Quick Guide: All You Need to Know About Coca-Cola and the Plastic Waste Crisis

Coca-Cola is arguably one of the world’s most beloved drinks. With its history of iconic advertisements, unique taste that has stood the test of time, and wide-scale cultural influence, the soda brand has maintained its preeminent status in the consumer market for decades.

Photo: Coca-Cola

In recent years, however, this warm fuzzy reputation has been tainted by the public’s growing concern for the environment. Amongst many behemoth companies, Coca-Cola has been ranked as the world’s biggest brand contributor to the plastic waste crisis. With this finding, the company has been sued by the Plastic Pollution Coalition and Earth Island Institution, as well has faced serious criticism from several environmental groups for their ongoing negligence.

You may be wondering just how bad can Coca-Cola products be if we all continue using them? Well, wonder no longer. Below is a quick guide to understanding the totality of Coca-Cola’s impact on the plastic crisis and what they’ve been doing in response.

What are Coca-Cola’s Products Made from?

When you break them down, Coca-Cola plastic products consist of polyethylene terephthalate plastic. Polyethylene terephthalate plastic (or PET plastic) is a plastic known for being light in weight, clear in color, highly flexible, and chemically strong. Due to these characteristics, it is particularly effective at keeping things fresh, and is thus generally accepted as the world’s packaging plastic of choice. Although studies have correlated PET plastics with certain health issues, it is still deemed the “better plastic”, because it is recyclable.

With this, you are probably wondering, how is Coca-Cola still ranked the world’s largest contributor to the plastic waste crisis if their products are made from recyclable plastics? The problem lies not so much in the recyclability of their products, but rather in the sheer amount of plastic they produce.

How Much Plastic Waste Does Coca-Cola Generate?

Let’s do a simple equation for this one:

In a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN, it was estimated that Coca-Cola produces 200,000 bottles per minute.

200,000 bottles every minute =

About 110,000,000 bottles a year + additional packaging = 

An estimated 3,000,0000 tons of plastic per year

Now that’s a whole lot of plastic! What’s tragic about all this plastic that Coca-Cola generates is that there is simply not enough recycling facilities to accommodate it. While Coca-Cola likes to tout about their products being 100% recyclable, it is estimated that, in truth, only about 29% of their bottles are recycled. Overall, based on national statistics, it is estimated that less than 10% of all the plastic they generate (now with packaging included) actually end up being recycled. 

This perhaps begs the question…

Where Do Coca-Cola Products End Up?

… Sadly, the answer is in the wrong places.

Photo: Packaging Digest

Of the great mass of plastic that Coca-Cola generates, the majority ends up in landfills, which are typically located in or around poorer communities. As poorer communities don’t have developed waste management systems, the plastic in these landfills end up piling up or being burned. In both cases, this results in toxin buildup in their water streams and air supplies, which disproportionately affects the livelihoods of those living in those communities. It is estimated that about 400,000 people globally die from health-issues directly correlated with the pollution from these landfills.

In addition to this, a considerable amount of plastic waste from Coca-Cola ends up in our oceans, where they pollute and poison our oceanic ecosystems. A 2019 plastic waste audit conducted globally by the charity Break Free from Plastic reported that Coca-Cola products were the most occurring brand in the ocean – accounting for more plastic waste than the three companies ranked behind them combined!

All of this plastic is said to affect over 340 species of marine life – most of which are dying  from strangulation, gut poisoning, and an increasingly unbalanced ecosystem that’s been created as a result of these unnatural deaths.

So… Why Hasn’t Coca-Cola Stopped Using Plastic?

As mentioned, Coca-Cola has been under a lot of fire for their large contribution to the plastic crisis. Given what we know about the immensity of their impact, it is hard to conceive why they haven’t yet abandoned their single-use plastic products.

Photo: EcoWatch

When asked by a BBC reporter to address this at the 2020 World Economic Forum, the company’s vice president, Beatriz Perez gave a rather unsettling response: because our consumers like our plastic products. She claimed that because consumers specifically like how lightweight and resealable Coca-Cola products are, changing their plastic product model would have significant repercussions in sales. Thus for the sake of consumers, they have to stick to their plastic models. Based on recent surveys, however, this claim has been unfounded.

What is perhaps the bigger reason why Coca-Cola is unwilling to get rid of its plastic model is that it’s simply easier and cheaper to produce and transport plastic products. It is actually predicted, based on current economic trends, that plastics are going to become even more cost-effective than they currently are in the coming decades – this news serving as a strong incentive to maintain its foothold in the plastic industry.

What are Coca-Cola’s sustainable initiatives?

Since the company won’t be making strides to abandon their plastic infrastructure in the foreseeable future, they have instead claimed they will focus more on recycling. Through their Collect-Recycle-Reuse initiative, they have pledged to ensure that all of their bottled products are collected and recycled by 2030. This sustainable initiative has been broken down into tree segments:

  • Creating partnerships with important stakeholders, nonprofits and local communities to establish recycling programs
  • Making all of their global packaging 100% recyclable [by 2025]
  • Producing all of their products from at least 50% recycled and plant-based materials recyclable [by 2030]

Even with this clear-cut plan, many are still unsatisfied with Coca-Cola’s efforts. This dissatisfaction mostly stems from recent reports that have shown that Coca-Cola is falling short of these goals.

To wrap things up, we hope that this overview has broadened your understanding of Coca-Cola’s involvement with the plastic crisis. Even more, we hope we have elucidated the breadth and gravity of this issue. To learn more how you can help this situation and can support ethical brands that are combating this crisis, check out our blog on (…) and download the Rebolt browser extension!