Coke could help save oceans from plastic — by keeping its promise

The company defines how we drink beverages. It could also shape how we save our oceans by using more refillable bottles.

Coca Cola plastic bottles or seen on the production line of the Coca Cola factory in Nairobi, Kenya, June 7, 2018. Picture taken June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Coca-Cola plastic bottles on the production line of the company's factory in Nairobi, Kenya [File: Baz Ratner/Reuters]

Last February, Coca-Cola, one of the world’s largest plastic polluters, announced a new global goal. It said that 25 percent of all of its products would be sold in reusable and refillable packaging by 2030.

That commitment, if met, could keep billions of single-use plastic bottles from polluting the world’s waterways and oceans while also reducing the company’s carbon footprint. At a time when Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the upcoming COP27 climate change conference has drawn criticism from environmental activists, working towards making this important promise a reality could help the company show that it means what it says.

Unfortunately, a key ingredient needed for Coca-Cola to keep its vow is missing so far: a parallel commitment from the company’s big bottlers to also raise their refillable sales to higher levels. Without that, there’s good reason to believe that the beverage giant’s pledge may not be met and will only be another broken promise.

Single-use plastic bottles, which the beverage industry refers to as “one-ways,” are designed to be used once and then are thrown into recycling bins, garbage cans or the environment. Refillable bottles are designed to be reused. Consumers pay a deposit for the bottles and return them to the store or collection point where they are retrieved by the company, washed, refilled and resold. Before the advent of one-ways, all beverages were sold in refillable bottles.

Big brands moved away from reuse and refill systems and it’s clear, now, that this was bad for the oceans. The tide needs to now turn towards increasing refillables and decreasing single-use plastic bottles.

Glass refillable bottles are reused as many as 50 times and plastic refillable bottles 25 times. The case for refillables is straightforward: Reusing and reselling one bottle 25 times means not making 24 additional single-use bottles.

Oceana analysed market and scientific data and found that just a 10 percent increase in refillables in all coastal countries in place of single-use plastic bottles could keep as many as 7.6 billion plastic bottles out of the world’s waterways and seas. Given the catastrophic level of marine plastic pollution the world over, this is critically important. Studies have estimated that 55 percent of seabird species, 70 percent of marine mammal species, and 100 percent — yes all — of sea turtle species have ingested or become entangled in plastic.

Unfortunately, recycling will not solve this problem. Scientific reports have estimated that only nine percent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Putting more recycled content into a single-use plastic bottle doesn’t meaningfully change the bottle’s likelihood of adding to pollution and finding its way into the world’s waterways and seas (think of all the plastic bottles you’ve seen littered in yards, fields, beaches, rivers and elsewhere).

Coca-Cola’s new commitment is critical for the oceans because the company defines how we buy beverages. It sells one out of every five beverages purchased worldwide – nearly double the market share of the company’s closest competitor, Pepsi.

Coca-Cola is also the leader in selling refillables around the world. Globally, the company currently sells 16 percent of its beverages in reusable and refillable packaging. Refillables are most common in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In the Philippines, for instance, nearly half of everything the company sells is in refillable bottles. However, in some markets, like the United States and the United Kingdom, refillable bottles are practically non-existent.

Refillables, according to industry analysts, also make profound business sense. They are often the most affordable option for customers over time as they only pay for the bottle once. This affordability helps sales in tough economic times. The share of refillables actually grew in Latin America during the pandemic from 27 percent in 2020 (pdf) to more than a third in 2021 (pdf).

And customers like them. Because refillables are cheaper. And because at least some prefer the taste and drinking experience of soft drinks in refillable bottles. The popularity of “Mexican Coke,” is, according to some observers, due to the bottle rather than the sweetener.  The bottles feel more substantial, and can hold carbonation longer than single-use bottles. Well-managed refillable systems – according to bottlers – also use less water.

However, Coca-Cola’s largest bottlers — who actually determine the packaging in which the company’s beverages are sold — have so far, for the most part, made no public commitments to meaningfully increase refillable sales. The only large bottler to do so is Coca-Cola Andina –- one of the biggest beverage distributors in Latin America.

Corporations must take responsibility for plastic pollution and fix the problem they have created. Coca-Cola won’t make its refillable pledge a reality unless the company and its partners step up. The company needs the largest bottlers in the world to make meaningful and serious commitments to increase the share of refillables: companies like FEMSA, the largest bottler in the world (with operations in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina); Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (western Europe, Indonesia and Southeast Asia); Arca Continental (Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Texas) and Swire (China, Vietnam and the western United States). Coca-Cola and its bottlers need to also aggressively market the plastic-reducing benefits and other advantages of refillables to consumers – something they haven’t done yet.

Our oceans need Coca-Cola to achieve its goal and with the help of its bottlers to significantly grow the use of refillables around the world. Meeting this promise will help ensure that billions of plastic bottles don’t pollute and devastate our seas for many years to come.

We could all drink to that.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.