Coca-Cola’s green drive in SA skids on plastic scarcity

Balance: Coca-Cola wants to increase recycling but innovations such as making bottles thinner come with problems — they’re safe to drink but lose their fizz faster and that upsets consumers. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Balance: Coca-Cola wants to increase recycling but innovations such as making bottles thinner come with problems — they’re safe to drink but lose their fizz faster and that upsets consumers. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Consumer perceptions and a shortage of recycled polyethylene tere-phthalate (rPET) are just some of the factors restricting Coca-Cola Bottling South Africa from increasing the recycled plastic content in their carbonated drink bottles.

The company, which produces more than a billion rPET bottles of carbonated soft drinks a year, currently uses 10% rPET in its bottles and is able to go up to 25%. Despite this, the company is aiming for only 13% rPET content in its bottles because it does not have enough recycled plastic to feed production higher than this level, according to John-Paul Blumenthal, Coca-Cola’s South Africa’s energy and sustainability manager.

The company is also working on reducing the amount of plastic used to make their bottles, a process called lightweighting.

In the past 11 years Coca-Cola has reduced the weight of its two-litre bottles from 54g to 45.7g. As of this week, Blumenthal said, Coca-Cola would produce the lightest Coca-Cola two-litre bottle in the world at 41.8g, which will be rolled out over the next six months.

He said that with improved blowing technology — the act of stretching preformed PET bottles into bigger containers — and process control, the 2.25-litre bottles that weigh 49g will also be reduced to 45.7g.

“We are always very mindful to say we are running with the absolute minimum capacity in a bottle and, at the same time, we are driving up the content of recycled plastic,” said Blumenthal.

Casper Durandt, head of technical for Coca-Cola South Africa, said: “Lightweighting makes sense. In that [in the] reduce, reuse, recycle [process] — reduce comes first. We have to use less packaging and that’s what this is. The less packaging you use, the less material you have to recover.”

But thinner bottles pose a problem for the product’s shelf life because it affect show long the bottle holds onto carbon dioxide (CO2), which provides the fizz in the drink.

Blumenthal said that, although shelf life has nothing to do with whether the product is safe for consumption, it has everything to do with the consumer’s experience, because “no one likes a flat Coke”.

Currently the 45.7g two-litre bottles have a shelf life of 14 days.

But the challenges of CO2 retention apply only to carbonated drinks. For still water, Blumenthal said Coca-Cola had plans to “dramatically” reduce the weight of these bottles — by up to 40%.

Consumer perceptions of light-weight bottles are also a problem because people tend to see heavier bottles as being more desirable. “I think it’s our responsibility to change perceptions and say ... a water bottle that is so light[should be seen] as premium,” he said.

Durandt said consumer perceptions and marketing hampered Coca-Cola’s efforts to increase recycling,particularly of coloured PET bottles such as the brown Stoney and green Sprite bottles.

Coloured bottles can be recycled but, said Durandt, it is more costly and the recycled material has a “lower value end-use”.

He said South Africa had to follow the example of global counterparts such as Japan, where it is illegal to use coloured PET bottles.

There are many problems with removing the colour from bottles,he said. People may not like the visual appearance of a drink in clear bottle — for instance, “the Stoney drink looks like urine”.

Coca-Cola South Africa has other methods to reduce its waste footprint over the next few years.

The company has pledged to produce 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. It will also recover 100% of the tonnes of packages it produces and will use 50% recycled content in packaging by 2030.

Durandt said that, although 50% by 2030 did not seem ambitious, it was not that easy to achieve because quality problems arise from processes such as mixing virgin plastic with recycled material and ensuring that the recycled material is decontaminated.

Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University.  Read more from Tebogo Tshwane

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