In Jack Hartmann’s song “Recycle,” the educational children’s song harmonizes “re-, re-, re-, recycle every day, just a little goes a long way.” While the music writer and producer is using catchy tunes to highlight the importance of recycling, members of the beverage community are ensuring that the kids who take these lessons to heart have the access to recycle every day.

Katherine Lugar, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage (formerly American Beverage Association), highlights how the beverage community is not just focused on recycling solutions but developing a more sustainable future through the type of packaging materials in circulation.

“Our member companies are clearly committed to creating a sustainable circular economy for their beverage containers,” Lugar explains. “They’re making fully recyclable cans and bottles. And their intention is to get these bottles and cans back so they can be remade into new ones. There is a particular focus on their 100 percent recyclable plastic bottles right now. This effort will reduce the amount of new plastic they use as well as prevent them from ending up in the environment as waste.”

Nicole Ray, sustainable packaging program director at The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, notes the integral part that packaging has become for today’s consumers, while also pinpointing the environmental challenges that are tied to it.

“In the U.S. alone, more than 30 million tons of plastic becomes waste each year, contributing to the approximately 275 million tons a year that become waste globally,” she says, citing the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency. “And unfortunately, 80 percent of items buried in landfills could have been recycled, meaning the U.S. throws away $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging each year.”

Because the pandemic resulted in many more Americans working from home, consumers were enlightened by the amount of household wastes they produce, Ray adds.

“Consumers have become more aware of the issues and more concerned with managing waste better ― so much so that plastic waste is ranked as the No. 2 environmental concern around the world. U.S. consumers’ view recycled plastics as a top solution,” she explains.

Citing information from Mintel’s 2019 “Beverage Packaging Trends” report and Kantar’s 2020 “Global Sustainability Report,” Ray says that 64 percent of consumers list “use recycled plastics” as a solution that beverage companies should employ to offset their plastic utilization.

Rise of rPET

Although beverage manufacturers have a longstanding commitment to advancing environmental sustainability through plastic waste reductions and increased recycling rate of plastic beverage bottles, the industry will make bigger strides this year and beyond, the American Beverage’s Lugar says.

“In 2021 we will lead the way in showing how we can do a better job of collecting and remaking plastic bottles so we can have a truly sustainable, circular economy for recyclables and reduce our plastic footprint,” she says.

Many of the key beverage industry players ― PepsiCo, Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP) and The Coca-Cola Co. ― already have been taking important steps to implement this circular economy through the use of recycled PET (rPET) plastic.

In October 2020, KDP, Plano, Texas, and Burlington, Mass., announced that its Snapple and CORE brands are transitioning to bottles made of 100 percent rPET plastic, eliminating approximately 46.3 million pounds of virgin plastic used by KDP annually, based on 2019 volumes. Currently, Snapple is available in 100 percent recycled plastic 16-ounce bottles in West Coast markets and actively is rolling out the new bottles in phases across the country. The CORE bottles made from 100 percent recycled plastic will start hitting shelves this year, it added.

“Transitioning to recycled plastic bottles for two of our key brands is a critical next step in Keurig Dr Pepper's commitment to a circular economy,” said Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer of KDP, in a statement in October 2020. “This important portfolio evolution enables us to offer consumers their favorite beverages, while meeting their desire for more sustainable packaging.”

The rPET announcement helps support the company’s Corporate Responsibility Goals, which are highlighted in its “Drink Well. Do Good. 2019 Corporate Responsibility Report.” In the report, KDP lays out a goal of using 30 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) content across its packaging portfolio by 2025 as well as converting 100 percent of packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Most recently, KDP achieved an important milestone: all K-Cup pods produced by the company now are recyclable. More than 100 manufacturing lines were converted to produce pods that are made from polypropylene No. 5 plastic. Additionally, all packaging now includes the How2Recycle label.

“It's an exciting day for KDP and our partners as we complete this multi-year journey that required intensive product development, significant capital investment and expansive industry engagement,” Oxender said in statement in December 2020.

The Coca-Cola Co. also is making strides in its efforts to support its corporate sustainability initiative: World Without Waste.

“At The Coca-Cola Co. we recognize that the world has a packaging waste problem, and, as the world’s largest beverage company, we have a responsibility to help solve it,” Ray says. “In 2018, we launched World Without Waste, an environmental program with ambitious goals that include: making 100 percent our packaging recyclable by 2025, making bottles and cans with 50 percent recycled content by 2030 and helping collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030. We plan to achieve these goals by focusing our efforts on three areas: design, collect and partner.”

In 2020, The Coca-Cola Co. introduced a 30 percent recycled content cap on its DASANI water bottles on the West Coast, Ray says. The company is looking to expand this innovation across the United States.

“We’re also continuing to make progress on increasing our use of recycled PET in our bottles ― using an average of about 10 percent across our portfolio in the U.S. as we work to create a circular economy for our packaging,” Ray says.

Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo also has shown measurable progress in its efforts to incorporate PCR plastic into its packaging. In the company’s “2019 Sustainability Report,” it states that PepsiCo is 88 percent of the way to reaching its 100 percent recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging by 2025.

In addition to its Naked Juice brand, the company announced in 2019 that its premium water brand LIFEWTR will be packaged in 100 percent rPET.

In late 2020, the company also released its 2020 Green Bond Report, which provides an update on the allocation of the use of net proceeds from its first Green Bond, which was issued in October 2019 for $1 billion.

As of Dec. 31, 2019, $447 million of the net proceeds from the Green Bond have been allocated, including approximately $200 million to procure rPET plastic for the company's North American beverage packaging. This move voids approximately 210,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are focused on accelerating our momentum to further align business and purpose, and are proud of the progress we've made towards building and investing in a more sustainable future,” said Jim Andrew, chief sustainability officer at PepsiCo, in a statement in October 2020. “The Green Bond is one of the many tools we're using to advance critical steps in our sustainability journey, and it is a significant catalyst for continued progress. Ultimately, that's what PepsiCo's Green Bond is all about: action.”

