- Coca-Cola has failed to meet many of its internal sustainability targets, a report by the Changing Markets Foundation found.
- The drinks giant pledged in 1990 to make its bottles from 25% recycled plastic – but 30 years later, this target hasn’t been met.
- Mars promises to make 30% of its plastic packaging from recycled content by 2025 through unproven chemical recycling, which has severe climate consequences, the report said.
- Coca-Cola told Business Insider it was committed to doing “more, faster,” and said its missed recycling target was an “an opportunity to learn.” Mars said it was “disappointed in the report and its assertions that Mars is not addressing this challenge.”
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In 1990, Coca-Cola set itself a target of selling drinks in bottles made from 25% recycled plastic — but even after reducing that target and pushing back the deadline, its bottles still only contain 10% recycled plastic, 30 years later.
The drinks giant, which is the world’s largest plastic polluter, producing 2.9 million metric tons of plastic packaging every year, has failed to meet many of its internal sustainability promises, and has opposed new environmental laws, a report by the Changing Markets Foundation published on Thursday found.
The foundation, which campaigns for sustainability within organizations, also found that some companies including food manufacturer Mars Incorporated rely heavily on unproven chemical recycling, which changes the chemical structure of used plastic so it replicates the properties of unused plastic. The report described this fast-growing alternative to traditional mechanical recycling as “a false solution” that can further damage the environment.
Mars vowed in 2019 to make 30% of its plastic packaging from recycled content by 2025 – but its packaging currently contains zero recycled content, the report said. The company says on its website the goal is “dependent on advancement of chemical recycling at pace,” suggesting that if it can’t scale up its chemical recycling facilities quickly enough, it may not be able to meet the target.
Mars also commits to making all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, but currently this figure is only 19%. The report argues that, even if it reached 100%, many companies don’t address the fact that “recyclable” products are not ultimately recycled. A lot of the plastic in the ocean is technically recyclable, it said.
The report analyzed voluntary commitments from the 10 biggest plastic polluters: Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever.
The Foundation researched how environmentally friendly the companies’ sustainability policies actually are, such as whether they are eradicating single-use plastics by simply replacing them with other single-use materials. For example, Coca-Cola pledged to stop using plastic straws by 2025, and Mars by 2020, but both appear to just be replacing these with other single-use materials such as paper, the report said.
False promises “easily warped, reframed, or ignored”
The foundation found varying levels of commitment between the companies, but concluded that, overall, they had heavily publicized a few small token projects to portray an illusion of sustainability. The report described this as “marketing greenwashing.”
The paper argued that “regardless of how ambitious voluntary commitments sound, most companies regard them as just paper promises, easily warped, reframed, or ignored while conveniently generating favorable headlines.”
Even when companies introduce sustainable practices, they often limit them to certain countries, the report said. Coca-Cola lobbied extensively against plans for a Scottish bottle deposit return scheme — where customers pay a small deposit on plastic bottles and are paid back when the bottles are returned — before changing its stance after heavy press backlash.
It produces one in five plastic bottles in the world and continues to fight against the introduction of the system in Kenya and the US state of Georgia, the report said.
PepsiCo also plans to make 50% of its plastic packaging from recycled materials in the EU by 2030, but has set a global target of only 25% by 2025, the report found.
The foundation also questioned the effectiveness of group initiatives, especially those founded by companies themselves.
Nearly 50 companies, including oil and gas companies, retailers, and consumer goods firms, have joined The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, founded in 2019. These members have committed $1.5 billion to the groups research, but invested more than 100 times this amount – $186 billion – into new petrochemical facilities between 2010 and 2017, and over a quarter of members generate an annual turnover of more than $45 billion, the report said.
Coca-Cola promises to learn from missed targets
A Coca-Cola spokesperson said the company is committed to do “more, faster” so that the business grows in the right way, and described missing its target to make its bottles from 25% recycled plastics as “an opportunity to learn.”
The company said it is “confident” about its goals to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one it sells by 2030, make its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025, and use 50% recycled material in its bottles and cans by 2030. Coca-Cola says it will achieve the goals by learning from past experience and engaging in partnerships such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to develop what it calls a “circular economy” by reducing waste in product design and manufacturing.
It added that bottles with 100% recycled plastic are currently available in 18 markets around the world, and that recently the local Coca-Cola businesses in Norway and Netherlands announced they are now using 100% recycled PET across their portfolio. In Great Britain, the Coca-Cola is preparing to announce that it has reached 50% recycled PET across its packaging, it said.
A Mars spokesperson said the company is “disappointed in the report and its assertions that Mars is not addressing this challenge.”
“Mars is committed to playing our role in delivering more sustainable packaging and advancing our Circular Packaging Plan. This is focused on reducing unnecessary packaging, redesigning the remainder for circularity, and investing to close the loop to help scale up waste management infrastructure.”
Mars said that it is “is absolutely committed to addressing this issue.”
“We have not advocated for the use of just one single strategy to address the challenge. Further, Mars is publicly on record regarding our support for extended producer responsibility schemes as a critical piece in addressing the challenge. Our participation in membership organizations is illustrative of this point: we can’t tackle this issue alone. The depth of the challenge demands partnership with other businesses, community and government to reduce packaging, to drive the system change required and maximize the collection, sorting and recycling of materials.”
PepsiCo did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.