Coca-Cola's latest recycling announcement 'all fizz and no substance' says Greenpeace

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Coca-Cola European Partners unveiled new sustainability strategy for UK on 12 July

Coca-Cola’s announcement yesterday that, in the UK, the recycled content target for 2020 will be raised from 25% to 50%, in addition to trialling a new voucher scheme to encourage the recovery of their bottles, drew unimpressed responses from bloggers on the site of environmental organisation Greenpeace.

Since launching the “don't let Coke choke our oceans with plastic” campaign this spring in the UK, over 90,000 people have emailed Coca-Cola saying enough is enough, writes blogger Fiona Nicholls, “this morning Coca-Cola made an announcement in response to all of our efforts, but in honesty… it’s all fizz and no substance.”

She dismisses the raised recycled content target as “not good enough”, pointing to a brand like Ribena, which has used 100% recycled content in its bottles since 2007 or water brand Belu, which is “planning to shift all their bottles to 100% recycled material within 12-24 months”; the plans to trial a voucher scheme to reward customers for returning small Coke bottles to shops is gimmicky and “risks distracting from ongoing government processes to look at a comprehensive and joined-up deposit return scheme”.

“This company has a history of making green announcements that sound good but deliver little,” she writes.

Coca-Cola has, for example, long championed the use of throwaway plastic bottles, arguing that they would encourage consumers to recycle, and ultimately make the deposit schemes which had been in place redundant. The deposit schemes were duly abandoned, but lacking the necessary infrastructure, recycling failed to provide anything resembling an adequate solution.

The company has since actively worked against the re-introduction of such schemes.

Its 2015 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission expressed concern about heightened interest in recycling and “beverage container deposits”, implementation of which could "reduce our net operating revenues and profitability.”

Earlier this year, during the deposit scheme debate in Scotland, Greenpeace published a leaked internal report from Coca-Cola in which a point marked “EU scheme for deposit system” was encircled and labelled “Fight Back."

And, while it’s not just Coca-Cola - the results of the first ever comprehensive survey of the plastic footprints and policies of the top six global soft drinks brands showed that the six companies use a combined average of just 6.6% recycled plastic in their bottles, and that two-thirds of the soft drinks companies surveyed have a global policy opposing the introduction of deposit return schemes on drinks containers – Coca-Cola is the biggest.

Yes, the company has brought us the PlantBottle – a PET bottle that is partially made of biobased plastic, which, indeed, benefits the carbon cycle (but will still remain as litter in the environment). Yes, it is cooperating on the development of a 100% biobased bottle. Yes, it is implementing energy saving projects and working with WWF on water conservation programmes.

Still, Greenpeace has calculated (Coca-Cola would not disclose the figures) that the company produces over 100 billion single-use bottles a year. The organisation also said that while Coca-Cola had set a target for recovery and recycling rates in developed countries to rise to 75% by 2020, these rates were instead declining, from 63% in 2013 to 59% in 2015. Which means that more bottles are ending up in landfill or as litter.

And, yes, consumers also have a responsibility – the litter does not get there by itself.

But it is not too much to ask that Coca-Cola provide more transparency about its figures, targets and their implications, so that environmental organisations, consumers and other interested parties know what’s what.

According to Ms Nicholls, Coca-Cola is doing “nothing to genuinely challenge the culture of throwaway single use plastic bottles and what little action they’re taking is restricted to Britain.” Moreover, she says, single-use plastic bottles production by the company has risen “over 12% in the last nine years alone.”

In its statement yesterday, Coca-Cola said it would will continue to work in partnership with others – including the Governments of Great Britain – to improve the current packaging recycling system. The company will support “new interventions that have the potential to increase packaging collection and recycling rates, including stronger recycling targets, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility.”

Greenpeace, however, wants to see Coca-Cola accept responsibility for its role in the plastic clogging the oceans. After all, the company still currently states on its website: “all of our drinks packaging is 100% recyclable…  But after manufacturing and distributing our drinks, what happens once our packaging has been used is out of our hands”.

Regarding which Greenpeace blogger, Luke Massey, describing the plastic debris he sees during walks along the beach in his blog posted yesterday, perhaps says it best:

“I don’t think it’s good enough that Coca-Cola, as the biggest soft drinks company in the world, should be content to produce over 3,400 single-use plastic bottles every second and then wash its hands of the problem. Because when Coke washes its hands of the problem, this is where the problem washes up.”

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