What if plastic never became waste?

In communities all over the world, circular recycling solutions provide a path to keeping plastic products out of our natural environments for good.

 In the center of the Pacific Ocean, weighing more than 87,000 tons, is an amorphous vortex of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. First discovered in the mid-1990s, it expands each year, collecting new pieces and particles. It's just one striking example of how the world is experiencing a direct threat from excess consumer waste, demonstrating the urgent need for sustainable solutions.

Finding those solutions is the focus of The Coca-Cola Company's World Without Waste initiative, which includes the ambitious goal of collecting and recycling the equivalent of every bottle or can the company sells globally by 2030. Since launching in January 2018, the initiative has underwritten and implemented new recycling campaigns, as well as reinvented existing ones, from Estonia to Australia, Kenya to the United States, adhering to the values of a closed-loop circular economy: a system in which all of the plastic packaging the company produces is designed to be recycled, kept in the economy, and reused in food and beverage packaging.

The Coca-Cola Company has a plan to recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells by 2030.

These diverse programs provide valuable lessons that can be applied around the world. Ultimately, the Coca-Cola Company's progress proves that sustainable, circular recycling initiatives are possible—and valuable—for any country and any economy.

Consumers drive successful recycling collection networks in Estonia

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Baltic nation of Estonia has quietly become one of the most technologically advanced countries in the region. Early adopters, they've not only built an internet infrastructure and startup culture to rival Silicon Valley, they were also the first country in Eastern Europe to wholly embrace a closed-loop circular economy.

In Estonia, people can exchange plastic, glass, and cans for cash or charity donations.

Estonian leaders looked to their neighbors in Sweden and Norway to adopt parts of their successful collection systems that engage producers, retailers, consumers and local governments. (Sweden did this so successfully that it now has to import trash to convert to energy to power its recycling plants.)

Based on these learnings, Estonia's own success as one of the E.U.'s most dedicated recyclers can be attributed to its creation of a win-win-win ecosystem that involved establishing a network of recycling vending machines at major gathering points throughout the country. Through this approach, people can exchange plastic, glass, and cans for cash or charity donations, which is widely popular and highly effective.

"The key to its success was that it was very collaborative, with all the necessary market players involved—producers, retailers and local governments," said Nele Normak, Coca-Cola's public affairs and communications manager for the Baltic region. "The success of these vending machines has less to do with any design or technology innovation than simple convenience: Consumers can easily find and use the machines, making the recycling process feel like a simple trip to the ATM."

Putting circular solutions into action

Sustainability and closed-loop cycles must now become a global priority, from emerging nations to the world's largest economies. Companies at the forefront of sustainability are thinking creatively to address this growing concern. If the success of innovative closed-loop circular systems in Estonia, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and the United States is any indication, no country or market is too small to adapt more sustainable recycling models based on its unique socioeconomic factors and governmental policies. These solutions ultimately help create a closed-loop system that benefits the environment, serves communities and begins the path to solutions for this generation. As the example from Estonia demonstrates, these goals do not have to be mutually exclusive.


As first appeared in Washington Post, 7th January 2019.