Beverage brands’ recycled content pledges don’t go far enough to protect aquatic environments

New research finds leading beverage giants’ recycled content goals won’t address 93% of aquatic plastic bottle pollution. 

The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, and Keurig Dr Pepper – the top five beverage companies in the world and most of which market ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee and/or tea products – have pledged to increase post-consumer recycled content in their polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET) bottles by targets ranging mostly from 25 to 50% by 2025. However, a new study, The Impact of Beverage Brand Commitments for Recycled Content on the Flow of Plastic Bottles into Aquatic Environments, commissioned by Oceana, the largest international advocacy organisation dedicated to ocean conservation, has exposed a weakness in these plastic recycled content pledges. 

The analysis, conducted by Eunomia Research & Consulting, found that if the top five beverage companies meet their pledges [authors of the report believe it’s far from certain that they will], these pledges would only reduce aquatic pollution from single-use plastic bottles by 7%. In response, Oceana is calling on major beverage companies to adopt or expand strategies that prioritise refillable bottles. 

“This report uncovers some worrying realities. It seems improbable that the recycled content pledges by large soft drink companies will be met and regardless, they won’t go far in helping the oceans,” said Dr Dana Miller, Oceana’s strategic initiatives director, said in a statement. “Adding more recycled content doesn’t stop a single-use plastic bottle from reaching the seas but replacing that bottle with one that will be reused does. Recycling alone is not the solution that our oceans need. Our oceans need us to return, refill, and reuse our bottles instead.” 

According to Eunomia’s analysis, to achieve Coca-Cola’s, Pepsi’s, Nestlé’s, Danone’s, and KDP’s target of increasing post-consumer recycled content in their PET bottles between 25 and 50% by 2025 would require collecting an additional 2.57 million tonnes (2.83 million US tons) of plastic bottles for recycling each year. However, there is no coherent strategy in any global region apart from Europe to reliably increase the supply of recycled PET for the production of bottles and achieving this would likely require significant government intervention. Recycled PET sourced from plastic bottles is also high in demand for other uses like making other plastic packaging, clothes and toys, and this demand is steadily growing. 

Of the approximately 511 billion PET bottles used in 2018 in the 93 coastal countries included in the analysis, an estimated 35.8 billion bottles entered aquatic systems. Eunomia found that even if the companies could live up to their pledges, their current commitments would have little impact on reducing aquatic plastic pollution. This is largely because bottles used for recycling are expected to predominantly be derived from already collected and managed waste streams rather than from mismanaged waste or littering. Per the report, on this basis, if all brands reached their stated targets, 33.4 billion bottles (93%) would keep flowing into rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

“Our study found that significantly reducing the flow of used PET bottles to aquatic environments requires collection infrastructure to be introduced in places where none currently exists,” project director for Eunomia, Chris Sherrington, stated in a release. “While increased demand for recycled content can be expected to lead to a greater focus on obtaining used bottles, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this will all translate into the establishment of new collection infrastructure while opportunities continue to exist to divert already collected bottles from going to landfill or incineration.” 

Eunomia’s study also discusses how to increase the beverage sector’s collection rates, including the use of refillable bottles. In 2020, Oceana published a report which found that increasing the market share of refillable bottles by just 10% in all coastal countries in place of single-use PET bottles could reduce PET bottle marine plastic pollution by as much as 22%. If major soft drink companies truly want to reduce the billions of plastic bottles entering the oceans each year, Oceana is calling on them to provide a refillable option to consumers worldwide. 

Dr Miller added, “Leading soft drink brands need to stop distracting consumers concerned about ocean plastic pollution with pledges about recycled content. The companies responsible for this crisis facing the oceans need to focus more on solutions that can go further in tackling the problem — like refillable bottles.” [The worldwide non-alcoholic RTD market is driven by a small number of companies. According to Global Data, in 2018, just four companies accounted for over 40% of total sales.] 

Refillables have proven to be highly effective at reducing waste. Companies own, track, and collect these bottles, and people who buy refillable bottles typically return them to the place of purchase in exchange for a ‘bottle deposit’. The bottles are then collected, washed, refilled, and delivered back to stores where they can be purchased again. Refillable bottle systems create less plastic waste as each bottle can be used up to 20 times if PET or up to 50 times if glass. 

In February of this year, The Coca-Cola Company announced a major commitment to reach 25% reusable packaging by 2030, leading the way for other companies to follow suit. A month later, PepsiCo announced that they would be making their own time-bound goal on reusable and refillable bottles by the end of 2022. 

Although Oceana celebrates these announcements, the organisation underlines the importance of these commitments being met and for the companies to embrace refillable bottles as a core business strategy. To create meaningful change, Oceana is requesting that: 

  • The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Keurig Dr Pepper, Nestlé, Danone, other beverage brands, and the bottlers they work with to expand refillable systems in existing markets and create new major markets for refillables. 
  • Investors to seek investment opportunities with beverage companies and bottlers to fund the development and build-out of refillable bottle systems. 
  • Governments to introduce quotas for refillable bottles, mandatory sales of refillable bottles, and legal provisions to use universal bottles for different brands. 

T&CTJ discussed reusable and refillable programs as potentially viable options for reducing packaging waste within the coffee and industries in our March 2022 issue. To read the article, click here. 

Related content

Leave a reply

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal