Recycling accusations spur Coke boycott

Travis Reed

A new national environmental boycott is designed to punish soft-drink giant Coca-Cola Co. right where it hurts: the work force.
Last month’s national collegiate eco-conference spawned the employment boycott because environmental groups say Coke reneged on a 1990 promise to use more recycled material in their packaging.
Anne Morse, Winona County’s recycling director, is one of many who say that Coca-Cola representatives misled her about using recycled materials in their plastic bottles.
“I have no trust in what they say to me,” she said. “They tell us what we want to hear.”
Boycott organizers said universities should take advantage of their leverage with soft-drink companies to promote recycling.
“If universities and students demand that Coke use only recycled products on campus, they have to listen,” said Bill Sheehan, a GrassRoots Recycling Network coordinator.
The network, a national environmental organization, is one of many organizations spearheading the Dirty Jobs Boycott, which has so far targeted two other companies allegedly engaged in questionable environmental behavior.
The three-week-old boycott urges students to sign a pledge not to work for the targeted companies.
But so far, the University, which signed a $15 million contract with Coca-Cola in 1996, hasn’t signed up. The contract gives Coke exclusive rights to distribute beverage products on campus.
Ron Campbell, associate vice president of University student development and athletics, said recycling was a topic of discussion in the contract negotiations, but the final contract did not require any recycling initiatives.
“There is nothing in the contract about recycling, but good faith was implied,” Campbell said. “(Coca-Cola) said they would be willing to look at those kinds of issues and help the campus community.”
Recycling groups said Coke used recycling promises to boost sales.
But nine years later, Coca-Cola still does not use recycled materials in its plastic containers, said Michael Blake, program director for the Virginia-based Container Recycling Institute.
Trey Parris, a Coca-Cola spokesman, said the company has tested the use of recycled materials in its bottles since the early 1990s and has reintroduced bottles with recycled material in the past 12 months.
“By all accounts, Coke has been a leader in progressive programs and practices,” Parris said.
But those who work with the materials are not convinced.
“They say they’re using recycled materials, but it’s not a substantial amount,” Morse said. “Only one million of the 800 million pounds of plastic Coke buys is recycled.”

Red and white, maroon and gold
The 1996 contract between the University and Coca-Cola was signed after the company’s verbal recycling commitment.
Campbell said no one had yet brought the recent Coke recycling issues to his attention.
“Coke made a commitment four years ago, and people have a legitimate concern about something they said they’d do,” Campbell said. “Coke has to be more responsive than to just say it’s something they can’t do.”
But Campbell said he is willing to discuss recycling issues with Coke if there is a demonstrated concern.
The University is no stranger to problems with recycling the plastic soft-drink bottles. Dana Donatucci, associate administrator of Facility Support and Waste Management, said the popular plastic bottles have reduced the University’s recycling revenue.
“The market (for plastics) is not great, but it has improved,” he said. “Six or seven months ago, we couldn’t even move the material.”
Donatucci said Facilities Management now brings in about half of the revenue that was made with aluminum containers. With change to plastic bottles, the University was forced to process 600 percent more plastic than before, he said.
Recycling advocates have said the introduction of the 20-ounce plastic bottles have killed the recycling industry. Critics of Coke say there is no market for the recycled plastic if soft-drink companies won’t buy it.
“If you take a look at plastics recycling relative to other types of materials, you can see it’s at the bottom,” said Rick Best, president of the GrassRoots Recycling Network. “They’ve done a very poor job in terms of recycling rates.”
For college recycling programs, the use of plastic bottles has turned a money-making program into a financial risk. To facilitate the changeover, some colleges have asked Coca-Cola to subsidize their recycling programs.
At the University of Illinois, for example, the recycling program gets $50,000 a year in support from Coca-Cola.
But when the University signed its contract with Coca-Cola, no such provisions for recycling subsidies were available.
“We looked at potential recycling programs, but at the time, there were none,” Campbell said. “It’s an issue that should have been followed up on.”
Donatucci, however, said he is more concerned with the recycling practices of the industry giant than the University’s loss in recycling revenue.
“What disturbs me is that the (plastic) content of the bottles is not recycled, and it could be,” he said.
His concerns are echoed by those involved in the boycott.
Best said it would cost Coke 0.5 percent of their annual profits to use recycled plastics in their bottles.
“They don’t want (the use of recycled materials) to cost any more than virgin plastic,” Best said. “From our standpoint, that’s completely ignoring corporate responsibility.”

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected]