What do the soft drink brands Sprite, Fanta and Dasani all have in common? They are all owned by The Coca-Cola Co., the soft drink monolith that makes 500 different brands amounting to nearly 4,000 drink choices.
Coca-Cola’s top brands, including Coke and Diet Coke, generate more than $1 billion a year in sales. But as those of us who are environmentally conscious know, they also generate much of the world’s plastic pollution.
A riveting 2019 documentary by the German public broadcaster DW, “Plastic Tide: Choking on Coke,” exposes how Coca-Cola deceives customers and environmentalists about its plastic pollution.
Last year, James Quincey, president and CEO of The Coca-Cola Co., announced a “World Without Waste” campaign to “collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030.”
While the PR spin sounds believable, the DW documentary depicts Coca-Cola’s glib nonchalance about actually reaching its stated antipollution goals, the origins of its profit-oriented plastic bottle push and how its plastic pollution is a blight on poorer countries in particular.
Coca-Cola’s Cagey Switch to Plastic Bottles
Younger people may not remember but as late as the early 1980s, in some locations in the U.S., Coke was not sold in the plastic, single-use polluting bottle we see today. It was sold in glass bottles for which the customer paid a deposit and which the customer had to return.
I can personally remember seeing people washing out their used glass Coke bottles and returning them, usually in a six-bottle cardboard holder, to the store where they were bought for a new “six pack.” When you think about it, the deposit/return Coke bottles were the essence of recycling. But not for long.
By 1975, Coca-Cola was already running TV ads extolling the virtues of the single-use plastic Coke bottle which was “so light” compared with the old, soon-to-be-outdated glass bottle and presumably more pleasing to the consumer. Soon “no deposit/no return” Coke soft drinks were the norm with no thought or plan of how to deal with their mass disposal.
Plastic Bottles Made Coca-Cola More Money
Why did Coca-Cola switch to plastic? The answer should surprise no one. Returnable bottles forced Coca-Cola to “internalize their pollution costs” says Bart J. Elmore, author of Citizen Coke, who is interviewed in the documentary. Plastic bottles allowed, and continue to allow, outsourcing of the problem and the costs to consumers and taxpayers. The public pays for the plastic pollution.
Arsen Darnay, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee who was the first engineer in the world to investigate the ecological impact of Coca-Cola bottles, was also interviewed in “Plastic Tide: Choking on Coke.”
Darnay was one of two principal researchers working for Midwest Research Institute, a group hired by Coca-Cola in the spring of 1970 to look at how glass bottles affected the environment, compared to metal and plastic containers.
Recounting how he discovered that “returnable glass pollutes significantly less” than plastic, Darnay said, “We put this together for them, and they didn’t publish it … They were not interested in having the public see the total picture.” Then, he said, he “watched them slowly introduce the plastic bottles.”
Shifting the Blame for Plastic Pollution Onto Consumers
From launching the more profitable single-use plastic bottles to its call for more consumer involvement with pollution, Coca-Cola has continually and successfully shifted the problem of its plastic pollution onto consumers, says Elmore.
Back in the 1970s, when its switch to plastic bottles began, Coke partnered with Keep America Beautiful, to position itself on the side of environmentalism and subtly imply that litter, and especially plastic litter, was somehow the consumer’s fault and problem, Elmore adds. Few realize Coca-Cola was behind the Keep America Beautiful campaign.
“Plastic Tide: Choking on Coke” shows an old Keep America Beautiful TV ad that shamelessly uses a Native American man, belonging to a demographic associated with environmental purity, to plead for the public not to pollute.
Nowhere in the ad is there mention of the industrial producers like Coca-Cola that contribute to such pollution. It is all the consumers’ fault, the PR campaign and continual campaigns imply.
PR Document Exposes Coca-Cola Lobbying Hypocrisy
From a PR standpoint, Coca-Cola wants to appear conscientious and environmentally responsible. For example, this is what CEO James Quincey wrote in his 2018 op-ed titled “Why a World Without Waste Is Possible:”
“Consumers around the world care about our planet. They want and expect companies like ours to be leaders and help make a litter-free world possible… Through our ‘World Without Waste’ vision, we are investing in our planet and in in our packaging to help make the world’s packaging problem a thing of the past.”
Yet, the reporters contributing to “Plastic Tide” unearthed some embarrassing documents that show a very different side to Coca-Cola. The documents, from Coke’s lobbyist in Brussels, recommend the company strongly fight recycling legislation as well as restrictions on advertising to children and caffeine in their drinks.
When confronted with the lobbyist recommendations in the documentary, Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola’s vice president for social impact and global policy, disavows the stated goals and says they are no longer Coke’s “strategy.”
Though the report is only 2 years old when Goltzman dismisses it, he could not name when the strategy was changed or point to any updated documents when the interviewer asked. He admits Coca-Cola is still using the same lobbyist.
Tanzania Is a Casualty of Coca-Cola’s Plastic Pollution
The African country of Tanzania is supposed to be one of the most beautiful and pristine locations in the world. But “Plastic Tide” shows how plastic pollution has impacted and seemingly altered forever the country’s economy and natural beauty. As in the U.S., Coca-Cola replaced glass bottles with single-use plastic in Tanzania.
The documentary includes an interview with a foreman at a Coca-Cola bottling warehouse who directs the distribution of what looks like millions of single-use plastic bottles to be sold. He assures the “Plastic Tide” interviewers that the bottles are what consumers want and present no problems. “It’s all good,” he says.
Then viewers see a 50-year-old woman scavenging for plastic along plastic-strewn areas in Tanzania, adding each discarded piece to a huge bag she is carrying to contain them. We are told she does this every day to feed her family and earns about 2 Euros a day for her effort.
There is little money in collecting plastic anymore, she tells the interviewer; the market for plastic has really fallen off. The impoverished woman living on pennies from plastic waste is no doubt referring to the world wide implications of China refusing, in 2017, to accept any more of the world’s plastic waste. Having no place to sell plastic waste for recycling has affected poor and rich countries alike.
No Recycling System in Place, Admits Coca-Cola Official
When a documentary representative shows him photos from plastic-polluted Tanzania, Goltzman again has no clear answers. “I don’t like looking at those clips,” he admits, but adds that he is not aware of any systems for addressing Coke’s plastic pollution in Tanzania. He’s not even aware of why such a system is not in place. He sounds baffled. “We don’t see a world without plastic,” he admits at the same time he tries to assure that Coke has a plan in place, but not yet implemented.
Nor was Goltzman able to answer why a commitment in a Coca-Cola document in 2008 to have all Coke bottled beverages contain 25% recycled plastic by 2015 was not met.
Further chipping away at the credibility of the soft drink giant, Helene Bourges of Greenpeace says in “Plastic Tide: Choking on Coke” that despite the company’s claim that 12% of their product is made from recycled plastic, only 7% actually is. Clearly, Coca-Cola, which sells 120 billion plastic bottles a year, according to the documentary, is playing fast and loose with the truth.
Plastic Is a Threat to Life Everywhere
Plastic pollution is pervasive, infiltrating water and food supplies and adversely affecting the environment, on which humanity depends for food, water and natural resources, and the solution to this problem cannot be placed solely on consumers “doing the right thing” with the plastic products they buy. Clearly, companies like Coca-Cola need to face the facts as well — and at bare minimum live up to its own promises.
Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Researchers estimate a single plastic coffee pod may take up to 500 years, the duration of the Roman Empire. While the impact of plastic tends to be focused on manufacturing and/or disposal, a report by the Center for International Environmental Law, in partnership with six other environmental organizations, finds:
“… that each of those stages interacts with others, and all of them interact with the human environment and the human body in multiple, often intersecting, ways.”
The report associates plastics with numerous forms of cancer, neurological, reproductive and developmental toxicities, as well as diabetes, organ malfunctions and a significant impact on eyes and skin. Although it appears plastic is cheap and convenient, Graham Forbes, global plastics project leader for Greenpeace, points out that the true cost is reflected in how:
“Plastics are harming or killing animals around the globe, contributing to climate change and keeping us dependent on fossil fuels, entering our air, water, and food supplies, and seriously jeopardizing human health throughout their lifecycle.”
Recycling Is Vastly Underutilized
Only 8% of plastic is ever recycled, and even then, some of the items tossed in the recycling bin may never make it to the recycling center. Some end up contaminating entire loads of recyclables that would otherwise have gone on to other uses.
While it’s best to verify guidelines for your local facility, anything smaller than a Post-it note cannot be sorted properly, so unless you screw on bottle tops it’s better to throw them away. Bubble padded envelopes, wax paper and diapers are not recyclable.
Paper cups with shiny coatings or paper food bowls with plastic lining will not be accepted. For ways to become a recycling expert, see my previous article, “Top 11 Tips to Become an Expert at Recycling.”
What Can You Do to Reduce Your Use
Still, while improved recycling is part of the answer, it’s unlikely to be enough. The use of plastic needs to be reduced at the front end as well. Companies like Coca-Cola would do well to return to glass bottles, for example, rather than insisting on plastic bottles.
Even if all glass is not recycled, it’s an inert substance that is not going to poison the earth for centuries to come. Aside from urging Coke and other beverage makers to use glass bottles, and avoiding beverages sold in plastic, you can also have a positive impact on plastic pollution by:
|Using reusable shopping bags for groceries and reusable produce bags for fresh produce|
|Taking your own leftovers container to restaurants|
|Bringing your own mug for coffee, and bringing drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water|
|Requesting no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning|
|Avoiding disposable utensils and straws|
|Opting for nondisposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic|
|Avoiding processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags|