Talking trash: why, Coke not Pepsi?

by Richard Anthony


grew up in Los Angeles, California. I spent my most of my summers working at my Dad's 76 Gas Station on the corner of Florence and Crenshaw Blvd. One of my jobs was to make sure all the Coke bottles from the Coke machine got back onto the rack. If the customer wanted to take the Coke with them, I was to get the deposit.

I had a key to the Coke machine. There was a place in the machine, by the cooling units, which would almost freeze two Cokes at a time. On hot August dog days in LA, we would take a break and sit on the curb with our ice cold Cokes and listen to the Dodger game on the radio.

William Rathje, garbologist from Arizona, has dug up landfills all over the country for various clients. He speaks at recycling conferences. I listened to him tell an audience at a California Resource Recovery Association Conference that he had evidence that "people who throw out Coke containers read Democratic newspapers, people who throw out Pepsi containers read Republican newspapers, and people who drink Dr. Pepper don't read newspapers." Critics who have heard this say the data is skewed, as some of the landfills sampled were in the South and that in some areas of the South you couldn't get a Pepsi if you wanted one.

Coca-Cola has always been a player in building the recycling infrastructure in California. Product is always available for functions regarding recycling and litter cleanup. In the early nineties, during the great California recycling rush to meet the 25 percent diversion mandate, Coke was an advertiser for the 1994 USA World Cup Soccer matches with a TV viewing audience of an estimated 2 billion people. I wrote a letter to Coke suggesting that Coke do a commercial showing a soccer team collecting PET Coke bottles for recycling and using the money to buy uniforms. The last scene is a shot on goal, the ball turning into a PET bottle of Coke and the coach pouring drinks for all. "Coke recycles for the future."

I never heard from Coke. However, at the National Recycling Congress that year, E. Gifford Stack of the National Soft Drink Association told me that Coca-Cola would never use recycling to sell product. I was surprised when Bill Sheehan reported recently on Greenyes that he had seen a sign in Memphis with the slogan "Coke recycles."

I have a product loyalty to Coke. I have great memories of the ice cold glass refillable Coke bottle. I read Democratic newspapers. When I was a Recycling Coordinator, I used this product in aluminum cans, to reward volunteers at public beautification and recycling events.

I even thought at one time that with the recyclable PET container, Coke had done everything right. We even used the 2-liter bottle to make miniature landfills for science projects. Where does product loyalty end and consumer responsibility begin?

Coke told the recycling industry that the PET bottle was the container of the future. They announced that Coke would use recycled PET for future containers. Instead, they made more money by realizing a windfall: as virgin PET prices dropped below recycled PET prices, Coke bought virgin PET. Meanwhile, the investment made by the recycling industry to create the infrastructure needed to provide the recycled PET supply that Coke was going to need was underutilized. Bit by bit, over the last decade, it has been shut down and dismantled.

California has a container deposit system, so the redeemed deposit supports collection of PET. Recyclers in California have a certain comfort level provided by deposit legislation as it relates to the #1 PET plastic container. We are not anywhere near as tolerant of other plastic containers. The tough but light and airtight qualities that make the PET container great for distributors and retailers are problems for the recycler. Several plastic recycling plants have been shut down in California over the last few years.

Recyclers in other states that don't have deposit laws are dying a slow death as this plastic takes over packaging products that used be packaged in aluminum and glass. In some areas, recycled PET has almost no market value. Coke, however, is oblivious to the impact they have had on the recycling industry. They appear not to care.

They may not understand. The same executive, Ivester, who promised to use recycled PET, is now the Chairman of the Board. McDonald's was slow to move in regard to the Styrofoam clam shell hamburger container until school children with picket signs surrounded franchises in several cities, protesting the environmental impact of overpackaging. Farm workers' issues were finally addressed when people all over the world refused to buy head lettuce. Somehow, Coca-Cola must be made to understand that product loyalty has its limits.

Where I live, the only large size bulk Cola you can buy is packaged in PET. Whatever happened to the quart glass bottle, or the 16-ounce refillable glass container? Although we like our Cola, we want to buy it at the lowest price and the aluminum can is not always the cheapest option.

Yet, it does not seem that, after years of talking about it to the packaging industry, that they are willing to do anything about it. Our grocer wants to minimize breakage and not have to handle refillables. If we keep buying the package our grocer orders, we get our Cola the way the supermarket folks want to give it to us.

Coke makes 21 cents profit for each of the 50 million PET containers that are sold. A PET container with recycled content might cost one-tenth of a cent more, reducing the profit to 20.9 cents. It seems to me, the right thing to do is help sustain the recycling industry and take a little less profit.

So why, Coke not Pepsi? Both Coke and Pepsi promised to use recycled PET but Coke is number one, and they control the largest share of the market. If we persuade Coke to support recycling by buying recycled, the rest of the food industry will take notice.

I like Coke. We presently drink Diet Coke in two liter bottles. However, my product loyalty is not to the plastic container.

So, mail back your containers to Coke and ask them to keep their promise. The San Luis Obispo Integrated Waste Management Authority recommends mailing the containers to legislators. I have a personal problem giving my nickel deposit to Coke so I send non-deposit Coca-Cola products packaged in PET back to Coke.

I think we ought to consider advocating people not buying Coke in plastic containers that are not made with some recycled material content. Coke can force the PET manufacturers to produce the container it wants. If Coke makes a movement to respond, the industry will follow.

As recyclers and consumer activists, we need to make sure the products we like create zero waste. Conservation of resources and energy through source reduction, use of recycled material feedstocks and products designed for recyclability should be planned into the manufacturing and use of all products. When recyclers make our values known by what we buy, we help sustain life on the planet Earth. Coke will recycle in the future.

  Richard Anthony has been involved in Resource Conservation and Recovery since 1970, and is the Principal Manager for Richard Anthony Associates of San Diego, CA.