How Coca-Cola is engaging policymakers and the public to combat plastics pollution

EXCLUSIVE: The head of sustainability at the world's largest independent Coca-Cola bottler believes the next 12 months are a "great opportunity" to influence policy to reform Producer Responsibility Obligations and implement an effective, nationwide deposit return system for plastics.

Brown noted that material science had “a great role to play” to reduce the impact that plastic packaging was having on the environment

Brown noted that material science had “a great role to play” to reduce the impact that plastic packaging was having on the environment

Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) last year committed to ensuring that all of its bottles contained at least 50% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic by 2020. Updating stakeholders on the firm’s progress at an event in London last week, the bottling company announced that it had re-designed all its large polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to include 40% PCR plastics.

Currently, all of CCEP’s plastic bottles are 100% recyclable, but in the wake of heightened public awareness on the ocean-plastics problem, CCEP – along with numerous other businesses – is having to strengthen commitments to recyclability and resource efficiency.

According to the company’s head of sustainability, Nick Brown, more needs to be done to educate consumers on how they can assist with the recycling of plastic bottles, but that ultimately policy would act as a crucial lever.

“Even when you’ve got 100% recyclable packaging and consumers that understand the importance of it and want to do the right thing, you do need to make sure there’s an effective collection system in place,” Brown told edie. “It’s an area where public policy is really important.”

“While individual companies can test, trial and demonstrate initiatives in order to scale them, quite often it needs to be underpinned by a national approach or legislation.”

Consumer concerns

During last week’s stakeholder briefing, Brown revealed that the average proportion of recycled material in CCEP packaging had increased from 30% in 2010 to 40% in 2018, putting the company on track to meet its 2020 ambition. It will also result in Coca-Cola reusing around 100 million extra bottles a year.

Last year, CCEP used around 10,000 tonnes of recycled PET in its plastic packaging, equivalent to around 400 million bottles being recycled. Efforts from the bottling company haven’t stopped the likes of Greenpeace from taking aim at Coca-Cola over its packaging volumes, as the global outcry over plastics waste swells to unprecedented levels.

But since 1994, CCEP has grown its UK business while using less packaging by weight, having reduced 20,000 tonnes of virgin materials used each year while bottle weight for 500ml products is down from 36.6g to 19.9g.

CCEP and Brown are of the belief that businesses can collaborate to strengthen corporate, public and policy actions to improve the recycling rates of plastic bottles, which currently sits at 57%.

The company’s multi-million-pound consumer awareness campaign, for example, has reached 27 million consumers to inform them of the recyclability of plastic bottles and CCEP is replacing the branding on bottle closures with messages encouraging consumers to recycle - creating more than 900 million opportunities to see these new recycling messages each year.

Policy reform

While CCEP, and indeed other businesses engaged with WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact, are engaging with consumers on the plastics issue, the industry is also lobbying for policy change.

Notably, Brown told edie that changes to Producer Responsibility Obligations (PRO), which creates a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled, and a mooted national deposit return scheme would have to be introduced in a way that negated any unintended consequences.

 “Industry has a great opportunity over the next 12 months to really influence and shape the most effective collection and recycling policy frameworks and what they’ll look like for the next 20 years or so,” Brown said.

“These are complicated policies and when you understand the details you quite often see that changes can have unintended consequences. It’s important for the industry to come together and explain what they think a better vision will be for the future of those schemes.”

Increased rates of tax on virgin materials, coupled with tax breaks for manufacturers using recycled content in their products, are set to be included in the Government's new Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS), a Defra official has revealed, and Brown noted that industry and trade associations would continue to shape the conversation.

Plant-based plastics

But the role of business is changing as the plastics debate continues to occupy the minds of the public and Brown noted the importance of examining how and what plastics are used in production.

CCEP uses “Plant PET” in some of its packaging, which is “chemically identical” to PET and can be collected and recycled in traditional PET waste streams, according to Brown. The firm’s head of sustainability also noted that bio and oxy-degradable solutions aren’t being used due to uncertainties over their environmental impact.

Brown noted that material science had “a great role to play” to reduce the impact that plastic packaging was having on the environment and noted that CCEP is looking into what feedstocks could be used for Plant PET in order to address ongoing challenges relating to food production.

Matt Mace


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