On Saturday, Sept. 19, thousands of Coca-Cola associates across the world will venture out into their local waterways, beaches, community parks and even their own backyards to participate in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup event. This year’s event marks the 30th anniversary that the Cleanup has been organized and 20 years that Coca-Cola has been a supporting the global event. 

We sat down with April Crow, Coca-Cola’s senior director of environment and sustainability, to learn about the company’s partnership with Ocean Conservancy and the importance of keeping our waterways clean.

When did marine debris and ocean plastic first become a concern and why did you decide to work on solutions to address this issue? 

At Coca-Cola, we became involved in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup more than 20 years ago. As a founding sponsor of Keep America Beautiful in the 1950s, our support of the Cleanup was a natural partnership given our work to support anti-litter efforts. While we recognize clean-up efforts are not holistic solutions to the issue, it is a great education tool to bring awareness to the serious consequences of marine trash. The Cleanup is unique because volunteers act as “citizen scientists” by recording every item collected. Ocean Conservancy then uses the data to produce the world's only annual country-by-country, state-by-state index of the marine debris problem. The results help drive solutions to improve ocean and waterway health globally.

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How did you become involved with the issues of marine debris?

As someone who loves to spend time on the water, I personally became very involved in protecting our oceans and waterways when, through the Coca-Cola partnership, I started working with Ocean Conservancy ten years ago. In 2005 I attended my first International Coastal Cleanup and was struck by the number of volunteers and especially Coca-Cola associates who gave their personal time to participate in the event. It was inspirational to know that thousands of system associates, their friends and families, were participating in every corner of the world. As I learned more about the types of trash collected and the issues of debris in our oceans, I began my own research to try to better understand the sources and if in fact there were floating islands of plastic. As I really started digging into the topic, I was surprised at how little scientific knowledge was known about marine debris. I quickly learned that marine debris was still an emerging discipline with very little coordination on the topic or potential solutions. It is through partnerships like Ocean Conservancy and the Trash Free Seas Alliance that we can build coordinated efforts towards the necessary research and solutions.

How does Coca-Cola engage associates on this issue?

Through the International Coastal Cleanup global events that are activated all over the world, we encourage our system associates to grab a friend, family member or join an existing Cleanup to pitch in and pick up our local waterways. We recognize that our packages are a part of the challenge and want to work towards a solution. Our partnership with Ocean Conservancy provides an opportunity to remind us that proper disposal or recycling of our packages is essential in helping to protect the world’s waterways and oceans as well as increasing recycling of our packaging material. As the face of Coca-Cola, each of us represents the brand and what we stand for in the communities we call home. Along with our bottling partners, we’re committed to making a lasting, positive difference in the world.

Why is it important to work with different partners to solve the issue of marine debris? As a longtime partner of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, what would you say to other corporations who may be interested in making clean coasts and oceans a priority in their community and environmental agendas? 

Collaboration is key especially as we look at some of the world’s most challenging problems. In this case, collectively we can optimize both human and financial resources towards the necessary research to understand the causes and in the end find resolutions. Within our own sphere of influence, we are working with others in the consumer goods industry and local organizations to increase recovery and recycling in the markets where we operate. Ultimately, the solution requires building a system in which many people, institutions and technologies work together to reduce, redesign, recover, and recycle to prevent and properly manage waste. 

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What is the one thing you would say to people interested in ocean conservation looking to learn more about this issue?  

There is a lot of misinformation out there. Look for credible sources and then looks for ways that you can help support their efforts. No matter where you live—whether on the coast or thousands of miles away—all waterways lead to the ocean. However, if we take action and work together, we can improve the ocean’s health and make trash free seas a reality. It is important to remember cleanups come in all forms. Cleanups taking place at a local park or even a school playground are just as impactful and fun as beach or river cleanups.  It’s also about everyday actions to ensure waste doesn’t enter our waterways in the first place – so using your community recycling programs is a huge help.

As we drive towards developing and implementing solutions for the ocean plastic problem, what opportunities does Coca-Cola see as most promising to drive real change on the issue?

For marine debris, we have to turn off the faucet. Recent research points to the lack of waste management infrastructure in developing and emerging markets as a key contributor to the problem. As
we learn more through research and better data, it can help prioritize efforts to focus on the biggest contributors first. 

To learn more about Coca-Cola’s sustainable packaging and litter abatement efforts, please visit www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainability