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The power of the brand to boost recycling

Resource efficiency needs as many role models in the business world as it can get. Companies embracing sustainability such as Marks & Spencer, Unilever and LandRover deserve the credit they get in the wider media. As does Coca-Cola Great Britain (CCGB) for two big changes in its strategy this year.

The first came in February with what MRW described at the time as a U-turn over deposit return schemes (DRS). Then, in July, the com­pany announced that it would double the pro­portion of recycled plastics in its drinks bottles from 25% to 50% by 2020.

Apart from ‘doing good’, there is a connec­tion because if a DRS retrieves more used bottles then recycling goals are helped. Typi­cally, drinks containers would have a price premium added, with shoppers able to reclaim 10-20p when bottles are returned.

The CCGB about-turn was to support a DRS trial in Scotland. The drinks giant said it had surveyed customer opinion and “the time was right” for a “well-designed” scheme. The timing was certainly something because, only a month earlier, Greenpeace leaked an internal CCGB document saying the company would “fight back” against DRS.

But at around this time, company executives met representatives from the UK waste sector, several of whom argued that a DRS for plastic bottles made environmental and economic sense, was effective at improving recycling and could be embraced by the wider society.

For the record, CCGB objected to our calling it a U-turn, saying it had supported a DRS in Estonia, a very different retail market from a major western European one. It said then that the shift was part of a wider review of its pack­aging strategy to be unveiled later in the year – that is now with us, including a novel multi-media advertising campaign to drive advertising.

Its new strategy document says: “From our experience elsewhere in Europe, we know that deposit systems can work if they are developed as part of an overall strategy on the circular economy and in collaboration with all relevant industry stakeholders.”

Recent research by YouGov showed that a third of consumers felt that companies like Coca-Cola should be harnessing the power and reach of their brand to inspire people to recycle more items, more often.

packaging advert

packaging advert

There is no doubt that CCGB, during these years of often record low prices for buying and processing secondary plastics, could have boosted the short-term bottom line by using virgin polymers. But CCGB says it is in for the longer haul, which is why the 50% recycling target is a totem. But it will not be a cakewalk because bottle-to-bottle recycling depends on maximising the return of the original products.

It has been a challenging five years for the drinks giant and the supply chain that feeds and replenishes the polymer source.

I was at the launch in 2012 of the partner­ship between Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) and Eco Plastics, known as Continuum Recycling. CCEP is the sole licensee to bottle CCGB drinks.

pet recycling at hemswell

pet recycling at hemswell

Rising above the old RAF Hemswell airfield in Lincolnshire was the new PET recycling facility, with the capacity to sort 150,000 tonnes of mixed bottles a year, then representing around 35% of the total bottle collection in the UK.

Later that year, Coca-Cola, as one of the key Olympic Games sponsors, was able to boast that its drinks bottles bought at the event in London would be back on the shelves, replen­ished, within six weeks. Again – great publicity.

But Continuum, said to be a 10-year venture, did not even see three years. In December 2014, the struggling Eco Plastics was bought by investment firm Aurelius, with Coca-Cola Enterprises ending its involvement. In Febru­ary 2016, the business became Evolve Polymers.

In November it was sold again, this time to US-owned Plastipak, which operates in the plastics recycling sector in the US, France and Luxembourg through its Clean Tech subsidiary. Clean Tech, now operating Hemswell, is work­ing with CCEP to drive the target to 50% recy­cled material in drinks bottles.

CCGB has engaged in other areas to boost sustainability. It has reduced packaging by 27% in the past decade; its 500ml Coca-Cola bottles weigh just under 20g, almost half of what they did in the mid-1990s; there has been a 20% reduction in weight of some plastic bottle caps since 2014, all of which are now recyclable; the new Abbey Well ‘twist’ pack for bottled water has been designed to use 32% less material.

But the company says it cannot transform the recycling landscape alone and is calling on policy-makers in the home nations to respond.

“If we are to improve recycling, we believe that the Governments of Great Britain need to work together and with industry to create a new producer responsibility system that works for everyone in the value chain.

“Targets underpin the current regulations, but none has been set for 2021 and beyond, giving us a brief window of opportunity in which we can work with other like-minded businesses to champion new ways to improve the recovery of packaging in this country.”

Doing things differently

“Everyone was fighting against the [deposit] return scheme. The Government asked all the producers and retailers to be at the table and said, very clearly, ‘OK, you don’t want a DRS, then we will do it as a governmental institution’.”

Rauno Raal, chief executive of the Estonian DRS scheme

“Voluntary systems give you the opportunity to be flexible and innovative. Badly designed mandatory schemes shut that down.”

Iain Ferguson, environment manager, the Co-op

“We don’t need to go on a big campaign to change people’s behaviour – we just need to change how we design stuff.”

Adam Lusby, lecturer in circular economy implementation, Exeter University

Comments at a recent Guardian roundtable:

Nick Brown - Head of sustainability at CCEP

nick brown

nick brown

The vision for our business in Great Britain is simple: our packaging is a valuable resource and we want to play an active role in ensuring that all our bottles and cans are recovered after use and recycled. This is an ambitious goal but we know we have a responsibility to be part of a solution in preventing waste.

We do not claim to have all the answers but, through our new sustainable packaging strategy, we have identified the ways in which we want to work closely with others in the coming years to make the changes necessary for a more sustainable future.

We are taking action to make our packaging as sustainable as possible and also using the power of our brands and commercial relationships to encourage consumers to recycle more and litter less. But there are major reforms needed to the way businesses and councils work together if we are going to make the kind of step changes that we all want to see in promoting resource efficiency and reducing litter.

At a fundamental level, the links between producers and collection authorities are not strong or effective enough. There are some great examples of voluntary actions where businesses and councils, waste management companies and reprocessors have co-operated and achieved good outcomes, but we need a new framework for collaboration which engages all parties in the chain and brings real scale to change initiatives.

Industry contributes to the costs of packaging collection and reprocessing through general taxation – using recycled materials and the packaging recovery note (PRN) system – although the amount of money this entails and what it is used for is currently too opaque. We want to see reform to develop a broader and more sustainable source of funding which can be targeted towards agreed initiatives.

We have to believe that recycling will improve, littering can be reduced and the cost of providing services can be lowered, for example through carefully designed national communications campaigns. These will all require investment in key infrastructure and the move towards a more consistent household collection scheme across the country.

Reform of PRNs should also give clearer signals to businesses on the importance and economic value of good eco-design and using recycled materials. In the area of plastics, splitting the categories into use types will also allow companies to focus more clearly on the reuse and end-of-life of the specific packaging formats they use.

The existing system has done a great job for the past 20 years in contributing to driving recovery rates of packaging materials. But it is in need of real reform to bring together relevant parties and move them towards a common approach that drives more resource efficiency in the packaging industry for the next 20 years.

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