Like a Virgin

A Grassroots Group Pressures Coke to Use Recycled Plastic

“We're a little mosquito on the back hide of this $19 billion elephant,” says Bill Sheehan, national coordinator of the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), of the nonprofit advocacy group's relationship with Coca-Cola. Ever since the soft drink giant abandoned the use of recycled material in its plastic containers six years ago, GRRN has been steadily gnawing away at Coke's corporate image.

Every day, Coca-Cola sells 25 million virgin plastic bottles like these; GRRN is pushing for recycled content with campaigns (inset) asking the public to "Think before you drink Coca-Cola."Courtesy of GRRN

Coke's 1990 promise to use 25 percent post-consumer recycled plastic content in bottles sold in the U.S. was a considerable step in the right direction for the industry leader, which four years later took one giant leap backwards. Although it continues to use recycled plastic in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden, and even refillable bottles in France and Latin America, it reverted to relying entirely on virgin plastic for the U.S. market in 1994, while simultaneously introducing a single-serve 20-ounce bottle which incorporates more plastic still.

GRRN blames backsliding by Coca-Cola for the plummeting rate of recycling plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) soda bottles—from 53 percent in 1994 to 35.6 percent in 1998. Over 25 million of the PET Coke bottles are sold every day, totaling 10 billion bottles. That's 800 million pounds of virgin plastic, land-filled each year—plastic that could otherwise be incorporated into the manufacture of pillow stuffing, fleece jackets, carpets, auto parts, or more importantly, reformed into plastic Coke bottles, closing the manufacturing loop.

Closing the loop is something that GRRN, founded in 1996 as a North American network of recycling activists, is determined to see happen. “This is more important than just a big bunch of plastic bottles,” says Sheehan. “It's a way of raising the issue of the need for corporate accountability for waste, and the need for extended producer responsibility.”

Coca-Cola is not alone in its negligent corporate policy. Pepsi made the same promise, and likewise hasn't followed through. And while the American Plastics Council abandoned its goal to recycle 25 percent of rigid containers in 1996, citing cost, it spent $20 million to advertise the benefits of plastic that same year. “There are responsibilities that go along with leadership,” reminds Sheehan, “and Coke's the market leader. It's being irresponsible, and if the company wants to do that, it has to be prepared to deal with the consequences.”

“Think before you drink Coca-Cola” was the message delivered in full-page ads in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, urging consumers to call a company hotline and mail crushed two-liter bottles back with the message to “Use it again!” Long-distance phone company Working Assets also joined the campaign, printing action alerts on the phone bills of over 300,000 customers; local governments in Florida, Minnesota and California passed resolutions targeting Coke's recycling waste; and socially responsible investors such as The As You Sow Foundation have asked the company to stop its ardent lobbying against bottle bills. (In bottle bill states, 78 percent of beer and soda containers are recovered, as opposed to 38 percent elsewhere.)

GRRN's Coke campaign has most recently added the momentum of a “dirty job boycott” from students at 150 universities, and a 20-foot inflatable Coke bottle that has made appearances across the country at events from the Washington, D.C. Earth Day rally to the Superbowl.

According to GRRN, Coke could produce a 20-ounce bottle made with 25 percent recycled plastic for only about a 10th of a cent more than virgin plastic, using recycling techniques already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Yet in March, the only concession from the company was to up its recycled content to 2.5 percent.

As the battle with Coke continues, GRRN has tackled a few other recycling offenders: Miller Brewing, for instance, which began test-marketing an amber-colored plastic beer bottle with aluminum caps and metalized labels in 1998.

The huge problem this poses for recycling systems burdened by sorting the colored bottles has inspired the support of local governments. The city of Los Angeles passed a resolution in February, requesting that Miller not only resolve the recycling issue before further marketing its bottle, and incorporate 25 percent recycled plastic into the manufacture, but for the city's Bureau of Sanitation to give Miller the bill that taxpayers would likely have to foot for recycling problems.

Along with Friends of the Earth, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Chicago-based Sustain, the nonprofit is taking on the federal government as well, charging that Congress runs one of the most poorly managed recycling programs in the U.S., and demanding that the nation's leaders at the very least play catch-up with the recycling practices of the rest of the country.

“Congress should be the role model for the nation on recycling; we shouldn't be asking the country to increase their recycling efforts when we do nothing to advance our own,” agreed Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, noting that Congressional offices are not required to comply with even the minimum standards for separating trash.

According to the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, three-quarters of the waste collected in House buildings last year—nearly five million pounds of paper—was too contaminated with food waste, metals, glass, plastics and medical waste to recycle. House leadership had eliminated recycling requirements in the fiscal year 2000 Legislative Appropriations Bill, costing U.S. citizens the loss of recycling revenue (an estimated $300,000 last year) and the added expense of landfill fees.

Corporate and Congressional offenders alike are still but building blocks to GRRN's larger goal: to eliminate waste at the source, rather than manage its outcome. The organization has been spearheading the North American arm of a growing international movement that promotes Zero Waste, a radical resource efficiency that comes about through reducing consumption and maximizing reuse and recycling.

“The power of GRRN is that it doesn't have to compromise,” says Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, the largest nonprofit recycler in the U.S. “GRRN is a group of people from the trenches, not your ivory tower types, who know you change the world one company, one electoral office, one country at a time.”

If the goal of Zero Waste were as aggressively pursued in the U.S. as it is elsewhere (Canberra, Australia has aimed to eliminate waste completely by 2010), it could have big ramifications, not only for land use, but for climate change as well. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cutting the amount of waste created in the U.S. back to 1990 levels, and increasing our national recycling rate from its current level of 28 percent to 35 percent, would slash greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to that produced by the annual electricity consumption of roughly 11 million households, or by taking seven million cars off the road.

Although increasing recycling rates is certainly a priority, GRRN is looking beyond the weight of a few billion containers

to a much larger—and heavier—issue.