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

Mail & Guardian - - Business - Te­bogo Tsh­wane

Con­sumer per­cep­tions and a short­age of re­cy­cled polyethy­lene tereph­tha­late (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 JohnPaul 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 af­fects how 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 Co­caCola had plans to “dra­mat­i­cally” re­duce the weight of these bot­tles — by up to 40%.

Con­sumer per­cep­tions of light­weight 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 Co­caCola’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

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

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