THE tab of the soda can is pulled off, before it’s tilted toward a glass filled with ice. The fizz is always mesmerising, a thirst-quenching lullaby on a blistering hot day. Coca-Cola or Coke remains the perennial favourite and is recognised as the world’s most valuable brand, often associated with happiness. What else could constitute happiness than a tall glass of iced coke on a sunny day? A noteworthy fact – Coca-Cola means “Delicious Happiness” in Mandarin!
It was Andy Warhol who put it bluntly: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”
The product that has given the world its best-known taste was first birthed in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 8, 1886. A local pharmacist named Dr John Stith Pemberton produced the syrup for Coca-Cola, and carried a jug of the new product down the street to Jacobs’ Pharmacy, where it was sampled, pronounced “excellent” and placed on sale for five cents a glass as a soda fountain drink.
Carbonated water was teamed with the new syrup to produce a drink that was at once “Delicious and Refreshing”, a theme that continues to echo today wherever Coca-Cola is enjoyed. In its maiden debut that year, Pemberton sold an average of nine servings of Coca-Cola each day. Today, that number has increased to 1.9 billion servings of the company’s products!
With a strong balance sheet and reliable cash flows from its traditional carbonated soft drinks business — where it is a market leader — Coca-Cola certainly isn’t going away. But the shifting times and seasons have led this world brand leader to one of its most challenging season yet.
Coca-Cola has long been the target of environmentalists. After all, it has reputedly a massive ecological footprint that few companies can match — and packaging forms a big part of the story.
For Coca-Cola’s senior director of environmental policy, Dr Ben Jordan, Coke is on track in mitigating its environmental impact. Jordan was in Kuala Lumpur to speak at the 2018 ISWA (International Solid Waste Association) Congress and Plasticity Malaysia sustainability conference held recently, on Coke’s ambitious new packaging vision called World Without Waste.
THE ISSUE OF WASTE
Ever since the technology to engineer polymers in creating plastic on a mass scale was introduced in the 1950s, this by-product of the petrochemical industry has spread to almost every manufacturing process. The ubiquitous plastic soon seeped insidiously into our daily lives and has become near impossible to avoid. It exists in our clothes, containers, bottles, electronics, food trays, cups and paints. Our cars depend on it, so do our computers, roofs and drain pipes. It’s the global packaging material of choice. We sleep on it, wear it, watch it, and are in direct bodily contact with it in one form or other all day and night.
On the onset, it seemed to have profound societal benefits. However, there’s a catch – this most successful (and useful) of all man-made materials somehow sticks around for centuries. When exposed to sunlight, oxygen or the action of waves, it doesn’t biodegrade but simply fragments into smaller and smaller bits, until microscopic or nano-sized particles enter the food chain, the air, the soil and the water we drink. There seems to be no getting rid of plastics from our environment.
The massive and worrying increase of plastic waste in our oceans and increasingly in our food chain, speaks of our increasing dependency on throwaway items like single-use plastic bottles. More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago. Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just seven per cent of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead, most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.
Between five million and 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms. By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. According to environmental activist group Greenpeace, the largest beverage manufacturer, Coca-Cola reportedly manufactured more than 110 billion plastic bottles in 2016.
COMMITMENT TO THE ENVIRONMENT
“No one’s arguing that there’s an issue. Everyone accepts that there’s an issue,” begins Jordan bluntly, adding: “We, as global brands and small regional brands as well, have helped create the problem. Now let’s be at the forefront of solutions to the problem.”
The Coca-Cola Company, Jordan says, will work with a host of partners in the coming years to deliver its “World Without Waste” packaging vision, which includes collecting and recycling a bottle or can for every drink it sells globally by 2030, and renewing its focus on the entire packaging lifecycle.
“‘World Without Waste’ is our new global approach to sustainable packaging,” he explains, adding: “We’ve been involved in sustainable packaging for many years. In fact, if you go back to the late 1960s and early ’70s, we were the first company to conduct an environmental life cycle assessment on packaging.” Back in those days, he says, it was about litter reduction and keeping litter off the highways.
But it’s time to do more, he concedes. “The issue of packaging waste – and specifically marine debris – is more visible, and more of a threat to our planet than ever. The world has a packaging problem, and we – like other companies – have a responsibility to help solve it and ensure bottles and cans don’t end up where they don’t belong,” says Jordan, adding after a pause: “We want to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. Our consumers expect us to lead the way. So we are.”
According to Jordan, a team of more than 30 people across the global system – a mix of associates from corporate, business units out in the field and Coca-Cola’s bottling partners – had been working on this strategy since August last year. “Our leadership has been extremely involved, and we shared it with several external stakeholder groups, who provided input before launch. We also considered other inputs based on evolving stakeholder, regulatory, consumer and customer expectations,” reveals Jordan.
The strategy he says, comprise a three-pillar action framework. Design – where Coca-Cola aims to put out more sustainable packaging out in the market place. By 2025, the company aims to only put out packaging that are 100 per cent recyclable; Collect – After the consumer enjoys the product, to ensure that the packaging comes back for recycling; Partner – Coca-Cola believes in the value of partnership. “By working with our bottling partners, reputable non-governmental organisations, local communities and consumers, we’ll find the best path forward – market-by-market – as we work to meet these goals,” he shares.
Recyclable packaging is key to their “World Without Waste” strategy which involves rethinking how bottles and cans are designed and made, and how they’re recycled and repurposed. “Because our business is dependent on bottles and cans, we embrace our share of responsibility to help ensure that the world has a more sustainable packaging system in place. We’re hopeful that this will be good for our business and the communities where we operate,” says Jordan.
The affable father-of-two is passionate about the environment. With a PhD in Environmental Policy, he has been spearheading issues like climate change, packaging and agriculture within Coca-Cola.
“My love for nature began while I was growing up in a peach farm back in rural Georgia,” he reveals, grinning. “I came from an outdoorsy family and I spent a lot of my growing-up years out in the woods and developed a real appreciation for nature. When I got into the university and was deciding on what specialty to get into, it was a pretty easy decision to get into environmental engineering!”
Soon after obtaining his Masters, Jordan joined The Coca-Cola Company and never looked back. “I did go back to school after 10 years to get my PhD though!” he adds, chuckling.
As a company dedicated to growth with conscience, Jordan says that Coca-Cola’s packaging initiatives is an addition to the company’s legacy of work on water replenishment and sugar reduction, “…because it’s right for our world and our business,” he attests, adding: “This initiative on packaging is just as critical as our work on beverage choice. Particularly as we expand or grow in many types of packaging, now is the time to expand our efforts in this area.”
Still, littering isn’t merely an issue exacerbated by manufacturers alone. “People around the world expect us to help lead the way toward solving this global challenge, but they recognise we can’t do it alone. No one can. They also understand everyone has a part to play, and that companies like us can help make that easier to do,” he says.
“Stop littering,” concludes Jordan, emphatically. “It’s been said again and again. “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. Reuse when you can, recycle when you can’t and choose sustainable materials. Don’t litter and keep your waste out of the environment.”