Coke & The Power of Packaging

When you think of resource conservation and environmental stewardship, Coca-Cola may not be the first company to come to mind. But while the worldwide, multi-billion dollar company may not be on the top of your environmental list, don’t discount their efforts before you know the whole story.

Coke has dreams. Dreams not only of getting you to reach for one of their tasty soft drinks or bottled waters, but also of recycling 100 percent of all of their beverage containers (bottles and cans) in the marketplace and reducing their environmental footprint.

To achieve these dreams, Coke is acting on a number of fronts, including a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and starting their own recycling company. To learn more about Coke, Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging, gave us the story on the company’s eco-conscious endeavors.

Vitters leads a cross-functional team globally to improve the company’s sustainability efforts. “The team is focused on eliminating waste throughout the entire packaging value chain, from the initial design […] to its end-of-life,” he explained.

On the Home Front

Recently, Coca-Cola opened a new plastic bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg, PA. According to Vitters, the plant is “an important milestone to move our business towards zero-waste.”

Bottles head down a tunnel in the Spartanburg plant for further sorting and recycling. - Coca-Cola

Bottles head down a tunnel in the Spartanburg plant for further sorting and recycling. - Coca-Cola

Once fully operational (hopefully by the end of the year), it will be the largest facility to recycle empty beverage bottles into material for making new containers. “The plant will recycle enough plastic material to produce two billion 20-ounce Coca-Cola beverage containers,” said Vitters. So far, almost $50 million has been invested in the plant, but that will continue to grow as more lines are finalized.

“In terms of when you look at carbon reductions in terms of recycled content, over a 10-year period, the plant will save one million metric tons. That’s the equivalent of taking 215,000 cars off the road,” he added.

They Want What Back?

While the story of the Spartanburg plant is a powerful one, that’s not the key to Coke’s sustainability initiatives. They’re looking toward the future of packaging with both eyes open, following the path which holds business accountable for more than just producing a product.

Vitters notes that it’s frustrating to him and like-minded colleagues who see products with packaging made from recycled materials, which are not recyclable themselves. Vitters says that it is important to “enhance the environmental performance of your product, make sure it’s recyclable or it doesn’t damage the recycling stream.” Even if a product is recyclable, colors, dyes and additional materials can pollute the recycling stream and de-value the materials within.

One example at Coke is the Dasani water bottle. Originally designed to be a deep blue, the color was downgraded to its current shade in order to increase its end-of-life value in the recycling process. Additionally, the caps and labels are specially designed to float separately from the bottles, allowing them to be recycled in a different process.

“We definitely need shared accountability for improving recycling,” said Vitters. Here are three key areas that he believes will increase and improve recycling rates:

  1. Government – Local and national governance and leadership is key, especially mandating and incentivizing recycling. “We need local governments in terms of making recycling a priority,” noted Vitters. “Recycling should be more cost-effective than landfilling. There is no value returned when you put something in the dirt.”
  2. Scale –  “When you talk about fast moving, non-durable goods like magazines, newspapers, bottles, cans, etc., the key in terms of driving cost and environmental efficiency is getting enough material.” Scale, therefore, is driven by incentivizing the consumer, such as pay-as-you throw concepts, or programs like RecycleBank.
  3. Value – According to Vitters, “One of the things that impacts the economics of recycling collecting is if you’re collecting packages that don’t have value. Then you have to subsidize or you have to throw away, and it’s a lost cost to your business.”

Value is where Vitters thinks “there is a fair conversation to have with business.” In other words, he is looking to ask what business’ accountability is for ensuring that their packages have value, or that they are accountable for the impact that their packaging has for being wasted. For Coke, collecting materials for recycling that have value is only one small piece of the waste stream, which is why sustainable packaging has been a hot topic of discussion. Companies spend millions of dollars each year designing packaging that has value – why not make it work for you in the long run?

Vitters also noted that, “The U.S. wastes 254 million tons of trash each year. PET [the plastic from which bottles are generally made] is less than 1 percent of that. We really need to focus on programs and policies that address all packaging waste.”

This mindset is why Coke continues to encourage recycling. Not only because it’s good for the environment, but because they and other drink manufacturers have produced packaging with end-of-life value. As Vitters literally puts it, “we want them back.”

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  1. Will they go as far as returning to refillable bottles and decentralized production? Probably not, but what they are doing is certainly commendable.

  2. is an amazing website! not only does it create awareness about the environment, but it enables us to make valuable contributions to our world

  3. In my desire to support positive change in America I want to start a recycling business in my community. I realize that here in Georgia few are concerned with recycling. California, unlike Georgia has a strong recycling effort. The waste management company that is paid to dispose of California waste has been knows to deposit in the landfills of Georgia. I lived in California 20 years before moving to Georgia 7.5 years ago. In my neighborhood there are 4 -5 land fills in a 5 mile radius. I checked on the school system but not the environmental dangers.
    So now I want to start a recyclable program. However, when I review Georgia policies on the matter I’m left feeling that recycling is low on the totem pole. Less than one percent of the people recycle in my community recycle.

  4. Great article! I just wanted to point out that the Coca-Cola plastic bottle recycling plant is in Spartanburg, South Carolina–not Pennsylvania.

  5. can you please tell me about the back ground of packaging and labelling of coke products?

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