Coke Struggles With Plastic-Bottle Recycling Plant

The Coca-Cola Co.’s goal is to recycle 100% of its plastic drink bottles by 2020. Though the company isn’t giving up yet, the Spartanburg, S.C., recycling plant that it opened in 2009 is having a tough time getting enough used bottles to maintain production of food-grade pellets.

Mike Esterl of The Wall Street Journal reports:

Today, the troubled facility highlights the Atlanta beverage giant’s struggles to build a recycling business in the U.S. Last year the plant produced only about a third of its targeted 100 million pounds of plastic recycled from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. For much of this year, the 120,000-square-foot facility has remained mostly unused.

“After investing about $60 million in the facility, Coke is even considering selling its 49% stake in the plant, which it owns in a joint venture with recycling company United Resource Recovery Corp,” Esterl writes.

coke recycling
Coca-Cola places recycling containers to encourage collection such as this one in Atlanta, GA.

Mike Verespej of Plastics News reports that Coke is interested in selling but has not found a buyer at the price it wants yet. Coke also has PET recycling plants in Mexico, France, Austria, Switzerland, and the Philippines, but the plant in the Philippines has never gone into operation.

The Spartanburg plant is scheduled to restart operations this week at roughly half the size of the 2009 plan. Owners spent several months “retooling to boost the quality of the plastic and lower operating costs,” Esterl writes.

Retooling includes separating silicone from PET more easily. Silicone, found in plastic ketchup and other bottles, creates defects in recycled PET. Verespej writes that the plant underwent at least four engineering redesigns, but that even the plant’s retooled technology “is not suited to recycling newer lightweight beverage and water bottles.”

Esterl adds:

Due in part to the woes at the Spartanburg plant, Coke only has about 5% recycled content in its plastic PET bottles today, down from 10% roughly five years ago. PepsiCo Inc. says it has 10% recycled PET content. Both rates pale with recycled content in aluminum beverage cans, which stands at 68%, according to the Aluminum Association.

Scott Vitters, Coke’s director of sustainable packaging, told Esterl, “we’re not exactly where we’d want to be.” However, Coke aims to have 10% recycled content in its PET bottles by next year.

The U.S. recycling rate for PET bottles was 28% in 2009, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources. Europe’s rate is nearly 50%.

Why is there such a shortage of recycled materials in the U.S.? Esterl discusses two main reasons. First, more than half of the PET collected since 2006 goes to other countries. Industry officials say transporting PET bales on empty ships headed for China is often less expensive than shipping them across the U.S.

Second, critics say that Coke and other beverage companies add to the recycling shortage because they do not support bottle-deposit programs. In the 10 U.S. states where consumers can get five or 10 cents for returning a used bottle to the store, recycling rates are double the national average. For example, California boosted its laws, and last year, recycled 68% of its PET bottles.

Bottle companies instead support curbside recycling programs, where consumers separate recyclable materials such as newspapers and glass from garbage. “For recycling to be economically and environmentally sustainable we do believe you have to have co-collection of materials,” Vitters told Esterl. However, people often drink from and dispose of the bottles away from home. To collect more bottles in public places, Coke says it also has provided more than 120,000 recycling bins since 2008.

Source: “Bottle Recycling Plan Is Left at the Curb,” The Wall Street Journal, 8/19/11
Source: “Coke recycling plant preparing to restart production,” Plastics News, 8/19/11
Source: “Plastic Bottle Recycling Is In the Dumps,” The Wall Street Journal, 8/20/11
Image by hoyasmeg (James Emery), used under its Creative Commons license.

Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.

1 Comment

  1. Is there an update on this report? Is Coke still looking for a solution? Have they made any improvements?


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