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Sprite's switch from green to clear plastic is welcomed, but is it enough?

Now that Coca-Cola is switching to clear Sprite bottles, Mecklenburg County officials hope other producers will follow suit and eliminate color from their containers.
Jeff Smithberger
Mecklenburg County
Now that Coca-Cola is switching to clear Sprite bottles, Mecklenburg County officials hope other producers will follow suit and eliminate color from their containers.

Coca-Cola Co.'s announcement that it will start producing the soft drink Sprite in clear instead of green bottles has recycling managers smiling.

But why celebrate such a seemingly minor change? Because colored plastics are a major barrier to recycling.

Companies that buy recycled plastic bottles and containers prefer clear plastic. It's the easiest thing to process into new containers, said Jeff Smithberger, director of solid waste for Mecklenburg County.

"They certainly don't want green, or brown, or blue or another color mixed in with it, because it's just so time intensive to try to separate out those colors. It seems like there's always one or two of the colored types of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics mixed in with a regular clear load," Smithberger said in an interview.

More Coca-Cola brands also changing

In its announcement, Coca-Cola also said it will shift all of its current green bottles to clear in the coming months, including the Fresca, Seagram's and Mello Yello brands. And it pledged begin using 100% recycled plastic in most Dasani water bottles in the U.S. and all Dasani bottles in Canada.

Manufacturers usually don't worry about whether a container can be recycled. Colors are part of their marketing. Sprite is closely associated with green, for example. And blue, green or orange is part of the branding for many laundry detergents.

So Smithberger applauds Coca-Cola's decision to ditch the green.

"This is a real win for the recycling community and for the sustainability aspect of Coca-Cola. to make their products in clear colored plastic packaging that then can be more readily recycled," he said.

Pressure on marketers to change

Mecklenburg County is a part of a nationwide effort called the Product Sustainability Group that has been lobbying big consumer product makers to start worrying about recycling, and this is a small win. For Smithberger, the question is who's next?

Jeff Smithberger at the Mecklenburg County recycling center.
David Boraks
Jeff Smithberger at the Mecklenburg County recycling center.

"There are a few other bottling companies for us to challenge to 'dew' the same thing," he joked in an email, referring to one of Sprite's biggest competitors that also uses a green bottle.

"We would like to believe that the discussions that we've had and others in the Product Sustainability Group have had with manufacturers are starting to pay off because we know that consumers want these products at the end of their life to be used for a better and higher order," Smithberger said in the interview.

Coca-Cola says recycling more will ensure there's more PET available to reuse.

"Demand for rPET (recycled PET) currently exceeds supply, so the first step to scaling up use of 100% rPET across our portfolio is building a sustainable pipeline of high-quality material,” Chris Vallette, Coca-Cola's senior vice president of technical innovation and stewardship, said in a press release. “We do this by working with communities to boost PET recycling and collection; collaborating with recycling partners; and, finally, securing rPET to help ensure the material for our bottles is used again and again."

The announcement affects all of Coca-Cola's operations, including those at Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Consolidated, the largest Coke bottler that operates in 14 states. Julian Ochoa is CEO of R3CYCLE, which is helping Coca-Cola Consolidated turn bottles back into bottles.

“Taking colors out of bottles improves the quality of the recycled material,” Ochoa said in Coke's press release. “This transition will help increase availability of food-grade rPET. When recycled, clear PET Sprite bottles can be remade into bottles, helping drive a circular economy for plastic.”

So that prompts another question for our local recycling guru, Jeff Smithberger: Can plastic actually be recycled over and over?

He laughed and said: "We've never seen anything that's been recycled to the 100% mark. So we don't know. But we certainly hope that it will be continually able to be recycled."

Smithberger said there are limits to how much any material can be recycled. "We do know that certain paper products do not have an infinite life in recycling," he said. "Something that may today be a cardboard box may end up being something that's more of a brown roll of paper later on, just because fiber length changes."

"I think the jury's still out on whether or not we can continually recycle plastic over and over to the same type and grade. But we'll certainly be watching and working with the manufacturers. But we want to certainly give it a chance," he said.

Recycling only goes so far

If we're going to continue using plastic bottles, we need more recycling. The federalEPA estimates that only about 9% of plastics from municipal trash pickups are recycled. Some types of plastic have a better track record: 29% of PET and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic bottles are recycled every year, according to the EPA. That's still lower than aluminum beer and soft drink cans (50%) and glass beer, soft drink, wine and liquor bottles (about 40%), the EPA says.

But a change of color doesn't really solve the bigger problem — a growing stream of plastic coming into the market. Even if producers and recyclers solved the color sorting problem, most plastic from the municipal solid waste collection still doesn't go for recycling, the EPA says. Instead most goes to landfills and some is burned for energy, which emits greenhouse gases.

"Coca-Cola's recent announcement is yet another blatant greenwashing attempt from one of the world's worst plastic polluters," Kate Melges of the Plastics Project at Greenpeace, told NPR reporter Becky Sullivan. "We are in the midst of a massive plastic pollution crisis and we cannot recycle our way out of it."

Environmentalists want to see a shift away from plastic, which in production, transportation and disposal creates greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Meanwhile, some plastic doesn't even make it into recycling bins or landfills. Millions of tons of plastic water and soft drink bottles wind up waterways, lakes or oceans every year. There it breaks up into tiny particles called "microplastics." Another argument for alternatives.

This article originally appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate Newsletter, which is published Thursdays. Subscribe at https://www.wfae.org/climate-newsletter-signup

RELATED STORY: A Davidson-based startup called Boomerang Water is building a business around reusable glass and aluminum bottles. See my June 30, 2022 newsletter"This startup has a solution for single-use plastic bottles."  

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.