Oceana’s Littlejohn Believes Reusable, Refillable Beverage Containers are the Real Thing

The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, and Keurig Dr Pepper have pledged to increase post-consumer recycled content in their polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET) bottles by targets from 25 to 50 percent. Oceana, a nonprofit pushing for policy to protect the world’s oceans, is among environmental organizations who says fulfilling these pledges won’t make much of a dent in the wasted plastic beverage container pile up.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

September 8, 2022

7 Min Read

The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, and Keurig Dr Pepper have pledged to increase post-consumer recycled content in their polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET) bottles by targets from 25 to 50 percent. Oceana, a nonprofit pushing for policy to protect the world’s oceans, is among environmental organizations who says fulfilling these pledges won’t make much of a dent in the wasted plastic beverage container pile up.

Read on to hear Matt Littlejohn, the organization’s senior vice president, say why he doesn’t think recycling is the end all. And for his thoughts on what he says has potential to be the real single-use plastic pollution killer: refillables. Littlejohn goes on to discuss Coca-Cola’s goal around reusables/refillables that, if met, he says could take 1 billion single-use  PET liter bottles out of the ocean a year.  And he points out regions who are most aggressively coming down on single-use plastics, pausing to touch on the latest out of California.

Waste360: Why do you say these beverage companies’ pledges to increase recycled content will not address plastic pollution in the ocean?

Littlejohn: Recycled content is not magic. Single-use plastic bottles – no matter how much recycled content is in them – can and do end up in the oceans and other waterways. This is because these bottles are designed to be discarded and a portion of them - as we all can see in local front yards, parks, and elsewhere - don’t make it to the waste stream but become litter. There is little evidence that increasing recycled content changes this. Eunomia’s study found that, if met, the companies’ pledges would only reduce PET bottle pollution to aquatic systems by 7 percent. An estimated 33.4 billion PET bottles would still enter rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Waste360: Do you think that use of recycled content should still be a part of these corporations’ pledges? Otherwise, how should they address the problem?  

Littlejohn: We believe that companies should make measurable commitments to reducing single-use plastic. It’s clear – based on what is happening in our oceans – that we need to stop the tsunami of plastic that is heading into our seas and impacting marine life. Companies must stop making commitments that sound good but don’t reduce plastic pollution in a quantifiable way.

Waste360: What should be government’s role in addressing the single-use plastics pollution problem? And what regions are already taking action?

Littlejohn: Governments should stop plastic pollution at the source by passing local, state, and national policies that reduce the production and use of unnecessary single-use plastic and move toward refill and reuse systems.

Alongside our allies, Oceana has won victories that do just that in Chile, Canada, and, most recently, California. In June, following such campaigning, California enacted the strongest plastic pollution policy in the nation, requiring producers to cut their single-use plastic packaging foodware by at least 25 percent by 2032 and implement the first statewide reuse and refill mandates in the nation. Victories like this shift the burden of plastic pollution from consumers back on polluters.

Waste360: What practices do you think need to be addressed first that few people may know about?

Littlejohn: It’s important for people to realize that, despite all the focus on recycling, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled globally. Did you know that more plastic, according to recent estimates, was burned than recycled? The amount of plastic burned worldwide was nearly 20 percent, according to the OECD’s recent estimate (not including plastic waste burned in open pits). This is a problem because plastic is often made from petroleum products and releases climate-changing gases when burned. We should be talking more about the problems of using and burning so much plastic rather than about recycling.

Waste360: Just how much impact can reusable/refillables have?  

Littlejohn: Refillables are the single-use plastic pollution killer because glass refillable bottles can be used as many as 50 times and plastic refillable bottles can be used as many as 30 times. And, unlike with single-use plastic bottles, companies get essentially all the bottles back, which means they can’t become pollution.

Oceana, in a report, looked at industry data and scientific studies about plastic pollution and found that just a 10 percent increase in the use of refillables could take as many as 7.6 billion bottles out of the oceans every year. Because of this, Oceana is campaigning to get beverage companies around the globe to increase their use of refillable bottles and decrease their reliance on single-use plastics. Following campaigning by Oceana and our allies, Coca-Cola pledged to sell 25 percent of its products in reusable packaging, including refillable bottles, by 2030. Oceana estimated that if Coca-Cola meets this goal, this decision could take the equivalent of 1 billion single-use PET liter bottles out of the ocean every year.

In addition, we’ve heard that many consumers think the beverages in refillable bottles taste better. This is because these bottles are often thicker and can do a better job at retaining carbonation. Refillable bottles are part of why Mexican Coke (often sold in refillable bottles in Mexico) is so popular.

Waste360: Refillables are an old trend. Have you heard from Coca-Cola why it moved away from this model?

Littlejohn: Refillables never went away. Oceana found that 23 percent of total volume for soft drinks (including water) were sold in refillable containers. Over one-third of everything Coca-Cola sold in Latin America in 2021 was in refillable containers.

Yes, refillables, went commercially extinct in the United States and other countries but they are very much alive and part of the culture elsewhere around the world. We did a series of videos for this reason where refillable drinkers from other countries educate those in the U.S. (and other non-refillable markets) about how they work.

There are many studies and books about what drove the decline of refillable bottles in the U.S. The relevant point is that refillables existed in the U.S. just a few decades ago and the decline coincided with the rise of single-use plastic. Given the high levels of refillables elsewhere (including in countries like Germany) there is no reason they can’t be sold in the U.S. again. In fact, Coca-Cola just launched a pilot project this year in El Paso, Texas where they sold refillable bottles.  And Coca-Cola has said it will push to increase the amount of fountain beverages sold in reusable cups and containers.

Waste360: Is anyone besides Coca-Cola moving into the refillables space?

Littlejohn: Coca-Cola Company is the only major player with a substantial goal in this regard. But other major beverage companies – including Pepsi – sell in refillable containers in different parts of the world. Also, look at beer! Large beer companies sell products in refillable bottles all over the world.

In strong refillable markets, beverage companies have made these systems more efficient to the point where refillables – according to studies from the companies themselves - are better for the climate and better at saving water (when you look at the full life cycle around single-use plastic).

Waste360: What is stopping beverage companies from expanding refillables?

Littlejohn: Nothing. It is a matter of will, not technology. Refillables – unlike many new, unproven ideas about how to reduce plastic use – are “shovel ready.” The technology and processes already exist and operate on a huge scale. It’s reverse logistics and, as we all know from our experience with next-day and same-day delivery, companies have proven they can do amazing things in this area. Refillables will require an investment to run and build the systems but some portion of the huge amount of funding going to support recycling efforts could help create and reconstruct refillable systems which, data shows, will reduce single-use plastic on a large scale.

Waste360: What else is Oceana doing to protect oceans and sea life? What have you accomplished so far?

Littlejohn: Oceana campaigns in countries that control about one-third of the world’s wild fish catch in order to win policy victories that can restore our oceans to abundance. With the help of our allies, Oceana has won more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks. Through our advocacy and policy campaigns, Oceana has protected nearly 4 million square miles of ocean (more than 10 million square kilometers) by stopping destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling and creating marine protected areas. Governmental transparency is key to ensuring these policies are effectively implemented and enforced.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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