Coke’s UK Recycling Bins Will Offset the Company’s Carbon

Coca Cola RecyclesCoca Cola is rolling out a new consumer focused recycling program in the UK in an attempt to address the company’s carbon emissions.  Along with the Southampton city council, the company will jointly fund a citywide recycling program that entails placing branded recycling bins in areas of heavy pedestrian traffic.  This will be the country’s first city center Recycle Zone, a part of a larger initiative that coincides with a national ad campaign geared toward boosting consumer awareness and recycling.

Over the past year, the partnership between Coca Cola and the Waste and Resources Action Programme has been responsible for recycling 20 tons of material. “We are looking to work with companies that are our customers to jointly develop zones that make it easier for people to recycle,” a company spokeswoman said. “We have 21 zones currently and another 59 planned by the end of 2011.”

Corporate Stewardship More Common in EU

It is not surprising that the American company has chosen a EU country to launch this new recycling program—corporate accountability over a product’s lifecycle is somewhat of a standard across ‘The Pond.’ In the US, when we decide to collectively address the negative externalities of consumer products, we generally relegate it to government (municipal waste reduction programs), regulatory agencies (EPA), or consumer surcharges (such as CRV taxes-link).  The funding burden therefore ultimately lands on the taxpayer or consumer.

In Europe, the expectation is that companies take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products, including the packaging.  This forces companies to re-evaluate their entire product development and delivery processes, and they can often design out any of the extra costs associated with this broadened scope of responsibility to such an extent that these regulations can ultimately lead to better bottom line performance.

More Than End of Life Takeback

What is unique about Coca Cola’s recycling program is that it’s geared towards serving a municipality.  The Coca Cola branded bins are a repository for all bottles and cans– even those from competitors.  All cynicism aside for the multi-national corporation, Coca Cola’s effort in Southampton is a great example of corporate stewardship that creates a winning situation for both the company and the community at large.  Supporting a municipal recycling program for all bottles and cans provides a needed environmental service to a community and helps to offset the expense government and taxpayers.  In return Coca Cola gets some nice advertising (the bins are branded) and some much needed positive PR.

But wait, there’s more.  The impetus for Coca Cola’s pilot program in South Hampton is to curb its carbon emissions.  A Carbon Trust study found that the beverage giant could effectively slash carbon emissions by up to 40% by recycling their own bottles and cans.  The prospect of Coca Cola recycling every last Coca Cola branded bottle and can in the world is beyond impractical- currently most countries have no recycling infrastructure.  By setting up recycling programs in certain locations that accept all beverage containers, Coca Cola can begin to offset the bottles and cans discarded in places that lack recycling programs and capture the carbon reductions associated with their products, thus proving that stewardship is smart business.

Pushing Beyond Recycling

This is just a very superficial first step in Coca Cola reducing its carbon emissions, but nonetheless an important step.  It shows that they are trying.  However, if they truly want to impact their carbon emissions, it’s going to take a more integrated approach than recycling programs.  Coca Cola should reevaluate their entire product delivery system- from refrigeration, regional distribution, and perhaps even the disposable bottle and can, to find the greatest opportunities for carbon emission reductions and cost reductions.  What about going back to returnable bottles or vending machines that refill containers instead of dispensing new ones?

Carly has a BA from Stanford and recently finished her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, sports, renewable energy, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time cycling, home brewing, gardening, cooking, and surfing (when she can make it over the bridge).