Leiden Law Blog

Coca-Cola and its plastic bottle

Coca-Cola and its plastic bottle

It is increasingly well known that plastic now pollutes every corner of our planet and many people are stressing the importance of immediate action. Thanks to organisations such as The Ocean Cleanup we have been introduced to new solutions for waste recovery. However it will take a lot of effort to put an end to the pollution of the environment and the negative consequences this brings about. Contrary to popular belief it is not only the environment that is at stake. Plastic floating in the ocean will eventually break down into micro plastics and, since these particles cannot be filtered from the water, they end up in our drinking water and consequently in many food and drink products. There is increasing evidence that this kind of plastic pollution poses risks to human health.

The prevention of this type of pollution should become a major priority. However, in 2015 Coca-Cola changed its packaging from glass to plastic bottles in Tanzania. For glass bottles there was an adequate recovery system in place. For plastic bottles, however, there is no envisaged system whatsoever. Since many local organisations have expressed concerns the Leiden Advocacy Project on Plastic decided to conduct a case study on Coca-Cola.

The Coca-Cola Company

As the largest beverage company in the world, Coca-Cola often portrays itself as a responsible company: it is a member to the United Nations Global Compact, an important initiative that seeks to advance societal goals through responsible business conduct. The Global Compact advises companies to align its business operations with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and Coca-Cola says that it will do so. Nevertheless many of Coca-Cola’s independent bottlers, which make up roughly half of its business, are not participating in the Global Compact.

The company also publishes annual sustainability reports. Its latest report gives an insight into Coca-Cola’s envisaged sustainability commitments, but it also raises many questions. Their most important pledge regarding waste caused by plastic bottles is that the company has committed itself to recover and recycle the equivalent of 75 percent of the bottles and cans introduced to developed markets, and 50 percent introduced globally, by the year 2020. Furthermore Coca-Cola aims to point out its involvement in the development of recyclable plastic and biodegradable packaging. However, the report leaves many questions unanswered: what will Coca-Cola actually do to achieve its recovery goals if no rebate system is implemented in developing countries? Are biodegradable plastics really a viable solution to the problem? The most recent report comprises 69 pages and includes topics such as healthy living, environmental protection, and human rights. Why did the company only devote half a page to the recovery of plastic waste, especially when you consider that plastic waste is one of the company’s largest negative externalities?

NGOs' concerns

We have consulted many environmental NGOs in Africa and the rest of the world. Many organisations were happy to cooperate and share their views in order to help improve our research and create more awareness. For example a local Tanzanian NGO pointed out the difference in recovery and recycling systems throughout Africa. At the moment only in South Africa is there an industry-led initiative for the collection of plastic bottles. PETCO was established by the packaging industry and bottlers, including Coca-Cola bottlers, and subsidises the collection of plastic bottles by introducing voluntary levies. We also noticed that Coca-Cola is introducing environmentally friendlier packaging in South Africa by producing energy-saving bottles made partially from plants. Unfortunately we have not come across any recovery and recycling programme supported by Coca-Cola in the rest of Africa. In many African countries very little waste collection takes place at all.  Local organisations are concerned that African countries are lagging behind and plastic packaging is becoming a major threat to the environment in these countries.  Moreover, since more than 80% of marine litter comes from land-based sources, plastic bottles in Africa are also a major threat to the ocean environment.

Seeking a reaction from Coca-Cola

So far our findings have provided some answers but have also raised many additional questions. Therefore we will now turn to Coca-Cola to find out whether (and how?) Coca-Cola has accepted its responsibilities regarding plastic waste from packaging in African countries, or whether it has any plans to do so. We are hopeful that the company is willing to contribute to our research and, ultimately, help develop possible solutions.

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