The bad news is that a Circular Economy may need to encompass oceans and waterways because plastics can end up there more often than anyone wants. The near-term encouraging news is that major brand users of plastic packaging are tapping marine environments as a resource for recovering debris as all parties feverishly figure out ways to keep plastics out of marine environments in the first place.
The latest is organization wading into marine plastics is Coca-Cola, which early in October unveiled its first bottle made using debris recovered and recycled from the Mediterranean Sea and beaches.
Done in partnership with Coca-Cola European Partners (Uxbridge, United Kingdom), the first-of-a-kind, proof-of-concept project yielded 300 bottles made using 25% recycled marine plastic demonstrating that one day even ocean debris could be used in recycled packaging for food or drinks.
Along with The Coca-Cola Company, the partnership involved Ioniqa Technologies (Eindhoven, The Netherlands), Indorama Ventures (Bangkok, Thailand), and Mares Circulares.
The bottles were designed and developed to show the transformational potential of revolutionary enhanced recycling technologies, which can recycle previously used PET plastics of any quality back to high-quality plastic that can be used for food or drink packaging, including material that would previously have been sent to incineration or landfill.
From fishermen to blocks to blowmolders
“This bottle is testament to what can be achieved, through partnership and investment in revolutionary new technologies,” says Bruno van Gompel, Technical and Supply Chain Director, Coca-Cola in Western Europe, telling PlasticsToday that the partnership network was foundational to the entire endeavor. “None of this would have been possible without close collaboration with a number of partners. For example, the marine plastic contained in the bottles was collected and recovered by fishermen in 12 ports across the Mediterranean Sea, as well as volunteers that participated in 84 beach clean ups in Spain and Portugal. This is part of our collaboration with the Mares Circulares or “Circular Seas” project, which aims to clean beaches and seabeds in Spain and Portugal, raise awareness of responsible waste disposal to stop litter from arriving in natural spaces, as well as facilitate related scientific studies to promote a circular economy.
“We then turned to experts at Ioniqa Technologies in the Netherlands—an innovator we’ve invested in to support its enhanced recycling technology—which can convert the marine plastic into the building blocks that can be later reformed into high-quality, food grade PET.
“Finally, to turn this material into the PET plastic required to make the first Coca-Cola bottle—and the world’s first prototype drinking bottle made with marine plastics—we worked with Indorama Ventures, one of Coca-Cola’s leading suppliers of PET plastic and packaging solutions.
“Thanks to the work and cutting-edge technologies of these partners, we were able to overcome the challenges that came with creating this revolutionary proof of concept.”
The bigger picture view
The implications of the project’s success are significant.
“Enhanced recycling technologies are enormously exciting, not just for us but for industry and society at large,” says van Gompel. “The answer to tackling the issue of plastic pollution lies in building a circular economy, and projects like this accelerate the goal where 100% of our primary packaging can be collected, recycled and reused, which is why we are investing behind in them.
As these begin to scale, we will see all kinds of used plastics returned, as good as new, not just once but again and again, diverting waste streams from incineration and landfill.”
The pilot has significant implications for Coca-Cola’s business and other brand owners in the food and drink industry.
“Our marine plastic bottle shows that even the most damaged plastic can now be recycled back to the highest quality packaging needed for food and drink,” van Gompel explains. “The technology is still in its very early stages and, in the immediate term, will be introduced at commercial scale by using waste streams from existing recyclers, including previously unrecyclable plastics and lower-quality recyclables. “By 2020, we plan to include this enhanced recycled content in some of our bottles.
“Using this groundbreaking technology will allow us to reduce the levels of single-use plastic going to landfill in the first place, which is an important step in turning off the tap in terms of plastics entering our oceans and rivers.”
Next: Coca-Cola Europe’s larger sustainable program
The ocean plastic news came as The Coca-Cola Company announced new goals, in partnership with Coca-Cola European Partners, to support its ambition for a world without packaging waste.
In 2017, as part of their joint Sustainability Action Plan, Coca-Cola European Partners and Coca-Cola in Western Europe pledged that, by 2025, Coca-Cola will collect a can or bottle for every one that it sells; ensure that all of its packaging is 100% recyclable; and ensure that at least 50% of the content of its plastic bottles will come from recycled content.
In 2019, in Western Europe, the Coca-Cola System invested 180m euros in sustainable packaging, both across its operations and in the incubation of new packaging and packaging-free solutions for the future.
This month they are announcing further goals designed to accelerate their delivery of a sustainable packaging roadmap for Western Europe, ensuring that all of their packaging is collected, recycled and reused. These include:
- Working to remove all unnecessary or hard to recycle plastic from its portfolio, through lightweighting and the removal of all secondary packaging made from plastic. This will avoid the use of more than 11,000 tonnes of plastic per year. Coca-Cola European Partners recently announced that in Western Europe, it would move from plastic shrink wrap to 100% recyclable cardboard for its multipack cans, removing 4000 tonnes of plastic from its supply chain in 2020. It also recently transitioned its Sprite brand from green to clear PET plastic bottles, which are easier to recycle bottle to bottle
- Working towards 100% recycled or renewable materials in all of its plastic bottles, avoiding the use of over 200,000 tonnes of virgin plastic every year. Coca-Cola in Western Europe will reach 50% recycled content in its plastic bottles two years earlier than its stated goal (by 2023, rather than 2025). In July, Coca-Cola in Western Europe announced that its Honest, Glaceau Smartwater and Chaudfontaine brands would all transition to 100% recycled plastic in their bottles in 2019/20 (for more on this, see Beverage brands bank on rPET for packaging sustainability, published by Packaging Digest, September 2019).
- Supporting well-designed deposit return schemes across Western Europe, where a successful proven alternative does not already exist, in line with its goal to collect a bottle or can for every one that it sells by 2025. Coca-Cola, with its bottling partners, will also support well-designed DRS across its wider European markets, where effective alternatives are not already in place
Part of the commitment is for transparent disclosure of its packaging footprint on an annual basis by packaging type, as well as reporting on performance against stated commitments and goals.
“Too many of the world’s finite resources are currently discarded as waste. We know we need to do more to correct this,” said Tim Brett, President for Coca-Cola Western Europe. “The targets we have set out today are ambitious and rightly so. There is a valuable role for packaging, but it must always be collected, recycled and reused. Working in partnership, our aim is to see the term ‘single-use plastic’ become redundant, both in our business and beyond, as all of our plastic—and indeed all of our packaging—is delivered within a closed loop”.
The marine plastic bottle has been developed as proof of concept for what the technology may achieve in time. In the immediate term, enhanced recycling will be introduced at commercial scale using waste streams from existing recyclers, including previously unrecyclable plastics and lower-quality recyclables.
A newly formed Packaging Innovation Hub will continue to focus and accelerate investment and innovation in sustainable packaging solutions across Western Europe. These include continuing investment in enhanced recycling technologies, as well as alternative packaging solutions for the future, such as paper bottles, bio-based packaging materials, refillable-returnable and packaging-free alternatives, like its dispensed Freestyle or wider micro-dosing solutions.