However, recyclable PCR content is not the only avenue that beverage manufacturers are using to address packaging waste. Brand owners are turning to equipment long associated with foodservice operations: beverage dispensers.

“Another way we’re innovating is through the development of package-less beverage delivery options, like Coca-Cola Freestyle, which can contribute to cutting waste in product transportation and manufacturing,” The Coca-Cola Co.’s Ray says. “In order to ensure this option could continue to be used comfortably by consumers during the coronavirus pandemic, we quickly developed a touchless innovation that allows users to pour beverages from their smartphone by scanning a QR code on the Freestyle machine.”

The contact-less Coca-Cola Freestyle solution allows consumers to choose and pour a drink from their phone in just a few seconds, without having to sign up for a membership or download an app. Compatible with any smart device, the mobile Web experience was piloted in summer 2020 at select Wendy’s, Five Guys and Firehouse Subs restaurants in Atlanta before it was pushed to 10,000 Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers.

PepsiCo also is prognosticating a package-free future for beverages through its 2018 acquisition of SodaStream International Ltd. In the company’s 2019 Sustainability Report, it estimates that 67 billion single-use plastic bottles will be avoided through 2025 because of the growth of SodaStream.

In support of the growing sparkling water market, SodaStream and bubly, a brand of PepsiCo, announced the release of bubly drops for the SodaStream system.

The collaboration aligns the ongoing commitments of the two brands to increase sustainability and reduce single-use plastic, the companies say.  In 2019, bubly announced it would no longer be available in plastic packaging. And now, bubly drops for SodaStream offers consumers another sustainable option for enjoyment, with the ability to create their favorite bubly sparkling water at home in six flavors: grapefruitbubly, blackberrybubly, limebubly, strawberrybubly, mangobubly, and cherrybubly.

Community commitment

Although the beverage market remains competitive, the key players have come together over the years to foster positive change in key areas such as school beverage guidelines, vending machine information and to balance daily calorie consumption. The beverage industry’s latest group effort is tackling the recycling challenges through its Every Bottle Back initiative led by American Beverage and environmental leaders.

“America’s beverage companies, in partnership with environmental leaders Closed Loop Partners, The Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund, have made funding commitments to help reduce the industry’s plastic footprint through consumer awareness efforts and targeted investments in community infrastructure modernization,” Lugar says. “In its first full year, Every Bottle Back committed funding for a total of $10 million for 11 community recycling projects estimated to collect 644 million new pounds of recycled PET that can be recycled and used to make new bottles. These investments will boost the collection of plastic bottles and prevent them from winding up where they were never intended, such as in oceans, rivers and beaches or wasted in landfills.”

The Coca-Cola Co.’s Ray also notes the company’s commitment to advancing recycling access.

“We believe it should be easier for Americans to recycle than it is to throw items away, which is why we have been investing in recycling infrastructure and education programs to help make recycling simpler and more accessible,” she says. “So far, we’ve placed more than 1 million recycling bins in over 1,400 communities across the U.S., diverting more than 800 million pounds of recyclables from landfills annually.”

In October 2020, American Beverage announced that the effort by America’s leading beverage companies to boost the recycling of plastic bottles saw the initiation of modernization projects in Texas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. These projects will help more than 349,000 households recycle nearly 38 million new pounds of PET plastic over 10 years for remaking into new bottles, it added.

The following are highlights as a result of Every Bottle Back from the past year:

Invested $3 million in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in partnership with the Balcones Material Recovery Facility (MRF) to upgrade the recycling infrastructure and boost collection rates. Along with state-of-the-art technology aimed at enhancing load capacity, Every Bottle Back’s investment in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex will provide more than 282,000 households with improved recycling access and consumer education. These investments are expected to yield 30 million pounds of newly recovered, fully recyclable PET plastic during the next 10 years.

Invested $390,500 in Broken Arrow, Okla., to help launch a new curbside recycling program and provide 35,000 households with carts and recycling education materials. Efforts in Broken Arrow are expected to boost collection of recyclable materials by 124 million pounds during the next 10 years, of which 2.1 million pounds will be aluminum and 5.8 million pounds will be PET plastic, both of which are used to make 100 percent recyclable cans and bottles.

Invested $520,000 in Kenosha, Wis., to convert more than 32,000 households from an outdated plastic bag recycling system to 96-gallon, curbside recycling carts.  This modernization will allow carts to be lifted and dumped into trucks via an automated arm, upgrading from the city’s current labor-intensive, manual collection of bags, providing a safer environment for workers. During the next 10 years, this investment is expected to yield 54 million pounds of new recyclables, including 2.1 million new pounds of PET plastic and 702,000 pounds of aluminum.

The association and its members are looking to build on these tangible successes into this new year.

“We’re going to continue executing on our Every Bottle Back initiative and have some exciting plans in 2021 that will soon be announced to continue advancing our objectives,” Lugar explains. “We are also hard at work exploring more ways we can improve collection and recycling at an even larger scale in this country through public policy actions. Several states, as well as Congress, are looking at this issue as well, and we are at the table with policymakers and environmental groups exploring new opportunities here. 

“We are leading the effort to include investments in recycling modernization as part of legislation being developed by Congress and the Biden administration on infrastructure improvements,” she continues. “This would be an important step in improving the nation’s critical infrastructure and educating consumers on best recycling practices in their communities. We expect 2021 to be a dynamic year in Washington and across the country on environmental issues and it will provide us great opportunity to build on shared priorities and goals.”