Business transparency needed to help consumers overcome the ‘plastics fear’

Coca-Cola's new European sustainability director believes that honest and transparent conversations will help businesses change consumer perceptions on the use of plastics, which in turn will catalyse a movement towards a "world without waste".

The plastic bottle is now the emblem of a global throwaway culture. As noted by the Guardian, a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, with annual consumption set to surpass half a trillion by 2021. It’s part of a wider epidemic that has seen more than 86 million tonnes of plastics seep into the oceans, with up to 12 million tonnes added each year.

While this is largely driven by an avid demand for bottled water across the globe, Coca-Cola is one of the first company’s in the firing line when it comes to green group criticism. New global and European commitments have been announced by the company over the last 12 months to incorporate more recycled plastic content into packaging and improve collection rates of bottles. However, some green groups claim that the company can do much more.

It is an interesting time, then, for the company to announce a new sustainability figurehead. Last month, Therese Noorlander stepped down from a near-four-year role as Coca-Cola’s director of public affairs and communications for the Netherlands to take up the position as the beverage giant’s director of sustainability for Europe.

Noorlander is now spearheading the delivering of Coca-Cola’s “This is Forward” strategy across the European region. The strategy consists of key environmental goals, including a verified science-based target to reduce emissions by 35% across the company’s entire value chain, but it is the company’s position at the heart of the ongoing plastics debate that has been the biggest talking point amongst consumers and stakeholders.

For Noorlander, who is appearing at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum next month (scroll down for details), the strategy can act as a launchpad to drive ambitions to improve the recycling rates of Coca-Cola packaging. However, she believes that the business community as a whole needs to open up new dialogues with consumers to alleviate concerns on action plans.

“This Is Forward will leverage the power, impact and reach of our brand to inform consumers on what they can do,” Noorlander said. “Consumer perception is something to take very seriously, it triggers questions and actions. However, it’s a perception that isn’t always based on the right facts, it’s not being judgemental, but we need to take this into account.

“There’s a huge responsibility for companies, trade organisations and media platforms to support consumers with facts and dilemmas. There’s a bit of a plastic fear amongst consumers. As a company we recognise and embrace it, but what can you do with that? Do you respond to it by eliminating all the plastics you have? Or, do you take it into account to see what can be done to give information that shows your actions but also shows the benefits of plastics that gives an honest story about what the impacts would be if we moved to another packaging.”

Plastic problems

Plastic phase-outs have, understandably, been the go-to corporate sustainability commitment over the last 12 months, as company’s respond to consumer demands to shrink plastic footprints.

However, there is a new yet growing opinion amongst some sustainability professionals that the plastics debate is veering too far into immediate action that leads to unintended consequences in the future rather than incremental change.

Swapping out some forms of plastic with bio-based, biodegradable or oxo-degradable plastics (ODP), might not be the best solution in the long-term. The latter, for example, is often marketed as biodegradable, but in reality, break down into microplastics – small pieces of plastic that can pass through water filtration systems into the marine environment. As for bio-based, there are concerns as to the impact they will have on land use and space for food crops.

Elsewhere, there is still some uncertainty as to the life-cycle impacts of switching plastics to other materials such as glass, which could impact carbon emissions and increased fleet travel – and therefore travel emissions.

Coca-Cola and its major bottling partners use “Plant PET” in some packaging, which is chemically identical to PET and can be collected and recycled in traditional PET waste streams. However, bio and oxo-degradable solutions aren’t being used due to uncertainties over their environmental impact.

The firm’s This is Forward strategy focuses on the use of PET bottles, aiming to ensure that 100% of packaging – not just bottles – is recyclable or reusable, while also incorporating at least 50% recycled plastic by 2025. As of 2017, 96.6% of Coca-Cola Europe’s packaging was recyclable.

But recyclable doesn’t equate to recycled. One of the major ambitions of the strategy is to “work with local and national partners to collect 100% of [Coca-Cola’s] packaging in Western Europe”. For Noorlander, this ambition is the key lever to ensuring that the firm’s products aren’t adding to the plastics soup plaguing the oceans, but that it would be no easy task.

“The target demands being a partner in local structures, with policymakers, partners and customers, to figure out what structures are in place, what are the opportunities for change and how does that work,” Noorlander added. “This requires a very strong analysis. Some countries have deposit return systems, but collection depends on a variety of factors and whether waste management fits with central or local governments.”

Growth and sustainability

Noorlander believes that business should talk about the “dilemmas” they face when attempting to reduce plastics use and change perceptions but is also a firm believer that a successful strategy should be steered at a boardroom level.

Globally, Coca-Cola’s sustainability goals are similar to the European goals, but with slightly longer timeframes to account for developing nations where infrastructure is lagging. However, the global strategy has been championed by the firm’s chief executive James Quincey who envisions a “world without waste”.

However, with the company producing more than a billion plastic bottles in 2017 alone, some green groups are calling for more immediate action; lending itself to the debate as to whether profits and consumer habits can go hand-in-hand with sustainability.

For Noorlander, waste management remains front and central in the mindset of the company’s leaders, making it a consideration for every business decision going forward.

“This is something our chief executive has been talking about in several forums, and also to the shareholders,” Noorlander added. “We as a company absolutely believe that a growth strategy can go hand-in-hand with a sustainability strategy. This is really at the heart of our core strategy, and it needs to be.”

Therese Noorlander at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

Coca-Cola’s new European sustainability director Therese Noorlander will be appearing on Day Two of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum, to discuss trust, transparency and traceability and how these can influence and impact stakeholders and suppliers.

The two-day event, taking place 5 & 6 February 2019 at the Building Design Centre, London, will also include debates on how to solve the plastics crisis and the state of corporate action on sustainable packaging. 

For more information and to register for the Forum, click here.

Matt Mace

Comments (2)

  1. Emma MacLennan says:

    Why don t they go back to mostly glass, returnable bottles?

  2. Paula Hickford says:

    “The European Standards authority CEN makes a clear distinction (in TR 15351) between oxo-degradation, which is “degradation identified as resulting from oxidative cleavage of macromolecules,” and oxo-biodegradation which is “degradation identified as resulting from oxidative and cell-mediated phenomena, either simultaneously or successively.”

    The microplastics being recovered from the oceans are from “oxo-degradable” plastics, which degrade and fragment but do not biodegrade except over a very long period of time. These are ordinary plastics, which undoubtedly create persistent microplastics, and this is why they have been banned for a wide range of products in Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries, where oxo-biodegradable technology for making these products is now mandatory.

    Peter Susman QC, a deputy High Court Judge in England has examined the evidence and found that “oxo-biodegradable plastic does facilitate the ultimate biodegradation of plastics in air or seawater by bacteria, fungi or algae, within a reasonable time, so as to cause the plastic to cease to exist as such, far sooner than ordinary plastics, without causing any toxicity.” This report is published in full on the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association’s website.”

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