One of the most disconcerting developments in the news lately has been Coca-Cola’s determined transition away from its iconic refillable glass bottle and to its new-fashioned plastic “PlantBottle.” On September 27th, Coke announced a major investment in the manufacture of bio-glycol for bottles in Brazil, and on October 9th, it announced it would no longer refill its classic glass Coke bottles at the last remaining U. S. facility with that capability, in Winona, Minnesota.
Recently, in our Know Your Plastics series, we posted about what the PlantBottle is. It is a plastic bottle that uses mostly non-renewable resources. It is a plastic bottle that will never biodegrade, and is more likely to be landfilled or incinerated than recycled. In other words, it’s mostly greenwashing. Coke’s commitment to making evermore PlantBottles represents systemic failure to: 1) own up to its damaging contribution to worldwide plastic pollution and 2) exercise extended producer responsibility to ensure that its ubiquitous product packaging is as sustainable as possible.
Coke made an exemplary effort to recycle its PET beverage bottles at this year’s London Olympics. Their success clearly demonstrates how plastic bottles might be better handled, if only Coke would get behind policies to recycle their bottles everywhere, all the time, and not just when they can use the limelight to PR advantage. (See our recent post about the concerted effort by the beverage behemoths to thwart a more effective bottle bill in MA this summer.)
But how sustainable is the recycling of plastic bottles, even if you were to recycle every one? The answer is not, very. That’s because plastics can’t be recycled over and over. Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (“rPET”) is usually no more than 30% recycled content; the rest will be virgin (fossil-fuel based) feedstock.
My dismay over Coke’s direction led me to a report by INFORM entitled “Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles.” As the report notes, many people don’t give a lot of thought to the difference between refilling and recycling, but washing and refilling a bottle multiple times is vastly more energy and resource efficient than recycling that container after a single use:
…refilling and then recycling bottles can reduce the toll on our environment, not only by reducing solid waste but also by reducing energy use and air and water pollution. If bottles are filled enough times, these benefits more than offset refillable bottles’ greater weight and use of material (to withstand additional handling); their washing requirements; and their potential need for additional transportation….The obstacles… arise from the lack of a collection and refilling infrastructure, not from any physical limitations of bottles.
So I’m not happy that Coke is making big plans to generate more one-way plastic bottles, while simultaneously blocking bottle deposit laws that would ensure higher recycling rates. They surely know that the PlantBottle has long term costs to the environment that they could reduce substantially by embracing bottle bills and/or sticking with a durable refillable bottle. On the scale of what they could do vs. what they are doing, their choices are hugely disappointing.
But look at the bright side for the refillable bottle, regardless of Coke’s recent decisions: today I buy milk in an old-fashioned glass bottle from Homestead Creamery, and happily return it for the $2 deposit. My husband takes his own handsome glass growler to local haunts for what’s on tap, and we, like so many others, now use a SodaStream to make our own refillable bottles of seltzer or cola at home. Coke may not realize it yet, but folks are becoming more aware of the big difference between reuse and recycling. Is it deja vu all over again? Could it be that the PlantBottle is to the refillable glass bottle as New Coke was to Coke Classic?