Last month the Coca-Cola Company opened the doors on a brand new 60 million dollar bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg South Carolina. The plant is designed to produce new PET containers directly from used bottles, and will have a projected capacity of around 100 million pounds of recycled PET, enough for about 20 billion 20-ounce bottles. The significance of this story is in part due to the fact that the facility is reported to be the largest of its kind in the world. And it draws even more importance when viewed as a potential new model for the consumer packaged goods industry to support more sustainable consumption.
Though many have already lauded Coke for this and other efforts, an equal or greater amount have continued to criticize the organization as a whole, reciting a ‘too little too late’ mantra. Granted, Coca-Cola must be held to a higher standard when it comes to the consumer waste they produce, but the current problem of more than two thirds of the PET bottles produced ending up in landfills, is not theirs to shoulder alone. It is also the responsibility of the consumer and their governments to support policies and behaviors that stem this growing mountain of wasted plastic. What is most compelling about Coke’s new facility is that it seeks to establish a market-driven solution to the problem, something that if successful may be scalable to farther reaching programs.
To understand the significance of a true bottle-to-bottle system, one must first understand a little bit about the complexity of recycling PET. Though we have seen bottles on the market in the past that claim to be 100% recycled, these examples are few and far between because achieving such a measure is extremely challenging. Most consumer plastic recycling is handled by a broad and loosely organized network of private and municipal collectors spread across the country. When it comes to recycled PET, it can only perform to higher standards if it comes form a clean and reliable waste stream. The more non-PET material it comes in contact with along it’s journey, the less suitable it becomes for recycling directly back into a food-grade plastic. This is why most PET is downcycled into things like park benches and other low-end plastic goods, rather than being put back into bottles.
While this may not be well known to the average consumer, who wholeheartedly puts their empty bottles in the recycling bin, it was recognized by Coke as a starting point to improve the system. This is why the new facility was created in a joint venture with United Resource Recovery Corp, a leading authority in recycled PET. URRC has a patented process called UnPET that allows them to chemically super clean used PET plastic making it safe for being recycled back into food-grade containers. Thus Coke, by understanding the limitations to recycling, actively found a technology partner who could work with them to create a model system to bring value back into their supplychain from the post-consumer waste stream.
Collecting all those used bottles is another issue. This is where Coke has taken things a step further and invested through there bottling subsidiary, Coca-Cola enterprises, to create a new recycling organization, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC. This new entity will recover PET along with other recyclable materials from a variety of sources, including government recycling centers, NASCAR events, college football stadiums, and even their own manufacturing network. This shows just how comprehensive of an initiative this is, that Coke is truly attempting to create a workable construct for reaching the eventual goal of recycling 100% of their packaging.
Whether or not the venture will be profitable is another question. It is fair to assume that such a program would at least pay-off in the long-term, but the recent dive in the cost of virgin PET surely isn’t helping. The cost of virgin plastic is at the core of the challange for most businesses interested in recycling. As long as the cost for virgin plastic is low, the business argument for recycling is on very weak footing. However this passed year has shown us that commodity prices can sky rocket in the blink of an eye (consider the price of oil this past summer) and when that does happen, and it will, we will see if Coke’s bottle-to-bottle brainchild can step up to the plate.
I realize this is story has already been kicked around quite a bit over the last few months. But as a designer who has worked with many large CPGs it is inspiring to see a company rise to the challenges of a complex problem and take a broader look at what their situation could be rather than simply accepting what it is, or what it has been in the past. On the announcment of the facility opening last month Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America best summerized things by saying “The opening of the Spartanburg plant, coupled with our investment in recycling businesses, programs and a new marketing effort, underscores our belief that our packaging has value and we want it back – both for our own supply chain and to support the myriad of other uses for recycled aluminum and plastic.”