Next spring, when seniors from Atlanta Public Schools cross the stage to pick up their hard-earned diplomas and begin an exciting new chapter in their lives, the caps and gowns they’ll be wearing will represent a fresh start of their own.

PET plastic bottles collected this week – Earth Week – at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta will be recycled and recreated as graduation gear for the Class of 2020. The employee collection drive is part of the next chapter of #CocaColaRenew, a multi-channel communications and programming platform designed to bring the values and character of The Coca-Cola Company to life in ways that positively impact both local communities and the planet. This year’s program will challenge Americans to think differently about recycling by tackling the biggest barriers to recycling in the U.S. – public confusion and skepticism – and by showing the potential good recycled PET can create in communities across the country.

Coca-Cola hopes to collect 7,000 PET bottles this week – enough to outfit 200 graduates. The bottles’ journey to next year’s graduation will continue when they arrive at WestRock Recycling in Atlanta, where they will be sorted and cleaned before making their way to a Unifi processing plant in North Carolina. There, the bottles will be broken down into pellets, returning the PET to its virgin state. The materials will then be “upcycled” and woven into polyester yarn fabric and shipped to a mill to be cut and sewn into caps and gowns.

Update (May 7): The drive collected approx. 8,000 bottles (21% above the program goal), enough to outfit 250 graduating seniors with caps and gowns.

“Graduation day is the most important day in the lives of our seniors. It exemplifies how we truly live our mission: graduating students prepared and ready for college and career,” said Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools (APS). “Many of our students have persevered through adversity, overcome challenges and beat the odds to earn their diploma and carve out a bright future As such, donning caps and gowns in their splendid school colors on graduation day means so much to them. That’s why we’re incredibly grateful to The Coca-Cola Company for providing caps and gowns made from recycled materials to every APS graduate. The donation also will help alleviate the burden of the cost of caps and gowns which are part of senior fees which families sometimes struggle to afford. It’s a beautiful gesture for giving back to both their hometown schools and the environment.”

The Earth Week activation connects the company’s “World Without Waste” goal to collect and reuse the equivalent of a bottle or can for each one it sells with its longstanding commitments to education, inclusion and sustainable communities.

“We want to create a world without plastic waste, starting in our own backyard,” said Caren Pasquale Seckler, VP, Social Commitment, Coca-Cola North America. “Actions speak much louder than words, so step one is inspiring our associates to rethink their recycling behavior and reimagine the possibilities of plastic. We believe it’s important to demonstrate the value of recycled PET."

Research shows that Americans want to do their part to help reduce waste, but are unsure about what can be recycled. Others believe that highly recyclable and valuable materials like plastic beverage bottles and aluminum cans eventually end up in a landfill, even if tossed in a recycling bin.

That’s why Coca-Cola is teaming with local governments, nonprofit partners and customers to host collection drives in Atlanta and six other U.S. cities – Boston, Denver, Essex County (N.J.), Houston, Long Beach, Calif. and Orange County, Fla. – to recover plastic bottles to be recycled and recreated as items that show the benefits of a closed-loop plastics economy in locally relevant ways. Local creative including digital and print creative will share stories of the collection events and the bottles’ journey to become something new.

Recycling Pilots

Through funding from The Coca-Cola Foundation, The Recycling Partnership and the City of Atlanta will dispatch street teams to every zip code in the city to “tip” open recycling carts and “tag” them with cards informing residents about what they can and can’t recycle, and to let them know how they’re doing. The goal? To measurably improve recycling rates and reduce recycling contamination so Atlanta can become the first U.S. city without packaging waste.

“Recycling is an issue that cannot be solved at a national level,” explains Bruce Karas, vice president, environment and sustainability, Coca-Cola North America. “Wrapping our arms around the challenge at the local level is how we will make measurable progress. The collaborative solutions that are being testing in these pilot markets can be transferrable.”

Coca-Cola will host a second campus recycling drive in late summer, and partner with the Atlanta Braves to recycle plastic bottles collected at SunTrust Park during the season.

“We will share learnings from Atlanta and the other six markets with our Coca-Cola bottling partners, with the ultimate goal of scaling to additional cities,” Pasquale Seckler said. “This is just the beginning.”

Coca-Cola has a long history of supporting recycling infrastructure and programs across the U.S. Over the past decade, the company has helped place more than 1 million recycling bins in 2,000-plus communities and invested more than $12 million to support improved recycling infrastructures and educational outreach. Nearly all – 99% – of the company’s beverage packages in the U.S. are recyclable, and DASANI and smartwater bottled water contain up to 30% PlantBottle™ material that is fully recyclable and made with renewable, plant-based material.