Why investing in innovation will be vital to achieving a circular economy

According to research by the OECD, plastic waste is expected to triple by 2060 unless urgent action is taken – making tackling packaging waste one of the biggest sustainability challenges faced by businesses the world over.

We have a vital role to play, and we know that rapid and ambitious corporate action will be critical to confronting the plastic pollution crisis.

For consumer goods companies, this means transforming the way we do business, considering every stage of a product’s journey – from how it is designed, produced and distributed, through to the collection, waste management and recycling systems currently in place to process it.

At Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, the world’s largest independent Coca-Cola bottler, we’re taking action across all aspects of a product life cycle – reducing the use of packaging where we can, working towards 100% recycled or renewable plastic in our bottles, and ensuring that the packaging we do use is collected, so it can be recycled and reused again.

We’re making progress, hitting our target for 50% recycled plastic (Polyethylene terephthalate, also called PET) in our bottles in Europe four years early, and ensuring that 71.8% of the packaging we put on the market was collected for recycling in 2022. But we know that we need to go further, faster, as barriers still remain to creating a fully circular economy.

Advancing today’s recycling systems

Unfortunately, production, waste management and recycling systems as they exist today won’t get us to where we need to be. Traditional recycling methods alone cannot drive circularity, because the plastic used to create food-grade packaging, such as bottles, can only be recycled a finite number of times using mechanical recycling techniques, before it loses the strength required to create a beverage bottle. At this point, the plastic then needs to be replaced with higher quality PET that has been recycled fewer times, or virgin, fossil-based PET.

Another major challenge is that the quantities of high-quality, food-grade recycled content simply do not exist at the volumes we need. Various industries compete for high-quality recycled PET (rPET), which is often ‘downcycled’ – meaning it can no longer meet the standards required for food and drink packaging.

If we are to solve these issues and transition to a circular economy, then we need to accelerate innovation at unprecedented speed while increasing the availability of recycled material.

Leveraging game changing technology in the transition to circularity

We’re excited by the technology out there. One example is CuRe Technology, a pioneering start-up which has developed a way of revitalising PET that cannot be recycled by traditional means. CuRe prevents hard-to-recycle PET from being incinerated or sent to landfill, using it instead to create like-virgin PET which can be used to make drinks bottles.

This technology has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our plastic packaging, and to help us move away from the use of virgin fossil-based PET in the manufacturing process. A recently conducted LCA study shows that CuRe’s rPET has a carbon footprint that is approximately 65% lower than virgin PET.

Technologies like CuRe need firepower to take them from concept to scale, and as one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world, this is where we can take action.

Through our innovation investment engine, CCEP Ventures, we’re investing in companies who can help drive progress for us as a business, along with the wider industry.

In 2020, we began investing in CuRe to fund its research and development roadmap. Through a follow on investment this year, we’re helping them move to commercial readiness as they develop their first demonstration plant. The plant will give us access to ‘like-virgin’ rPET when production starts in 2025, as well as turbocharge the industry’s transition to circularity by helping to make like-virgin PET – made from something that could otherwise end up in landfill – more accessible.

Critical need for collaboration and investment from all sides of business, governments and start-ups 

Businesses have a critical role to play in providing the investment, unlocking the partnerships and powering the big ideas required to tackle the plastic crisis. But this also demands the necessary legislation to create the right operating conditions to accelerate change at pace.

That is why collaboration between big corporates, industries and governments is needed to drive progress. The shift to a circular economy cannot be achieved by one company or even a single industry. It requires dedicated commitment from both government and business to find the right solutions.

And vitally, we need partnerships with forward-thinking start-ups like CuRe Technology, capable of lighting the spark of ingenuity which will pave the way for transformation in the years to come. Only through commitment to these nascent ideas can we achieve the step change in packaging that is required to create a circular PET economy for all.

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