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100% recycled or renewable: a future vision for circular plastic

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29/04/2021

Accelerating the use of 100% recycled content (rPET) in our plastic bottles is the right direction of travel to create a low carbon, circular economy for plastic. However, whilst significant, it is just one of the steps on the journey towards circularity for plastic packaging.

The journey to circularity

We support the EU’s ambition to build a European circular economy and make Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050.

Our ambition here is clear. To do so, we have put ourselves  on a path to zero:

Zero waste  - by reducing our use of packaging where we can (via lightweighting, removing unnecessary packaging and innovating in refillable and dispensed solutions and services) and ensuring that all the packaging we do use is collected so that it does not end up as litter or in the oceans and can be recycled and reused as part of a circular economy. 

Net zero greenhouse gas emissions -  in parallel, these actions will reduce the carbon footprint of our packaging as we work towards our ambition to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions across our entire value chain by 2040 in Western Europe.

The carbon footprint of our packaging

On our path to zero, our actions on climate and packaging are intrinsically linked. Why?

Packaging accounts for over 40% of our value chain carbon footprint because creating new packaging uses raw materials which are carbon intensive to extract and create. Therefore, key to achieving our ambition to reach net greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 is reducing our use of packaging where we can. And, for the packaging we do use, driving circularity via further developing refillable models and ensuring packaging materials are used again and again.

However, according to Eurostat, less than 12% of the materials used in the EU were circulated back into the economy in 2019.

There is much for us and others to do to reach the goal.

 

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Towards circular PET

Today, around 50% of the packaging we use is single use PET bottles. Alongside actions that will reduce our use of packaging, we want to play our part in creating a circular economy for the PET packaging we do use. This means working towards removing virgin fossil-based PET in our bottles. We’ll do this by increasing collection once our drinks have been consumed, by supporting the development of recycling capacity to ensure they are recycled, and by using the recycled plastic, alongside plastic from renewable sources, to make new bottles.

At present, we are working towards this goal but there is a lot still to do. Collection rates for PET bottles vary significantly across Western Europe. Some markets achieve less than 50%. Those with well-designed[1] Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) or a proven alternative in place can have collection rates of rates of around 80-98%. We advocate for the introduction of well-designed DRS where a proven alternative does not exist in all our markets to step change collection rates.

One important benefit is that plastic bottles collected via DRS have very little contamination from other materials, unlike bottles which come through household or kerbside collection schemes. This means that a large proportion of the material collected by DRS, can be easily sorted and recyclers can create high quality recycled material which is suitable for bottle-to-bottle recycling.

Over the past few years, we have stepped up our efforts to close the loop by increasing the volume of high-quality recycled plastic in our bottles. Most often this material comes from markets with DRS or a proven alternative. In 2019 we accelerated our target and now aim to reach 50% rPET by 2023, working towards 100% recycled or renewable plastic by 2030. We have made strong progress: in 2020, 41% of the PET we used was rPET. We have achieved this by moving both brands, such as Chaudfontaine, Smartwater and Honest, as well as transitioning entire locally-produced portfolios in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands to 100% rPET. We are significantly increasing the percentage of the portfolio that is 100% rPET in Germany and we have also moved to 50% rPET in Belgium and Great Britain.

[1]  The Coca-Cola System has set out what it believes are the key principles of a ‘well-designed’ Deposit Return Scheme. These include: national scale, broad range of packs (i.e. all PET and cans under 3l), industry and retail ownership, through a not-for-profit DSMO (Deposit system management organisation), good cost control, governance and fraud control and focus on ensuring it is easy for consumers to understand and participate.

Plastic’s circularity solution

Plastic behaves differently to other beverage packaging materials such as aluminium and glass. Unlike these materials, there is a finite number of times that plastic can be recycled bottle to bottle using mechanical recycling techniques - industry research suggests PET can be mechanically recycled up to 5-7 times before it loses the required strength needed in a beverage bottle and  is downgraded to non-bottle uses. The percentage that is downgraded then needs to be replaced with higher quality mechanically recycled PET that has been through fewer recycling loops or virgin fossil-based PET. Our ambition is to move towards removing the need for virgin fossil-based PET in the recycling process  by replacing it with either ‘like-virgin’ recycled  PET or PET from renewable sources. 

