The Coca-Cola Company will work with a host of partners in the coming years to deliver its “World Without Waste” packaging vision, which includes collecting and recycling a bottle or can for every one it sells globally by 2030 and renewing its focus on the entire packaging lifecycle.

We spoke with Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy, to learn more about how the company and its bottling partners will tackle this industry-first goal.

Why is now the time to announce this goal?

For starters, it’s simply the right thing to do. We’ve been working with our partners for decades to do our part to build more sustainable packaging and more effective recycling programs. Now it’s time to do more. We are the beverage industry leader. We want to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. Our consumers expect us to lead the way. So we are.

The issue of packaging waste – and specifically marine debris – is more visible, and more of a threat to our planet, than ever. The world has a packaging problem, and we – like other companies – have a responsibility to help solve it and ensure bottles and cans don’t end up where they don’t belong. We sold 128 billion PET plastic bottles last year, and too many of them ended up as waste. We all need to help collect and recycle more packaging, keeping that material in the economy and out of our environment.

This is a holistic vision, not a typical sustainability initiative. It’s a business strategy that supports our journey to become a total beverage company. Our CEO and his leadership team have been very engaged in discussing and reviewing this strategy for the last six months. As a company dedicated to growth with conscience, this builds on our legacy of work on water replenishment and sugar reduction because it’s right for our world and our business. This initiative on packaging is just as critical as our work on beverage choice. Particularly as we expand or grow in many types of packaging, now is the time to expand our efforts in this area.

How did the company arrive at these specific targets?

A team of more than 30 people across the global system – a mix of people from corporate, our business units out in the field and our bottling partners – have been working on this since August 2017. Our leadership has been extremely involved, and we shared it with five external stakeholder groups – World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), The Ocean Conservancy/Trash Free Seas Alliance, UN Environment and the World Economic Forum (WEF) Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, who provided input before launch. We also considered other inputs based on evolving stakeholder, regulatory, consumer and customer expectations. Our local business units spent the month of November creating high-level plans that informed the final announcement we’re making today.

What does the company get out of this?

Because our business relies on bottles and cans, we embrace our share of responsibility to help ensure that the world has a more sustainable packaging system in place. We are hopeful that this will be good for our business and the communities where we operate. Moving toward a circular economy will ultimately reduce the amount of virgin materials needed to keep our global system moving. This is expected to mean cost savings and positive environmental impacts for us all over the long-term.

PET plastic is a big driver for the circular economy and is used in many other products besides bottles, including cars, textiles and carpets. We want to be a driver of the circular economy by helping to collect more of this key material, and thereby helping to provide recycled content for all industries. If we increase collection, there should be more recycled PET for everyone to use. We will focus our collection efforts, first and foremost, on keeping our packaging out of our oceans and the environment at large. Second, we will engage in collective efforts to keep packages and package material in the economy for reuse. Where possible, we will keep packaging material in the PET plastics supply chain. And we will negotiate with our suppliers to keep packaging material in our supply chain.

The global Coke system is massive. How will you galvanize all business units and bottling partners against such an ambitious goal, and how will you track and report progress against the goal? 

We will report progress both in our annual sustainability report and also as we make steps along the way. Some of the metrics we will track are new, and others are not. We are ramping up in all areas to go further. Deeper. This is a real stretch goal for our system, but we are not starting from scratch. We’ve been engaged in the sustainable packaging space since the ‘60s and have several proof points of success and a lot of system engagement up to this point. Whether it’s PETCO in South Africa, Coletivo recycling in Brazil or comprehensive sustainability leadership in Western Europe – these are just examples we are looking to replicate across our system. These are not new challenges, and this is not a new journey. But we’re really taking things up a level.

A world without waste is possible

How specifically will 100% of the materials Coke puts into the marketplace be collected and recycled?

Our goal is to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030. Whether it’s ours or a competitor’s doesn’t matter to us. Because no one can do this alone, we plan to work with many partners, including local communities, NGOs, customers and consumers and share best practices to help build more effective collection and recycling systems that work for each community’s unique culture and needs. In most cases, we will not be doing the physical collection, but we will be supporting and engaging in existing infrastructure, or helping create new systems. One hundred percent collection and recycling will not look the same in every market, but we aim to work on a local level to take the steps necessary. We invite other companies and organizations to join us in these vital efforts. The most advanced systems in the world bring in 80 percent or more of a community’s bottles and cans today. Some of these systems are informal. Many types of programs can be successful. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We’re looking market-by-market to determine whether to build on existing systems or help create new ones.

