In February last year, Coca-Cola, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, announced a new global target. The company said that by 2030, 25% of all its products will be sold in reusable and refillable packaging.
If this commitment is fulfilled, billions of single-use plastic bottles will not pollute the world’s water bodies and oceans, while reducing the company’s carbon footprint. At a time when Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the upcoming COP27 climate change conference has drawn criticism from environmental activists, working to deliver on this important promise could help the company show that it means what it says.
Unfortunately, a vital element of the promise has so far been missing: a parallel commitment from the major bottlers to also increase their sales of refillable products to higher levels. Otherwise, there is good reason to believe that the giant’s promise may not be fulfilled and become just another broken promise.
Single-use plastic bottles, which are called “one-ways” in the beverage industry, are designed to be used only once, after which they are disposed of in recycling bins, garbage containers, or the environment. Refillable bottles are intended for multiple uses. Consumers pay a deposit for the bottles and return them to the store or collection point, where they are seized by the company, washed, refilled, and sold. Before the advent of disposables, all beverages were sold in refillable bottles.
Big brands have ditched reusable systems and it’s now clear that this has been bad for the oceans. Now the trend should turn to increase the number of reusable bottles.
Refillable glass bottles are reusable up to 50 times and plastic bottles 25 times. The arguments in favor of reusable bottles are clear: Reusing and reselling one bottle 25 times means that 24 more disposable bottles will not be produced.
Oceana analyzed the market and scientific data and found that just a 10 percent increase in reusable bottles in coastal countries could prevent 7.6 billion plastic bottles from being dumped into the world’s waterways and seas. Given the catastrophic level of plastic pollution in the seas worldwide, this is extremely important. Research shows that 55% of seabird species, 70% of marine mammal species, and 100% – yes, all – of sea turtle species have ingested or become entangled in plastic.
Unfortunately, recycling will not solve this problem. Scientific reports indicate that only nine percent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Adding more recycled content to a single-use plastic bottle does not significantly change the likelihood that the bottle will contribute to pollution and end up in the world’s water bodies and seas (think of all the plastic bottles you’ve seen dumped in yards, fields, beaches, rivers and elsewhere ).
Coca-Cola’s new commitment is critical to the oceans because the company is defining the way we buy drinks. It sells one in five drinks purchased worldwide – almost double the market share of the company’s closest competitor, Pepsi.
Coca-Cola is also the leader in the sale of reusable beverages worldwide. Globally, the company currently sells 16% of its drinks in reusable and refillable packaging. Reusable packaging is most common in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In the Philippines, for example, almost half of everything the company sells is in refillable bottles. However, in some markets, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, refillable bottles are virtually non-existent.
According to industry analysts, reusable bottles also make serious business sense. They are often the most affordable option for customers over time because they only pay for the bottle once. This affordability helps sales in tough economic times. The share of refillable bottles actually grew in Latin America during the pandemic, from 27% in 2020 to more than a third in 2021.
Customers love them. Because reusable drinks are cheaper. Also because at least some of them prefer the taste and pleasure of drinking soft drinks in reusable bottles. According to some observers, the popularity of “Mexican Coke” owes more to the bottle than the sweetener. The bottles feel more solid and can hold the soda longer than disposable bottles. Well-managed refill systems – according to bottling companies – also use less water.
However, Coca-Cola’s biggest bottlers – which actually determine the packaging in which the company’s drinks are sold – have so far for the most part made no public commitments to significantly increase sales of reusable bottles. The only major bottling operator to do so is Coca-Cola Andina, one of the largest beverage distributors in Latin America.
Corporations need to take responsibility for plastic pollution and solve the problem they created. Coca-Cola will not make its promise of reusable bottles a reality unless the company and its partners step up. The company needs the world’s largest bottlers to make meaningful and serious commitments to increase share: companies such as FEMSA, the world’s largest bottler (with operations in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina); Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (Western Europe, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia); Arca Continental (Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Texas) and Swire (China, Vietnam, and the western US). Coca-Cola and its bottlers should also aggressively market to consumers the plastic-reduction benefits and other advantages of reusable bottles, something they have not yet done.
Our oceans need Coca-Cola to achieve its goal and, with the help of its bottling companies, significantly increase the use of reusable products worldwide. Fulfilling this pledge will help ensure that billions of plastic bottles do not pollute and ravage our seas for many years to come.
We can all drink to that.
Matt Littlejohn – Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Oceana. The commentary was published in Al Jazeera.