage comparable to 2018.
“Instead of tackling the plastic pollution crisis, big brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Mars increased the amount of plastic they create since the EMF Global Commitment was launched in 2018. The reality is that these companies work hand-in-hand with big oil and still depend on fossil-fuel-based plastic to make a profit,” Graham Forbes, Greenpeace’s USA global plastics project leader, told PackagingInsights.
Companies “pretend to address the issue while producing even more plastic. This report is the latest proof that what they’ve been doing is not working,” concludes Forbes.
By Radhika Sikaria
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