Is this goal attainable?

Yes, we believe so. But we will need help from many partners. No single company or organization can do this alone, because the related issues and solutions are complex and are global in scope. By working with our bottling partners, reputable NGOs, local communities and consumers, we will find the best path forward – market-by-market – as we work to meet these goals by 2030.

How will you work with governments, NGOs and industry groups to make recycling easier and more accessible?

We want to leverage the power of our system and our marketing capabilities as never before to motivate and inspire consumers. Public-private partnership is critical to driving improvements in on-the-ground recycling systems. We will partner with customers like McDonald’s, which just made a major announcement regarding packaging and recycling themselves. And we will build new partnerships with NGOs active in this space, building on long-standing relationships with organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy initiative, The Ocean Conservancy/Trash Free Seas Alliance and World Wildlife Fund (Biofeedstocks Alliance and The Cascading Materials Vision).

What is the biggest barrier to recycling, globally?

In some countries, collection and recycling of our packaging is high, while in others there is still a lot of work to do. Simply put, this is a huge challenge with many moving parts. We’re in more than 200 countries and territories, all of which have their own governments, regulatory systems, and waste collection/recycling systems. In some parts of the world, the infrastructure does not exist to collect and recycle packaging; even if it did, there might not be a market for the recycled material.

In some places, the value of the material precedes the existence of formal collection. So, informal scavenging systems crop up to keep that material in the economy.

The world needs more people to recycle more often, and education/information is an important part of making that happen. For those who want to recycle but are unsure how to or where to go, we plan to help answer some of those questions. And for those who simply don’t care, we aim to help them understand the value in recycling for their community and their world.  

The Coca-Cola Company achieved its water neutrality goal early. What did you learn from that journey?

Early on in the water journey, we engaged third-party experts to help us understand what the picture of success looked like in different parts of the world, with different types of programs. We will take a similar approach here. While we have a history of work and partnership in this space already, in some areas there is still uncertainty or lack of clarity on how best to make progress. With water, we engaged very deeply with a host of partners and leveraged the resources of the collective to get the work done. This same approach will be vital here.

A renewed focus on developing 100% recyclable packaging is another core pillar of the ‘World Without Waste’ vision. How much of our packaging today is 100% recyclable?

Currently, more than 85%. Our core packaging – PET plastic bottles, glass bottles and aluminum cans and bottles – are 100% recyclable. We have to remember there are two aspects to recyclability. Can you recycle it somewhere? And can you recycle it everywhere? The second piece is often the bigger challenge.

What part of Coke’s packaging portfolio isn’t recyclable today – and why?

Most of our packaging technically can be recycled today but, in some parts of the world, the infrastructure does not exist to collect and recycle that material; even if it did, there might not be a market for the recycled material. Our planned new push, among other things, is expected to help address these issues.

Is the company’s sustainable packaging R&D strategy changing?

Not at all. We want to continue to be at the forefront of sustainable packaging design. In 1969, we became the first company to conduct a full lifecycle assessment of our packaging. We want to be at the cutting edge of packaging made from recycled and renewable materials. But these materials have to be cost effective to reach the mainstream. Increased demand will make sustainable materials more cost effective. There are many great ideas and innovations out there today. The challenge is making them cost effective.

What steps can the average person around the world take to deliver a future ’World Without Waste’?

The old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle” is still valid today. Use more sustainable materials. Reuse when you can, and recycle what you can’t. And, by all means, keep your waste out of the environment. Don’t litter! Decide what issues are important to you and work to improve your own performance on those issues. Some people care more about their carbon footprint than about the waste they create. The PET bottle actually has the lowest carbon footprint of all our packaging. But aluminum cans are recycled more readily because sometimes there is more value in the material. Glass is perceived as a more sustainable option but really isn’t unless it’s refillable and gets a certain number of trips. Bring your own refillable cup to enjoy a beverage at one of our Coca-Cola Freestyle machines if you want to reduce your use of packaging. We offer both a broad array of beverages in a broad array of packaging options. None of us have an excuse to go thirsty, and we can stay hydrated while respecting and preserving our planet.