Leaked Audio Reveals How Coca-Cola Undermines Plastic Recycling Efforts

For decades, Coca-Cola has burnished its public image as an environmentally caring company with donations to recycling nonprofits. Meanwhile, as one of the world’s most polluting brands, Coke has quietly fought efforts to hold the company accountable for plastic waste.

Audio from a meeting of recycling leaders obtained by The Intercept reveals how the soda giant’s “green” philanthropy helped squelch what could have been an important tool in fighting the plastic crisis — and shines a light on the behind-the-scenes tactics beverage and plastics companies have quietly used for decades to evade responsibility for their waste. The meeting of the coalition group known as Atlanta Recycles took place in January at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials in Atlanta’s south side.

Among the topics on the agenda for the recycling experts was a grant coming to Atlanta as part of a multimillion-dollar campaign Coke was launching “to boost recycling rates and help inspire a grassroots movement.” But it quickly became clear that one possible avenue for boosting recycling rates — a bottle bill — was off the table.

Here’s John Seydel, director of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience:

Seydel was right. If they were truly interested in increasing the recycling rate, a bottle bill or container deposit law, which requires beverage companies to tack a charge onto the price of their drink to be refunded after it’s returned, would be well worth looking at. People are far more likely to return their bottles if there’s a financial incentive. States with bottle bills recycle about 60 percent of their bottles and cans, as opposed to 24 percent in other states. And states that have bottle bills also have an average of 40 percent less beverage container litter on their coasts, according to a 2018 study of the U.S. and Australia published in the journal Marine Policy.

But bottle bills also put some of the responsibility — and cost — of recycling back on the companies that produce the waste, which may be why Coke and other soda companies have long fought against them.

That’s Gloria Hardegree, executive director of the Georgia Recycling Coalition, an organization that receives funding from Coca-Cola. And she was sure that her organization’s longtime benefactor would be dead set against a bottle bill:

The World Without Waste program, which Hardegree mentioned, is what Coke calls its “holistic plan” to recycle every bottle and can it produces by 2030. It’s a lofty goal, and many would say it’s unrealistic, especially without state or national deposit laws. But Hardegree made it clear she didn’t expect Coke to budge — and that the money was contingent on not pushing for this effective recycling strategy.

Kanika Greenlee, executive director of the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission and the vice chair of Keep America Beautiful, which receives Coke funding, agreed that the Atlanta-based company would likely pull the funds if the group decided to support a bottle bill. Greenlee also serves as director of environmental programs for the city of Atlanta.

Coke isn’t the only soda company that would likely oppose work on a bottle bill. Here’s Hardegree again, answering a question posed by Seydel:

Asked about his comments in the meeting, Seydel said he stands by them. He also praised Coke’s recent efforts to make bottles from plastics found in the ocean. “It’s really cool that they’re thinking out of the box,” Seydel said. “Things are changing and they have to change.”

In an email, Gloria Hardegree wrote that the purpose of the January meeting was to review the group’s annual work plan. “The policy question was brought up out of context by another person present.” The discussion about bottle bills, Hardegree wrote in another email, “was a very small part of an annual planning meeting addressing goals + projects for the group supporting comprehensive recycling for the city.”

Kanika Greenlee did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Keep America Beautiful said that Greenlee was representing the city of Atlanta and the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission at the meeting.

In an emailed response to questions from The Intercept, a representative of Coca-Cola said that the company awarded a grant to the Recycling Partnership to support a community recycling program in Atlanta that was designed to increase curbside recycling rates, improve collection, expand recycling in multi-family residents and increase recycling on college campuses. The email noted that no one from the company was present at the meeting and that “company views on public policies are independent of the charitable giving by The Coca-Cola Foundation.”

Blaming Consumers

While other soda companies have opposed bottle bills, Coke should know better than almost anyone how successful deposits can be in getting customers to return their bottles: They pioneered the system. For decades, Coca-Cola was  available only in returnable glass bottles. In 1948, when Coke drinkers put down a small deposit — almost half of what they paid for the drink — they returned some 96 percent of the distinctive fluted bottles, according to a study done that year by the United States Resource Conservation Committee.