Technologies are being developed which have the potential to recycle PET by converting it back to its building blocks (technically speaking, this is called either partial depolymerisation recycling or full depolymerisation enhanced  recycling), allowing for the removal of many impurities and colours. These can then be ‘re-polymerised’ to create ‘like virgin’, high-quality food grade PET material again. While still in their early days, the Coca-Cola system has been supporting the development and scaling of these depolymerisation recycling technologies through funding start-ups such as CuRe and Ioniqa.

Coca-Cola is also working on ways to expand availability of renewable content. In 2009, Coca-Cola introduced its innovative plant-based PlantBottle™ packaging and is collaborating with technology providers to further develop this innovative material.

The ‘Bottle of the Future’

On account of these developments, we believe that ‘circular PET’ is possible for the entire industry.  To achieve this, future sources of PET will include a combination of mechanically recycled PET and ‘like-virgin’ quality PET from depolymerisation recycling or PET from renewable sources.

This sustainable circular economy for PET will be a balance of:

  • 70-80% recycled PET from mechanical polymer recycling;

  • 20-30% like-virgin PET from depolymerisation recycling technologies or renewable sources

Our guiding principle for a low carbon, circular economy is that mechanical recycling will remain the dominant source (70-80%) of recycled material for our bottles, as it is less carbon intensive than depolymerisation recycling. 

It is also important to note though, that while some bottles already contain 100% recycled content, no market is yet in an entirely closed loop, circular plastic system. At present, most PET bottles are not recycled into new bottles – the average in Europe is 18%. Much is downcycled and used for other applications such as textiles meaning that this material is lost from the packaging circular economy. Ideally, we would like to encourage local closed loops for PET in every market, but we are far from this today, both in terms of collection, recycling and also the scaled development of technologies for depolymerisation recycling and bio-based plastic which will allow this to happen.

There are also losses in today’s mechanical recycling systems as well as enough virgin material entering the marketplace to mean that there is little risk of PET strength and quality declining immediately. But longer term, as industry moves to increase recycled content, we will need an additional source of like-virgin recycled or renewable PET feedstock to maintain our low carbon circular economy for PET.

Creating a low carbon circular economy for PET

This is not just about us though. It is about how we transition as an industry to remove virgin fossil-based PET, with the ultimate aim of creating a no waste, low carbon economy for the packaging we do use whilst reducing packaging via refillable and dispensed solutions and services as another key route towards eliminating packaging waste and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To do this – four things need to happen:

1. Step change packaging collection
Aligned with the EU ambition of 90% collection by 2029, we need to collect all our bottles back. PET bottles made up the vast majority of PET put on the market (3.4mt) in 2018. Of this, only 1.78 mt was collected and sorted for mechanical recycling (52%). We have identified DRS as the most efficient and effective way to improve collection rates where a proven alternative doesn’t exist and our industry must champion and drive this change.

2. Ensure bottles can be turned back to bottles
While 1.78mt was collected in 2018, only 18% of this volume was recycled bottle to bottle. Today a lot of material is downcycled from PET to sheet plastic. We need to ensure that food grade bottles remain as food grade PET for future applications. Supporting legislation would help to drive this change needed.

3. Increase recycling capacity
Assuming the Single Use Plastic Directive target to collect 90% of all beverage bottles can be met by 2030, the EU will need to double rPET reprocessing capacity in order to handle the tonnage of PET that will need to be collected, sorted and recycled. We are already supporting the PET recycling industry by entering into long-term supply agreements with mechanical recycling partners - such as our joint venture with Plastipak to create the Infineo recycling centre in France - to help them develop further capacity. But more will be needed.

4. Consumer engagement and education
Plastic products with high levels of recycled content may have a slightly greyer shade than virgin fossil-based plastic. This doesn’t impact the quality of the plastic; the greyness often emerges as a result of different aspects of the recycling process. Our consumer research tells us that consumers very often do not notice this. If pointed out, consumers respond positively to this sustainability attribute. Driving consumer understanding of the aesthetics of recycled content and its connection to sustainability will be fundamental to driving a circular economy for PET.

Towards a Circular PET future

We, like other beverage companies, are moving towards 100% recycled or renewable PET in our bottles, replacing our use of virgin fossil-based PET as we do so. We know this is the right direction of travel to create a low carbon, circular economy for plastic. However, our use of 100% rPET in our bottles today is just one small step in a much bigger industry journey towards plastic packaging circularity using recycled or renewable content alongside further increasing the use of refillable and dispensed formats. We will continue to invest in collection, recycling technology innovation and capacity to  help support entire markets moving to reduce the use of virgin fossil-based PET over time.