Spartanburg. The name sounds like a civil war battlefield, and in the realm of beverage container recycling, that’s what it’s been; the scene of the Coca-Cola Company’s failed attempt at bottle-to-bottle PET recycling. The so-called NURRC plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina was a joint venture with 51 per cent partner United Resource Recovery Corp. LLC; its saga reveals how the commercial agenda of a multinational company can undermine its own stated sustainable development goals.
It all began in the spring of 2000 when Coca-Cola announced plans to use 10 per cent recycled content in several billion (one in four) of its North American PET beverage containers. Industry observers recalled a similar announcement Coke made a decade earlier about achieving 25 per cent recycled content; a promise that quietly slipped away. They were skeptical.
Coke investigated different technologies. Being the 800-pound industry gorilla, the company was in a great position to pick a proven technology. The company had previously tried depolymerization (which breaks down PET into monomers and then rebuilds new polymers) but found it too expensive.
With much fanfare, the company ultimately partnered with URRC and invested $45 million in the Spartanburg plant, which launched into full production in the fall of 2008, with the capacity of recycling 45 million tons of PET per year. In doing so, Coke chose a direct-blend approach in which existing polymers are preserved and deep-cleaned for reuse.
Just three years later in May 2011 the company shuttered the plant, then tried to sell it. When a buyer couldn’t be found, Coke made rumblings that it would re-open, though it appears to not be running anywhere near capacity, and it seems most of the PET is being “downcycled” and not used to make new bottles. Coke’s recycling management executives have been reshuffled and the future of recycled content in Coca-Cola bottles remains uncertain. (The company’s bottles reportedly contain just three per cent recycled content these days.)
So, what went wrong?
First there was the challenge of markets. Recycled PET can always be sold for lower-end uses like fibre, strapping and furniture, for which use most of it is bought by companies in China. Bottle-to-bottle PET recycling is a tougher act, relying (beyond technical challenges) on a certain utilization rate and yield (as a function of the cost of buying the PET) to make economic sense.
Recycled PET has tended to be more expensive than virgin PET, due to the supply/demand equation. With demand so strong, PET prices could be lowered via increased supply – something that would happen quickly if more jurisdictions adopted deposit-refund systems. Overall PET recycling rates have stagnated for years in curbside systems, varying between about 25 per cent and 33 per cent, while recovery rates in the 11 bottle bill states are far higher (averaging 70 per cent).
Yet Coke and the soft drink industry actively oppose bottle bills, the very thing that could increase supply, lower prices, and improve the quality of baled material sent for recycling.
Beyond markets, Coke invested in the deep clean technology just as the industry moved to lightweight its bottles; the bottles flew off the Spartanburg equipment, leaving only the bottle necks and bottoms.
Worse, at the Spartanburg plant Coke only accepted PET materials from curbside collection systems, eschewing bottles from deposit states. It made this commitment just as single-stream recycling programs took flight. As was predictable, contaminated bales from the single-stream programs caused the Spartanburg operation to hemorrhage. Of its 50 million ton capacity, only about one million tons of processed PET went into bottles; the balance going to other applications. Coke reportedly ignored requests from operating partner URRC to switch to cleaner PET from bottle bill programs. Coke insisted on ordering new equipment, which was more expensive and didn’t solve all the problems.
A cynic might say Coke never wanted the plant to succeed in the first place. But it’s difficult to imagine the company investing $50 million in an operation it knew would fail. It’s more likely that the company’s commercial agenda undermined its commitment to achieve 10 per cent recycled content in a practical manner.
Coke has announced a new “PlantBottle” scheme to eventually manufacture all its bottles from plant (sugar cane) materials, which it says can be recycled just like PET. The Disani water line is currently made up from 30 per cent plant-based materials, and Coke says it’s moving toward 100 per cent plant content and the eventual recycling of all its containers. But without deposit-refund systems, it’s difficult to see how this will happen.
After its defeat at Spartanburg, the burden of proof remains with Coca-Cola to prove its recycling announcements are more than just marketing.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com