But all that changed after Coke began a shift to plastic bottles in the 1950s. As the waste piled up, the public began to push the company to take responsibility for it. Coke pushed back hard with a double-edged strategy attacking efforts to make the industry deal with its waste while pushing forward the message that consumers were instead to blame for the problem. Both were accomplished largely through generic-sounding organizations that worked on behalf of Coke and other soda and bottle companies while keeping their brand names out of the public eye.

In 1953, right after Vermont passed the country’s first bottle bill, a group of beverage and packaging companies along with Philip Morris founded the anti-litter organization Keep America Beautiful. “Keep America Beautiful was a direct response to what happened in Vermont,” said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, a California-based nonprofit devoted to studying and improving recycling in North America.

Coke’s strategy of using other organizations to convey its messages proved useful. In 1968, when state and federal legislation was proposed that would have made deposits on nonreturnable containers mandatory, Coke didn’t lobby against it, at least not publicly. Instead, it was the National Soft Drink Association, funded by Coke, that did the work to defeat the bill. At the same time, Keep America Beautiful was letting people know that “keeping America beautiful is your job.” Those who failed at that job were “litterbugs,” or, as the nonprofit organization made disturbingly clear in a video that year, pigs.

In response to questions for this article, Noah Ullman, a spokesperson for Keep America Beautiful, wrote in an email that “KAB is not against bottle bills. We believe all options to address recycling, including deposit legislation, needs to be on the table and evaluated. This is not a new position for KAB.”

Meanwhile Coke was fashioning itself a folksy, Earth-friendly corporate image. In 1971, sandwiched in between two legislative fights in which lobbyists funded by Coca-Cola and other beverage companies defeated federal bills that would have banned nonreturnable beverage bottles, Coke put out its now infamous “hilltop” ad. Even as the trade association it supported was quietly blocking the creation of a national system that might have managed the massive waste it would go on to produce, publicly, Coke was permanently fusing its brand name to “apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.”

A Massive Subsidy to the Beverage Industry

Coca-Cola now makes 117 billion plastic bottles a year, according to its own estimates, untold billions of which end up being burned or dumped in landfills and nature. Coke was responsible for more waste than any other company in a 2018 global plastic cleanup conducted by the advocacy group Break Free From Plastic, with Coke-branded plastic found along the coasts and in the parks and streets of 40 out of 42 participating countries.

On the political front, its advocacy against bottle bills has largely succeeded. Only 10 states now have bottle bills on the books, most of which passed in the 1970s and ’80s. Georgia, where the meeting of recycling leaders was being held, isn’t one of them. Like most of the country and the world, the state finds itself inundated with plastic. In the first six months of this year alone, Georgia exported 21.6 million kilograms of plastic waste, most of which went to poor countries with little ability to manage it, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.

Why have Coke and the other beverage companies fought so hard against bottle bills? “At the heart of it is a commitment to not being responsible for their packaging,” said Collins of the Container Recycling Institute. “It really all just comes down to this is an expense, and they would prefer if someone else pay for it.”

According to Collins, industry funding for local nonprofit organizations has been an important tool for defeating bottle bills. “Coca-Cola and other beverage companies fund to some extent the recycling organizations in every state and use those funds in influential ways,” she said. “They exert pressure on those organizations to speak out against beverage container deposit laws.” Were Coke openly making the case against bottle bills, it would be perceived as acting out of self- interest. “But when the words come out of the mouths of the recycling professionals,” Collins said, “especially statewide recycling organizations, then those words carry some weight.”

Coke’s decades of behind-the-scenes efforts have succeeded in shifting the cost of waste management from Coke and other beverage companies to municipal recycling programs, according to Bartow Elmore, a historian and author of “Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism.” Coke “took something the company had to manage and pay for and really put it on the public,” said Elmore, who described the taxpayer-funded curbside recycling that’s emerged in the absence of a nationwide deposit system as “a massive subsidy we ended up giving the beverage industry.”

