Pepsi has been vying for advertising dominance in Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s home turf, while Coke’s pre-game commercial embraces diversity, a message that feels political in today’s climate. This follows a growing trend of major brands taking progressive stances on social issues from toxic masculinity, solidarity with Colin Kapaernick and Brexit. But is the moral high ground yours to take when it’s not reflected in your business model?
PR campaigns aside, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are major contributors to the plastic crisis. Last summer my organization, The Story of Stuff Project, helped coordinate hundreds of ‘brand audits’ in collaboration with the #breakfreefromplastic movement. Adding a twist to the traditional beach clean up, volunteers identified the type and brands associated with 187,000 pieces of plastic pollution collected across the world. The companies with the biggest plastic footprint? Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle.
Although much of today’s packaging is inherently problematic, the second most commonly found item in our audit was plastic bottles (PET). It’s one of the few types of plastic that can be widely recycled so long as it’s collected, and herein lies the challenge of a product designed to be consumed ‘on the go.’ Enter an ingenious solution: container deposits. By adding a refundable deposit to the price of a bottle you incentivize its return for recycling.
It’s a proven measure that reduces the chances of a bottle of Coke or Pepsi from getting landfilled or polluting the environment after use. It’s virtually eliminated polluted bottles in Michigan and Oregon, two of the US’s ten states with ‘bottle bills’. Their systems recover over 90% of their beverage bottles, as opposed to 20% - 30% of bottles collected on average in curbside recycling across the US.
Rather than embrace this solution, Coca-Cola and Pepsi embrace industry lobbying groups that undermine such legislation.
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But rather than embrace this solution, Coca-Cola and Pepsi embrace industry lobbying groups that undermine such legislation. Last December, a group of legislators backed by the Michigan Soft Drink Association attempted to rush through legislation in lame-duck season to end Michigan’s world-class deposit system. These skirmishes occur periodically to weaken existing systems as well as obstruct new container deposit laws addressing the plastic blighting their communities.
But the growing stature of the plastic crisis is forcing the idea into consideration. Coca-Cola Europe recently completed a 180-degree turn and is now participating in shaping an effective container deposit system in the UK. While at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, James Quincey, the CEO of Coca-Cola stated that the "value" of their packaging was the key to higher recycling rates.
These companies are presumably concerned that container deposits don't revolve around convenience: a concern that embodies the "disposable" mindset that led us to the current plastic crisis. Polling across locations where container deposits exist, however, show high levels of support for the system. I believe that’s because, in an age where plastic is entering our air, water, and food, contributing to part of the solution can feel rewarding.
Globally, one million plastic bottles are sold every minute. By endorsing container deposits, the big brands can reduce their plastic footprint, their carbon emissions, and celebrate a transformative shift on the plastics crisis. Those sound like good ingredients for next year’s winning Super Bowl commercial.