The accumulation of marine debris and its effect on the global marine ecosystems is a hot topic – and Coca-Cola aims to be a part of the solution.

Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability, Coca-Cola North America, sat down recently to offer perspective and testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works at a hearing titled “Cleaning Up the Oceans: How to Reduce the Impact of Man-Made Trash on the Environment, Wildlife and Human Health.”

“We operate in more than 200 countries and have the unique opportunity to make a positive global difference,” Karas said. “We want to do business the right way, which means working to reduce our environmental impact by collecting and recycling our packaging footprint and providing access to clean drinking water.”

Helping Tackle the Problem

In the hearing’s opening remarks, Committee Chairman John Barrasso (WY) said, “Experts believe that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.” Senators and witnesses echoed this sentiment throughout the hearing and agreed that plastic pollution is a global crisis.

From The Coca-Cola Company's perspective, it is unacceptable that packages – including Coca-Cola packages – end up in the wrong place, in our oceans and waterways or littering communities.

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola launched the World Without Waste global sustainable packaging vision. This involves rethinking how bottles and cans are designed and made, as well as how they are recycled and repurposed around the world.  

The centerpiece of this vision is an ambitious goal to help collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can sold globally by 2030. The Coca-Cola system intends to back World Without Waste with a multi-year investment that includes ongoing work to make our packaging 100% recyclable by 2025.

Each of Coca-Cola’s 17 global business units have developed plans to address three strategic pillars – Design, Collect and Partner – to keep waste out of the ocean. Here are some examples of these plans in action.

Bruce Karas speaking with members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works.

World Without Waste: Design

In the innovation space, Coca-Cola has expanded its “package-less” Coca-Cola Freestyle platform to more than 50,000 fountain dispensers machines serving 14 million drinks daily. Freestyle continues to expand in North America and will grow in Latin America and Europe.

The company's procurement teams work continually with suppliers to grow availability of recycled PET plastic (rPET). Coca-Cola’s Mexican bottled water brand Ciel and Australian bottled water brand Mount Franklin are already available in 100% rPET. The company's water brand in Hong Kong, Bonaqua, will launch in 100% rPET in 2019, as well as in several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) markets.

Coke's Research & Development team is also working on chemical recycling technologies with an eye toward future partnerships or piloting.

World Without Waste: Collect

According to Ocean Conservancy, marine plastic is primarily a land-based issue mostly driven by limited collection and waste management infrastructure in emerging markets. Coke is working to better understand recycling data and approaches in different markets where systems do not exist – particularly in ASEAN. 

While there are discussions of ways to incentivize collection and recycling and reuse, it will be important to create a system where material recovery facilities and end markets are able to become strong businesses creating ‘green’ jobs,” Karas said.

Coca-Cola is putting this idea into action in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, through a partnership with Unilever, Dow and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce to implement a circular economy approach to growing recycling infrastructure. Alongside Green Hub, the company is preparing to launch a community program in Ha Long City to empower 250 female waste pickers and educate decision-makers on the importance of tackling public waste.

“We collectively need to consider that today we have ‘Waste Management 1.0’ with many different players touching different parts of the process, often with variable goals," Karas said. "We should strive to build our infrastructure to ‘Waste Management 2.0’ where it is more vertically integrated and we have given thought to ensuring we have viable end markets established.”

To this end, in Indonesia, the world’s second-largest contributor to ocean plastic, Coca-Cola has worked with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs to help develop the National Plan of Action Against Marine Debris. The company also joined with the Packaging and Recycling Alliance for Indonesia Sustainable Environment (PRAISE).

Coca-Cola Philippines is a member and active supporter of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS). Once operational, a newly chartered recycling facility will process approximately 365 tons of waste each year.

World Without Waste: Partner  

“We recognize that although we are a part of the problem, we cannot solve the packaging waste problem alone. It is for that reason we have created, established, joined and expanded cross-sectoral partnerships around the world," Karas added. "We intend to do all of this not just in a cross-sector way but in a scalable way that drives systemic change.”

Since 1995, Coca-Cola’s partnership with the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance has included participation in the annual International Coastal Cleanup. The company also helped launch the Trash Free Seas Alliance in 2011 to advance a scientific understanding of marine debris globally.

The European Union beverage industry association, UNESDA, recently announced a set of new EU-wide ambitions. By 2025, 100% of primary plastic packaging for soft drinks will be recyclable, and soft drink PET bottles will contain a minimum of 25% recycled material.

Coke has worked with the Closed Loop Fund since its inception, predominantly in North America. Recently, Coca-Cola joined a new initiative of Closed Loop Partners called Closed Loop Oceans to target innovation for waste management finding and recycling solutions in Southeast Asia, and became an early-stage partner for the Circulate Capital initiative established to advance a circular economy.

As a founding member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) New Plastics Economy initiative, Coke continues to work with the group on our packaging strategy and metrics. EMF is a leading voice in supporting private-sector innovations to addressing plastic waste.

Finally, the company is actively engaged with the World Economic Forum Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), which focuses on global policy and circular economies in ASEAN. James Quincy, president and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, is on the PACE Leadership Board.