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Waste Weighs On Coke's Conscience

One of the prevailing concepts in the world of environmental sustainabilty and social responsibility is "reverse logistics", the idea that the materials that have been used to make finished goods are eventually recycled back "upstream" in the supply chain so that they can be re-used, re-conditioned, or recycled. The logistics of this are challenging, but if the supply chain's relationships are close, the probability of reducing waste on a meaningful level is great indeed. But for consumer products companies like Coca-Cola, accounting for discarded packaging after the product's usage is pretty much impossible.

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Sometimes technoligcal waste is managed through what are called "take-back" regulations wherein manufacturers are compelled to work with retailers and consumers to make sure that toxic materials don't end up in our landfills. And sometimes recycling can be encouraged by governments in the form of subsidized curbside programs and expensive landfill fees, or cash incentives for consumers to return cans and bottles. But the idea that a consumer products company as large as Coca-Cola can make a public commitment to VOLUNTARILY recycle the equivalent of ALL of the plastic bottles it sells around the world is rather remarkable indeed. This is a great example of what sustainability is all about.

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The initiative, which marketers have smartly turned into a PR campaign called "World Without Waste", is clearly an attempt to proactively address the environmental problems that over 110 billion discarded plastic Coke bottles might pose. And kudos to Coke. A recycling program of this scale and scope will be very expensive, but we know from decades of experience that these sorts of sustainability initiatives can have very large-scale impacts on the way supply chains operate. Wal-Mart's impact on China's attitudes towards sustainability is particularly instructive here.

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Of course, non-profit organizations that are steeped in political activism, such as Greenpeace, are criticizing the plan since Coke uses the plastic bottles in the first place and are thus creating the waste; but the creation of waste is unfortunately very much in the nature of making things for consumers. Minimizing this sort of waste is what sustainability is all about, and I spent 25 years of my career helping companies develop and implement ecologically-responsible strategies. To me, it is highly unreasonable to expect that Coke can account for what happens to its bottles after use, and it stands to reason that a measurable, worldwide recycling objective equivalent to what the company manufacturers is a perfectly acceptable (and laudable) objective. Now they must deliver on the promise. It would be nice if Greenpeace could at least acknowledge that whatever Coke does will be done voluntarily and at great cost.

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But radical activists are not only tough to appease, some of them can be fairly dangerious, especially in these politically charged times. And of course, companies make hollow promises and fail to deliver all the time. But to this veteran of the natural and organic products industry, any major step by a company of this size, if legitimate and whatever the motivations, can be tranformative and is thus a very important step forward.


Discussion: What do you think of Coke's sustainbility initiative? Do you agree with the author or Greenpeace? Explain.