Coca-Cola still fills the ocean with plastic

Chi Quynh Tran, Hau Hai Nguyen, Léa Ermini

Coca-Cola is claiming to address the plastic crisis with circular solutions, but are they really sustainable?

For many people, the answer to tackling numerous environmental issues is transitioning towards a circular economy. The core idea is to create a model “that is restorative by design, aiming to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

Given the popularity of this concept, several firms have been introducing their own SDGs and circular economy agendas with a claim towards sustainability. But circular economy applications among corporations are not always good, and their promise of future green growth is in the realm of doubt. Coca-Cola and their "World Without Waste" programme is a good example.

Ineffective  Waste programme

Through this programme, Coca-Cola claims its contribution to collect and recycle bottles and cans for every one sold by 2030. Launched in 2018, this programme highlights ambitious plans: to make Coca-Cola product packaging 100% recyclable by 2025 and use 50% recycled materials in bottles and cans by 2030.

Thus, by committing to a circular economy, the multinational firm is claiming to meet the SDG 12: Responsible Production and Consumption. However, the brand audit report from the Break Free From Plastic initiative revealed Coca-Cola as the world's No 1 polluter in three consecutive years with more plastic pieces responsible than PepsiCo and Nestle - the following two top polluted brands combined.

Even more concerning, the number of Coca-Cola branded plastic items itself increased significantly by 18% and was found in 14 more countries from 2019 to 2020. Thus, the effectiveness of the "World Without Waste" programme is greatly questioned in the face of increasing plastic waste.

A spit in the plastic ocean

In 2019, Coca-Cola introduced their environmentally friendly solution to accelerate the prospect of a closed-loop economy for plastic, about 300 disposable bottles using 25% recycled ocean plastic.

However, these few hundred bottles pale when compared to the 200,000 one-way bottles Coca-Cola produces each minute. Instead of dealing with really environmentally friendly packaging strategies at the beginning, Coca-Cola has focused on mitigating the consequences caused by itself as a form of public appeasement and legitimization of increasing marine pollution with more and more single-use plastic rubbish.

This approach to the circular economy is unacceptable, and as made clear in the Progress report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, corporations like Coca-Cola have made zero progress in addressing the plastic pollution crisis.

Are recycled bottles safe?

Another perspective to be taken into consideration is the quality of these Coke bottles made of recycled marine plastic. Coca-Cola claimed to employ new recycling technologies that break down the components of plastic and strip out impurities so they can be rebuilt as new.

However, concerns are being raised about the safety of recycled ocean plastic for food containing as the plastic source of the recycling process may contain hazardous substances to human health.

Pete Myers, the founder and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, mentioned in his article of recycling ocean plastic that “virtually all plastics are likely to contain toxic ingredients, especially those taken from the ocean”. He later listed related diseases to these toxic ingredients such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, infertility, ADHD and autism. With such uncertainty, is Coca-Cola’s plan to go green by producing bottles from ocean plastic here to stay?

What should they focus on instead?

Coca-Cola has definitely put great efforts into planning the World Without Waste programme. Nonetheless, the fundamental change expected from it is nowhere to be found. The launch of Coca-Cola’s new bottles made from ocean plastic turned out to be nothing but a greenwashing tool. Instead of investing further and making marketing campaigns out of this, Coca-Cola should start to deal with the core problem – their overproduction of throwaway bottles.

Coca-Cola should reduce their single-used plastic output as much as possible and actually work towards a truly circular and sustainable business model.


Runner up Winner - Opinion Essay Competition 2021

This essay is one of the runner-up essays of this year's BIs sustainability opinion essay competition. Read the winner text here



Robert Crocker et al. (2018). Unmaking waste in production and consumption towards the circular economy. Emerald Publishing Limited.

The Coca-Cola Company. (2019). Introducing a World-First: A Coke Bottle Made with Plastic from the Sea. 

The Coca-Cola Company. (2020). 2020 Business & Environmental, Social and Governance Report.


Published 23. November 2021

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