‘We have sent signals to the Commission for many years. Somewhere it’s getting lost’: Coca-Cola bemoans poor recycling infrastructure as new EU plastic rules are enforced

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Kwangmoozaa
Image: Getty/Kwangmoozaa

Related tags Coke Coca-cola Plastic

As new measures come into force to reduce plastic waste in the European Union, Coca-Cola is calling for a dramatic improvement in the region’s recycling capacity to help it achieve its ambitious target of using 100% recycled rPET bottles across its total portfolio.

New measures to reduce plastic waste in the European Union came into force on July 3. They include a ban on single-use plastic products such as food containers, cups for beverages, cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers.

The ruling came into force in 2019 but member states had until July 3 to turn it into national law. Eight member states are believed to have done so. According to Zero Waste Europe, a Brussels based NGO, most EU member states have adopted "bare minimum requirements"​ or are missing some of the required measures. In other countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria, the transposition of the directive into national law is still in progress or has not started.

The directive on single-use plastics​ also requires member states to reduce consumption of certain single-use items. Specific targets include a 77% separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2025 – increasing to 90% by 2029. States must also incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET beverage bottles from 2025, and 30% in all plastic beverage bottles from 2030.

But Coco-Cola is calling for better ‘resource efficiency’ within the EU. The drinks giant was called out as the biggest plastic polluter in the world for the third year in row by the Changing Markets Foundation last year. But it says it is committed to transitioning to using 100% recycled rPET bottles across its total portfolio. It says this approach will cut the use of new plastic by more than 20% compared to 2018, and help it cutting its GHG emissions annually by 10,000 metric tonnes.

“We fully agree with the Commission’s objectives of a recourse efficient economy,”​ Wouter Vermeulen, Coca Cola Senior Director, Europe Public Policy, told FoodNavigator. “It makes good sense for the environment, but it also makes good business sense. We want to ensure the packaging we use is better packaging. For plastic bottles that means 100% rPET. Our ambition over time is to cut us free from using plastics that are derived from the use of virgin oil.”

But more collection is needed ‘urgently’ to get there, we were told, particularly because in bottles PET has to be food grade – but in other applications it can be of a lower quality. Therefore, there is a supply shortage of recycled PET available to the food and beverage industry.

“We support well-designed deposit return schemes,”​ Vermeulen elaborated. “We would like the EC to provide guidance of what well-designed schemes look like. Unfortunately, that’s not happening. We want to promote bottle-to-bottle recycling. Very often we observe our high-quality PET is collected, recycled and then used for downcycled applications be it textile or recently we even noticed toys. We would like preferential access. We have asked the Commission. We haven’t heard back yet.”

Jan Burger, Coca Cola Climate & Water Sustainability Director Europe, called on more investment in recycling technologies from the Commission. “In order to get this food grade recycled PET that needs to come from recycling technologies that have authorisation from the Commission,”​ he said.

“The Commission has already been talking for more than ten years to establish a central European system for that. Today it is based on Member State authorisations and some technologies are authorised in one country and not in the other. A lot of our operators that are keen to provide recycled PET are not able to do it because they don’t have the authorisation from EFSA and European Commission approval.”

This issue is “hugely concerning”, added Vermeulen. “The Commission is sitting idle on 160 approval processes meaning that a capacity of 600,000 tonnes in the recycling industry for PET is at risk of not being used at a moment with demand for rPET is rising,” ​he claimed. “What do we want from government? Avoiding high quality materials to be downgraded, down cycled, and for the Commission to do its part of the contract and to ensure all of the good material that’s out there, all of the recycling capacity that’s out there, is not left idle due to internal bureaucratic hiccoughs… We have sent signals to the Commission for many, many years. Somewhere it’s getting lost.”

The Commision would not respond directly to Coca Cola's comments.  

A spokesperson told us: "The Single Use Plastic Directive was adopted in 2019, marking a landmark action of the European Union in diminishing marine litter. The problem of plastic litter in the oceans and the environment is of serious public and environmental concern, posing a severe threat to biodiversity and damaging the economy. While plastics are a convenient, useful and valuable material, the way we use them is incredibly wasteful. Single-use plastic products are used once, often for a short period of time, before being thrown away.

The directive has a two-fold objective: prevent and reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment and on human health, and promote the transition to a circular economy. It gives priority to sustainable and re-usable products and re-use systems. The new EU rules address the 10 single-use plastic items and fishing gear that account for most littered items found on Europe’s beaches, and promote sustainable alternatives. The Directive includes single use products that are wholly made from plastic, as well as single-use products that are partly made from plastic."

Could the new rules fragment standards across Europe?

Others are also unhappy at the EU plastics directive could lead to different standards being adopted across the bloc. Industry bodies Plastics Europe and the European Plastics Converters both want the Commission to ensure the guidelines are not open for interpretation, so member states do not end up adopting different rules.

“An important opportunity has been lost, leaving an essential part of our European industry the uncertainty about the future of the different national legislative frameworks,”​ said EuPC Managing Director Alexandre Dangis.

Environmental campaigners fear the rules do not go far enough. Larissa Copello, Consumption and Production Campaigner at Zero Waste Europe said: “Half-hearted measures, such as material substitution or cosmetic legislative change, will not allow to achieve a truly circular economy across Europe. It is urgent to redesign both products and distribution systems, and decision-makers can drive this systemic change by adopting a combination of measures such as consumption reduction targets, reuse quotas, harmonised packaging formats and deposit return schemes.”​  

Frédérique Mongodin, Senior Marine Litter Policy Officer At Seas At Risk added: “Single-use plastic is the symbol of today’s throw-away society and phasing them out constitutes an obvious first step to fight plastic pollution. Yet we cannot rely on the sole political will of national governments. We need bold and effective actions from across society to drive a wave of change. The solutions we have collected are meant to inspire new ways of living and consuming that are more respectful of our ocean, our planet and ourselves.”​ 

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