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Is It Time for a Return to Refillables?

Is It Time for a Return to Refillables?

Single-use packaging that bedevils nature and our society today was born more than 50 years ago, at a time most of us think of as progressive. Before the PET bottle and aluminum can, refillable packaging was common and with citizen action, now it’s time for a comeback.

The 1960s and 1970s were a tumultuous time in the U.S., with social uprisings and protests erupting around the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and the counterculture movements. In 1969, one year before Earth Day – a milestone for the modern environmental movement – Coca-Cola made two major decisions around the packaging of its ubiquitous product. On the one hand, it first began selling its beverage in its newly created bottles made of a novel material called plastic. Coca-Cola also began to study the best packaging system for the environment amid growing public concern about litter piling up in public spaces from the use of single-use bottles and cans.

Coca-Cola’s study is regarded by some as the first ‘lifecycle assessment study’, now a standard industry technique for comparing a product’s impact across multiple environmental categories. The authors of that study showed Coca-Cola that the reusable glass bottle was optimal, so long as it was being sufficiently returned and reused, much as Coke had been doing for a half-century before the study. Coke had a network of thousands of small-scale bottlers across the country using deposits to get back their glass bottles to be used dozens of times.

Unfortunately, the bottom line recommendations were ignored by Coke’s executives. The company embraced single-use bottles, in some cases arguing against their own bottlers in state legislatures who rightly feared losing their jobs.

Plastic, Not So Fantastic

Since then the beverage industry has adopted single-use plastic bottles with devastating consequences for marine life, ecosystems and frontline communities surrounding the U.S. plastic industry in places like Louisiana, the Texas Gulf and Appalachia.

Source: Bring Back the Refill, The Story of Stuff Project

The low price point of plastic compared to other materials has fueled more use of plastics in packaging. Despite the ubiquity of plastics, the plastic industry is set to double or triple production in the coming decades. In the beverage industry, a cursory look at supermarket shelves today reveals even wine and liquor are now being packaged in plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are particularly problematic due to their propensity to be consumed ‘on the go’ where there is a lack of disposal and recycling infrastructure.

The level of consumption of beverages in the U.S. sets it apart from other countries, it consumes and wastes more plastic bottles than any other country globally (see graphic above). An eye-watering seventy billion plastic (PET) bottles are burned, landfilled or end up leaking into the environment every year in the U.S. The industry recently celebrated a report that 28.6% of PET bottles are recycled, far below the U.S. recycling rates for paper, aluminum cans, cardboard, and metal.

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Coca-Cola’s Plastic Footprint

Coca-Cola itself has a significant role to play in this as a global leader in the soft drink industry. The company has been named the world’s biggest plastic polluter for five years running in the Break Free From Plastic Movement’s ‘brand audit’ compiling the data about the branded packaging most frequently showing up in the environment. This may be unsurprising given that the company is the largest plastic-producing consumer brand in the world.

Coke ships almost 3 million tons of plastic per year which translates to nearly a million plastic bottles per minute, with grave consequences to human and environmental health along with soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: Bring Back the Refill, The Story of Stuff Project (click to enlarge)

Green Shoots?

While these figures are stark, and indeed the market share of refillable beverage containers has dwindled in recent decades, squint and you may see positive signs on the horizon.

In recent years Coca-Cola has created a reusable ‘universal bottle’ in Brazil used by its various brands to collect and reuse its bottles, reducing the demand for raw materials. While reusable glass bottles are ubiquitous in Mexico, one of its largest markets, a pilot El Paso, Texas is trialing the use of the same classic reusable glass bottles, where over 100 restaurants send empty bottles to Juarez, Mexico for washing and refilling before they are resold again.

Most notably, in response to pressure from its own shareholders, Coca-Cola committed to selling one-quarter of its beverages globally in refillable containers by the end of this decade – the first company to do that in its sector.

Citizen Pressure Required

The signs are clear. We must shift towards a system of reusable packaging to protect natural resources and preserve our environment and human health. Sign our petition calling on Coca-Cola executives to bring back the refillable bottle to the U.S.

While its refillable pledge is laudable, there are serious questions as to whether Coke will achieve its targets. Coca-Cola has a poor track record on many of its sustainability pledges, and citizens must demand the company show it’s the ‘leader of the pack’ for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Despite its global pledge, the company has no stated plans to bring back its refillable glass bottles at scale in the United States. The U.S. already has 10 states with container deposit laws, also known as ‘bottle bills’ incentivizing customers to bring back their empties. In bottle bill states two to three times the number of containers are returned and recycled compared with states that rely on curbside recycling systems.

The beverage industry can utilize this infrastructure to begin to transition to a true circular economy using reusable glass bottles that can be used anywhere from 20 to 50 times. If designed well, reusable bottles can drastically reduce the carbon emissions arising from the beverage sector. 

About the Author

Sam Pearse is the Campaigns Director for the Story of Stuff Project, in Berkeley California which is calling on Coca-Cola to bring back refillable beverage containers.

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