Note: This op-ed originally posted on Medium.com.
When you woke up this morning, you may have spent about an hour getting ready. You brushed your teeth, showered, and got dressed. Feeling hungry, perhaps you made breakfast and watched the morning news. Some of you sent children off to school. Others responded to emails that arrived overnight.
Me? I cut myself shaving again.
No matter who you are or where you live, one thing is certain: in that hour, an estimated 900 metric tons of plastic waste entered our oceans. That’s the mass of nearly 600 mid-size sedans.
It’s also unsustainable. If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways. This waste presents clear dangers to marine life, which we see in disturbing images of animals suffering. And make no mistake, this waste will likely have a broader impact beyond wildlife.
The world’s packaging problem is a symptom of a more serious condition. We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened. In fact, the use of natural resources globally grew twice as fast as the population during the 20th century.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, global materials use is expected to reach almost 90 billion tons in 2017 – three times more than the amount used 1970. We’re using (and wasting) our natural resources at a rapidly increasing rate. We’re acting like we’ll never run out.
This isn’t only a problem for unfortunate sea turtles or coastal communities that must deal with plastic bottles washing up on their shores. It’s a problem for all of us, everywhere. And, like most problems, this one provides an opportunity. We have the chance to rethink plastics, packaging, and even our economies for the better.
For decades, food and beverage packaging has been an important part of our modern lives. Bottles and cans make it easy to stay hydrated on the go. They help drinks stay safe and sanitary for human consumption. They help provide clean drinking water in times of need.
In fact, in 2017 we and our bottling partners donated over 1.4 million bottles of water to struggling communities in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria. That clean, safe water helped keep people alive. And it was only possible because of modern plastics and water bottling technology.
Yet it’s tempting to romanticize a world without packaging. To assume that if we get rid of plastic bottles and cans that life will be better. For animals, for humans, for our planet. This mistakenly ignores all the good they can do. Modern food and beverage containers help reduce food spoilage and waste. They limit the spread of disease. They can help save lives.
In short, bottles and cans can benefit society if they’re designed properly and disposed of responsibly.
To support this, businesses like The Coca-Cola Company can challenge ourselves to do more. To lead. To take risks. And to grow with conscience by doing business the right way, not just the easy way.
That’s why we’ve announced a bold, ambitious goal: to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for everyone we sell by 2030. Regardless of where it comes from, we want every package to have more than one life.
This is our vision for a World Without Waste.
Working to create a World Without Waste isn’t easy and involves many moving parts. Among them, companies have to do their part by making sure their packaging is actually recyclable. People have to do their part by actually recycling. And we all have to do whatever we can, no matter how big or small, to make sure packaging doesn’t end up where it doesn’t belong.
To achieve this, we’re reimagining the entire lifecycle of a package, from how it’s designed to how it’s made.
In 2009, we introduced PlantBottle, a groundbreaking innovation made from up to 30% plant-based materials. For years, we’ve been working to make our packaging 100% recyclable. And you’ve probably noticed some of our bottles are lighter than they used to be. While those are steps in the right direction, we don’t intend to stop there. We’re searching for new ways to make plastic more innovative and sustainable, and we are working to include more recycled material in our plastic bottles.
Making our bottles and cans more sustainable and recyclable is only part of the answer. If something can be recycled, it should be recycled. So we want to help people everywhere understand how to do their part.
Our goal is to encourage more people to recycle more often. To do that, we aim to invest our marketing dollars and skills to help people understand what to recycle, how to recycle, and where to recycle. We believe in the circular economy, where plastic, glass, and aluminum are reused many times instead of being used once and thrown away. We want others to believe in it, too.
We also want to work with local communities, our competitors, and even our critics to help address this critical issue.
In some communities, recycling is simple. You just drop your bottle or can in the nearest bin, and you’re done. In others, recycling is hard work. There may not be a recycling bin, or the nearest facility means a two-hour drive each way.
Who has time for that? More importantly, no one should have to drive that far to recycle.
Because our company is in so many communities globally, we can share our best practices. We can collaborate with governments, communities, the private sector, and NGOs to help develop more effective recycling systems that meet each community’s unique needs. We can actually help make recycling is easier and more accessible for everyone.
In Mexico, we’ve helped do just that.
Coca-Cola bottlers joined the Mexican plastics industry and others in 2002 to create Ecology and Corporate Commitment (ECOCE), a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging a culture of recycling. We also invested to help create the country’s two food-grade PET plastic recycling facilities, IMER and PetStar. Those investments have paid off. In 2016, Mexico recycled 57% of the PET plastic it produced (up from 9% in 2002), making it the leading country globally for recycling PET.
That’s exactly what we want to do.
“But what about all the bottles and cans that are already out there?” you might say. “What are you doing about those?”
I’m glad you asked.
Just because we’re announcing this goal for 2030 doesn’t mean we’re starting from scratch.
Since 1995, we’ve been the lead sponsor of the world’s largest volunteer effort on behalf of ocean health—Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. Over the course of that partnership, we’ve helped mobilize 11 million people to clean up 206 million pounds of trash from over 360,000 miles of coastline.
And there’s so much more we can do together.
No one company, organization, government, or person can solve this problem alone. Imagine if every company that sells packaging joined us on this journey. Imagine if we were all putting our expertise and resources into solving this problem. Imagine if we all worked to help keep packaging out of the places where it doesn’t belong.
Suddenly, a World Without Waste is possible.
When we all come together through concerted, collective action, we can make a meaningful, lasting difference. That must be the mindset we all take. The guiding principle by which we all operate.
Because by the time you’ve read this far, an estimated 40,000 plastic bottles have already made their way into our oceans.
Together, we can reduce that number. Together, we might be able to make it zero. It will require hard work, dedication, and investment from many players, but I’m certain that the payoff for our planet, our communities, and our business will be well worth the price.
Now, let’s get to work.
James Quincey is president and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company