Keeping Recycling Dysfunctional

Beverage and plastic industry-funded nonprofits have gotten in the way of other meaningful attempts to address recycling, according to Mitch Hedlund, executive director of the nonprofit Recycle Across America. Hedlund met with the board of Keep America Beautiful in August to discuss the use of standardized labels for recycling bins. The labels help prevent contamination of the waste stream, which is part of the reason that only about a fifth of our trash is recycled. Used in school districts, national parks, and throughout the state of Rhode Island, the standardized labels brought about reductions in trash hauling expenses and increased recycling rates, according to tracking done by Recycle Across America. Nevertheless, Keep America Beautiful decided not to use the labels, as Hedlund learned from an email a few days later.

Hedlund said she wasn’t surprised that Keep America Beautiful — whose board members include executives from Coca-Cola North America, the American Chemistry Council, and Dow, the world’s biggest plastic producer — ultimately opted not to use the standardized labels. “They all benefit from recycling not working,” said Hedlund, whose organization developed but doesn’t financially benefit from the labels. But she said she was surprised when the organization’s executive director, Helen Lowman, admitted several days later that some of the corporate members of her board were standing in the way of Keep America Beautiful improving the recycling process.

In a call Hedlund scheduled with Lowman to debrief the meeting, “I said, Helen, you and your organization are highly compromised by these conflicts of interest,” Hedlund recalled. “And she said ‘You’re right. You’re 100 percent right.’” Hedlund said she went on to spell out the reasons she thought the plastics producers on the board of Keep American Beautiful might object to strategies that meaningfully increase the recycling rate.

“It’s just clear that the Recycling Partnership and Keep America Beautiful are really influenced heavily by the virgin plastics industry,” Hedlund remembered telling Lowman. “There will be no place for the society-wide standardized label solution because they know it works and when it works, they know it will dramatically reduce the amount of virgin plastic production that they would be producing in the U.S. and globally.” Lowman also agreed to this assessment, according to Hedlund.

Through Ullman, the Keep America Beautiful spokesperson, Lowman said that “she has no recollection of that quote or the context of the conversation” with Hedlund. Ullman also wrote in an email that Keep America Beautiful “is not against standardized labels. We think that clear communication and standardization is part of the solution to a very complex problem.”

Ulmann also wrote that “We have aligned goals with [Recycle Across America], [Container Recycling Institute], and others.  We all want to encourage and improve recycling.  But we also believe in a tri-sector approach to accomplish this, with non-profits, manufacturers and government working together.  We get it that some people don’t agree with that approach.  We see it as the best way to accomplish our similar goals.  We’d like to get past all these semantical arguments and get some things accomplished.”

A Global Strategy

Coca-Cola appears to have deployed a similar strategy around the world. The company supports environmental and recycling organizations in dozens of countries, including Keep New Zealand BeautifulUkraine Without WasteKeep Britain Tidy, Ciudad Saludable in Lima, and Keep Australia Beautiful.

Several months ago, Coke came out in support of a bottle deposit program in Australia. And, in 2017, the company announced that it would be backing a similar plan in Scotland. That announcement followed the release of a leaked document by Greenpeace showing that the company had been lobbying against deposit systems and “refillable quotas” in Europe for years.

In its email, Coke said “The Coca-Cola System participates in deposit systems around the world and has done so for 40 years including throughout Australia, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria and throughout Europe.”

Still, much of the company’s international largesse seems designed to encourage a sense of personal responsibility for waste. In 2017, the Coca-Cola Foundation gave $345,000 to the American India Foundation Trust to support recycling competitions and “quarterly awareness raising walks,” for instance, and $209,379 to support a cleanup of marine debris on the canals of Amsterdam and Rotterdam by 3,600 school children.

