Coca-Cola calls on policymakers to take circular economy ‘leap of faith’

Soft drinks giant Coca-Cola has called on global governments and regulators to ignite a 'cultural shift' towards closed-loop business models - a transition that will only be possible if policymakers take a 'leap of faith' to back the circular economy.

Speaking at a circular economy event hosted by Dutch bank ING last week, Coca-Cola’s director of sustainability Ulrike Sapiro called for regulatory tariffs and obstacles to be overhauled as she highlighted the issues that are in danger of shackling the growth of closed-loop business models.

“A circular economy will involve far more than adapting existing new models,” Sapiro said. “It will require a cultural shift and a leap of faith, especially for those who view it as a latest trend or a simple exercise.

“Today there are many proposals to overcome. We want help from regulators and policy makers to help fix them. There needs to be systematic conversation to start eliminating the duties and tariff barriers on the sort of new materials that will help us on the journey to a circular economy.”

Sapiro noted that packaging became a “formidable marketing tool” for the company, and that a move to a circular economy would only heighten its potential. Coca-Cola first introduced recyclable PET plastic into the market in 1991 and has since pledged to ensure that 40% of the PET it uses is made from recycled or renewable materials by 2020.

In 2009, Coca-Cola became the first beverage company to introduce PlantBottle, a plant-based bottle package, with more than 40bn rolled-out into circulation across 40 countries – a feat which Sapiro claims has eliminated 365,000 tonnes of carbon.

Despite launching the second version of that bottle lasy year – which is made from 100% plant-based bioethonal plastic – Sapiro feels that increased expansion has been severely limited by complex European regulations.

“There is a real need to find renewable feedstock sources,” she added. “Bioethanol is the backbone of the bioenergy world and as a fuel it is currently subsidised, while bioethanol for material is not. In addition to tax incentives we need clearer and transparent government policy guidelines to eliminate uncertainty.

“We currently have to import our plant-based materials from outside Europe (Brazil) and this adds a whopping 5.5% of tariffs and duties on the price of plant-based material. On the other side virgin oil-based material does not have the same levels of duty.”

Plastic paradigm

Even with the unveiling of a €6bn EU circular economy package, there seems to be little interest from governments to tackle the tariff issue. To combat this, Coca-Cola has turned its attentions to collaborating with other big-name brands in an attempt to ignite the culture shift.

The company has trialled its plant-based bottles with Heinz and is currently in discussions with carmaker Ford to see how bioethanol can be used for car interiors. Coca-Cola has also worked with Procter & Gamble and Nike to develop new approaches to reach 100% plant based plastic packaging for further use.

Sapiro also revealed that the company is searching “intensely” for other forms of biomass, such as industrial waste, as a way to tackle tariff regulations and the looming possibility of a food shortage for a growing population.

However, Sapiro believes that the circular economy can catalyse bioethanol used in packaging, as long as policies are introduced to accelerate the uptake and stop recycling facilities from shutting down.

“We risk losing the bedrock of circular economy just when we wanted to ramp it up,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that we must put the right mechanisms in place to spark a change.”

Matt Mace

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