Coca-Cola Europe: Companies Must Push for More Than Incremental Change

Could it be possible that more companies will start doing more than simply slapping a “please recycle” label on their products?  As more consumers investigate a company’s operations, they realize that sustainability throughout an organization’s supply chain is the key to save costs while reducing our environmental impact.

Coca-Cola Europe’s recycling director, Patrick McGuirk, recently acknowledged at a London trade show that his firm and others must do more than make incremental changes to their operations.  To that end, McGuirk said that firms like his must look beyond the effects their activities have in their factories, warehouses, and retail outlets.  Currently, recycling focuses on at-store collection and targeted, or “on the go” recycling centers on city streets.  But the fact remains that most consumers’ homes generate most waste, and companies could have a role in educating and motivating consumers.

For an economic superpower that has succeeded in the free movement of goods and services across borders—as well as adopting a common currency over the past decade—Europe has done a poor job standardizing the continent’s waste management system.  McGuirk noted that within the United Kingdom, 438 different municipalities deal with recycling 438 different systems.

Take Europe as a whole, and the system becomes even more messy. Germany is the recycling king:  pensioners made a bounty during the 2006 World Cup as they collected bottles that soccer fans disposed during the month-long revelry.  The Netherlands burns most of its trash, and what is recycled varies by locality; composting is standard is smaller cities but not in Amsterdam.  The Czechs are leaders in plastic recycling, but still only recycle 20% of its municipal waste.  Meanwhile, Belgium is putting the onus on consumers and its messaging has resulted in high recycling rates.

The European Union has addressed recycling issues, and has called for member countries to treat it as an industrial activity, while reducing trade restrictions and encouraging improved processes for separating waste.  But while governments can encourage improved recycling through regulation or financial incentives, McGuirk’s insistence that companies like his could do more is spot on:  so what can Coca-Cola accomplish?

More Coca-Cola bottling plants in Europe have installed co-generation plants to reduce their carbon emissions, and that’s a start.  Turning bottles into chairs make for great design and PR, but in any economy, it is challenging to ask customers to pay US$230 dollar a chair, no matter what its carbon footprint is.  The stubborn fact remains that plastic bottles create mounds of waste, and with their strong customer loyalty, beverage companies have much clout and could use their following to induce change in consumer habits.

Tiny Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, has a recycling lottery that gives cash prizes to the occasional lucky resident who correctly follows the city’s program.  Half a world away, the small town of Kamikatsu, Japan, takes an extreme measure of requiring its residents to sort their trash into 34 separate bins.  Why not sponsor and fund efforts like these, showing sincerity into a company’s CSR initiatives that consumers can directly experience?

Furthermore, with most things “retro” waxing coolness, why not bring back the glass bottle, and encourage consumers to drink Coke the old-fashioned way?  You can find Mexican Coca-Cola at Costco and other stores, but hauling those bottles across the border is absurd.  With all the concern over high-fructose syrup and the disaster in the Gulf, Coca-Cola has a marketing opportunity that can cement its loyalty, build a new following, and wean us away from plastic.  Is that really asking too much?  A chance to achieve more than “incremental” change is at Coca-Cola’s doorstep.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

4 responses

    1. Thank you for the reply. I think you are right–pushing companies to “change their ways” needs a rethinking. They are in a position to move their customers, especially those “alpha-consumers” . . . if they really wanted to make such changes–they can. Thanks again!

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