Is Coca-Cola Serious About Returnable Bottles?

It is promising 25% of its bottles will be returnable by 2030.

Coke bottles


Back in 1970, Coca-Cola ran an ad for Earth Day announcing "this is the bottle for the age of ecology." The beverage company noted the returnable bottle makes 50 round trips and that's 50 fewer chances to add to the world's litter problems.

Coca-Cola ad

Coca-Cola / McMaster University

But as noted in an earlier post, Coca-Cola then did everything it could to kill returnable bottles, so it could centralize production and close all those labor-intensive local bottling companies around the country. It took a very efficient circular system and turned it into a linear "take-make-waste"—one that was much more profitable, thanks to subsidized highways for transport, cheap gas, and taxpayer-supported waste pickup and recycling.

But apparently, Coca-Cola is changing its tune: It recently announced that "by 2030, the company aims to have at least 25% of all beverages globally across its portfolio of brands sold in refillable/returnable glass or plastic bottles, or in refillable containers through traditional fountain or Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers. "

Coca-Cola has been offering returnable bottles in some South American markets for a few years. In Brazil, customers don't actually pay a deposit like Canadians do with their beer bottles, but get a discount when they return it to the store. According to Packaging Europe, they have a return rate above 90%. Retailers give the bottles back to Coca-Cola with the next delivery. The bottles are standardized across brands and are then washed, refilled, and re-branded. They last up to 25 cycles before being recycled.

According to Coca-Cola, its World Without Waste initiative has three pillars:

DESIGN: Make all of our primary consumer packaging recyclable by 2025. Use 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030.
COLLECT: Collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030.
PARTNER: Bring people together to support a healthy, debris-free environment.

The company claims: "By increasing our use of reusable packaging, we promote a circular economy as refillable containers have high levels of collection and are low-carbon-footprint beverage containers because the container collection is built into the beverage delivery model."

This is quite a change in tune for the company. Only two years ago Tim Brett, president of Coca-Cola Europe, said: "We don’t have a packaging problem. We have a waste problem and a litter problem. There is nothing wrong with packaging, as long as we get that packaging back, we recycle it and then we reuse it again." Brett essentially blames the victim—the consumer—for not recycling properly.

Do we dare admit that this is a new Coca-Cola? Listen to Ben Jordan, the senior director of packaging and climate at Coca-Cola:

“Reusable packaging is among the most effective ways to reduce waste, use fewer resources and lower our carbon footprint in support of a circular economy. We will continue to highlight markets that are leading the way with reusable packaging best practices, and to support other markets as they increase their use of reusable packaging."

In North America, Coca-Cola is partnering with Burger King and Terracycle "for a pilot program in select cities to reduce single-use packaging waste by offering reusable food containers and beverage cups."

Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Connecticut premises on the 50th anniversary of the product, 1936.
Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Connecticut on the 50th anniversary of the product, 1936.

Frederic Lewis / Archive Photos / Getty Images

We have written for years about how our lives have been co-opted by the convenience industrial complex that profited from turning petroleum and bauxite into disposable plastic and aluminum, and how recycling was invented to avoid mandated deposits. Coca-Cola used to have bottlers in almost every city with a totally circular economy but found it cheaper and much more profitable to ship fizzy flavored and sweetened water around the country and not have to worry about taking the bottle back, that's the customer's problem now.

Is Coca-Cola going to now start shipping empty PET bottles around North America and wash and refill them? I can't imagine it happening here. That's probably why they are only aiming for a 25% global target, and why we still need mandatory deposits on everything.