Among the Coca-Cola Foundation grants in Indonesia was a $172,129 gift to an organization called Yayasan Greeneration Indonesia to “educate tourists about responsible and sustainable tourism and empower locals to start managing and reducing waste to keep their surroundings clean,” according to the foundation’s list of grants paid in 2017.

But the island nation continues to be overrun with plastic, much of it from Coca-Cola, according to Nina van Toulon, founder and director of the Indonesian Waste Platform. “You go to the most remote village here, hours from anywhere, and there is bottled water and Coke. But then the people in the village burn it,” said van Toulon, who is based on the island of Flores. “These companies have made the effort to get their products to these villages, but they don’t make the effort to get the plastic back from the villages.”

Philanthropic giving that encourages incremental solutions and gives the beverage industry a “green image” is part of the problem, van Toulon said. “All these NGOs are very vulnerable because they have no funds.

The residents of Hulhumalé, Maldives, have run into a similar problem. Plastic bottles litter the streets and beaches of the one-and-a-half-mile-long island in South Asia. Cleaning them up costs more than a million dollars each year. So four residents teamed up to address the problem, getting a grant from the U.N. Development Program and a local telecommunications company, Ooredoo Maldives. Their pilot project, a deposit-refund plan for plastic bottles that ended in May, resulted in 81 percent of plastic bottles being returned.

But that success was in spite of obstructionism from Coca-Cola, according to Ahmed Afrah Ismail, a member of the team that created the pilot program. Although a local Coke representative said in an initial meeting that the company would support the project, Ismail said it later refused to provide its production data, which was necessary to set targets for recycling. The team met with the three biggest sellers of bottled water in the Maldives, including Coke, which owns the local brands Bonaqua and Aquarius.

“Out of the three companies, they were the least responsive,” said Ismail, who noted that the company’s local representatives were unfamiliar with Coca-Cola’s pledge to recycle all the bottles it produces by 2030. “Our whole team felt they were trying to delay the pilot. We felt they tried to sabotage the whole thing.”

Coca-Cola did not comment on Ismail’s description of his experience with the company, but pointed to its support of “collaborative action on packaging collection” with a grant to the Packaging and Recycling Alliance for Indonesia Sustainable Environment, which “supports sustainable and integrated packaging waste management solutions in Indonesia.”

It may not ultimately matter whether Coke helps or stands in the way of the small island’s bottle deposit plan. The Maldives has announced its intention to phase out single-use plastic as a nation by 2023. In the meantime, it will introduce extended producer responsibility schemes, such as bottle deposits.

Maldives is not alone in moving toward this simple and effective approach to the bottles mounting around the world. In the past two years, there has been an international resurgence of enthusiasm for bottle bills. In January 2017, just under 300 million people lived in places that had deposit laws, according to a recent article in Resource Recycling magazine. Since then, container deposits have been put in place in Romania, the U.K., India, and Turkey, among other countries. By 2021, once the new programs are up and running, the number of people with deposit laws will have doubled to 600 million. And by 2030, the number is expected to reach at least 1 billion.

Here in the U.S., we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Container redemption programs have been closing recently. And beverage industry-funded nonprofits, including Keep America Beautiful and its 707 local affiliates, have a commanding role in how plastic waste gets cleaned up — or doesn’t.

Their money is particularly influential in the wake of China’s decision not to accept plastic waste, which has made recycling prohibitively expensive in a growing number of towns. “There’s a check hanging above everyone’s head,” said Hedlund of Recycle Across America. Despite the reality behind the scenes, the beverage and plastic industries’ vast resources allow groups they fund to convey that they are leading the charge to improve recycling. “Publicly they say they’re for anything that works,” said Hedlund. “But bans work, redemption programs work, and standardized labels work, and they’re against all of that.”

In Atlanta, plastic won’t be subject to a bottle bill anytime soon. After Seydel brought up the idea, the room broke out into a heated argument.

All Rights Reserved for Sharon Lerner

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