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Were Coke's recycling efforts a victim of its own anti-deposit lobbying?

It is difficult to find people in the plastics recycling industry who will criticize The Coca-Cola Company on record, but my conversations this week with a handful of plastics recyclers made clear they think Coke's much-hyped bottle recycling efforts in Spartanburg, SC, were done-in by the company's own lobbying against bottle deposit laws. The law of unintended consequences is in play, they say.

Clare Goldsberry

September 1, 2011

4 Min Read
Were Coke's recycling efforts a victim of its own anti-deposit lobbying?

The problems Coke has been having with its PET bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg have been covered well by our competitor Mike Verespej of Plastics News and recently in the Wall Street Journal. That latter newspaper's article about the issues with Coke's "bottle-to-bottle" recycling plant in Spartanburg, SC, shut down earlier this year from a lack of PET material to recycle [Friday, August 19, 2011, pg. B1], went so far as to predict that Coke's joint venture with United Resource Recovery Corp. (URRC) is on the rocks. The WSJ reported that Coke is even thinking about selling its 49% stake in the company.

The Spartanburg recycling plant was to become the world's largest plastic bottle-to-bottle recycling plant with annual recycling capacity of about 100 million pounds of recycled PET. The plant opened in 2009 with a $50 million investment from Coke, shut down in March 2011 but was reopened the week of Aug. 22, after some reorganization and modification of equipment. Sources in the recycling industry who spoke on condition of anonymity offered me their take on why the facility is having so many troubles.

First, the plant was not allowed to source bottles from states with bottle deposit laws, which meant it had to use bales of bottles from non-deposit states. This meant the recyclate often was composed of extremely dirty bottles. Why so dirty? One recycler explained that in states with no bottle deposit, PET bottles either are thrown away with the rest of the trash or, if a city has a recycling program, the bottles are often put in with newspapers, glass, and a variety of other plastics, which means that the bottles are pretty dirty when they are baled. Cleaning them becomes both a major cost and a major problem.

The problem of these bales of dirty bottles from non-deposit states was exacerbated by the company's choice of recycling equipment, according to another source. The URRC facility in Spartanburg made the "wrong equipment choice," he said. There basically are two methods in bottle recycling: one method washes the bottles while they are whole to clean them and remove the labels, after which the bottles are chopped and processed.

The other method chops the bottles into small pieces while still dirty, and then washes them. Air is blown through the flake to separate dirt and paper from the plastic flakes. However, not only are the bottles from the non-deposit states dirtier, but as bottles have become even more light-weight, the air method not only blows away the paper and the dirt but the plastic flake as well.  

Combine the choice of using only bottles from non-deposit states with the choice of the processing method, and choice of equipment, said one source, and the result is the URRC site has had difficulty getting enough flake to meet Coke's goal of 10% recycled content in its bottles.

In states that charge a 5-cent bottle deposit, people tend to care for the bottles so they can get their deposit back, which results in the bales of recyclate being more "pristine," said another source. "In non-deposit states it's a pretty disgusting bale, and that's the beginning of the problems."

Okay, so we need to provide "value" to plastic bottles. After all, it worked for glass decades ago.  But who is the major culprit in stalling the implementation of bottle deposit bills in most of the states?  Well, say sources, "had Coca-Cola not been so married to preventing bottle deposit bills," then it might have cleaner bales and hence cleaner flake and more recycled materials for its bottle-to-bottle recycling facility. 

However, since Coke was the "obstruction" to bottle deposit bills, it's "sinful for them to allow or admit they need to resort to using deposit-state bottles to keep their business running," said this source. "Now they're up against finding a way to make non-deposit state bottles work."

Ultimately, all the people in the industry I spoke with say that there is no shortage of bottles. In fact, most say there are a tremendous number of bottles that can be recycled, but the only way they'll end up in a recycling facility is to "artificially inflate the value of the bottles." PET bottles have a worth and by some estimates of those in the recycling business, there are an estimated 500 million lbs. of scavenged bottles, most of which are exported to China for re-use in the textile (polyester) industry or converted into strapping or other non-food contact applications. 

Plenty of supply, maybe, but you'll not see many people scavenging for PET bottles in the 44 states that have no bottle deposit. Where plastic bottles are worth something, scavengers will go to great lengths to recover bottles, even stealing them from recycling bins.

When Coca-Cola says it has no bottles to recycle, "it's the most cynical of excuses," said one source. "They spent millions lobbying against bottle bills so that their product wouldn't be more expensive and discourage consumption.  A half dozen [states] have risen above it, but most have succumbed to the pressure of the beverage companies."

What do you think---would bottle deposit legislation better promote plastics recycling in the U.S.?

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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