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Recycling plans for plastic

Recycling plastic

Lisa Foster, Sustainable Packaging Manager at Coca-Cola European Partners, discusses the company’s approach to sustainable packaging and the future of plastics in packaging.

With public interest in the impacts of plastic leakage into the natural environment soaring, it becomes easy to lose sight of why plastics are used in the first place. As materials, plastics are light-weight, strong, versatile, cheap and hygienic, and so they have significant benefits for the packaging industry. Without plastics, it would be difficult for consumers to enjoy the sheer range of choice that exists in the market today. Plastics can also be instrumental in tackling food waste by increasing shelf life and have improved public health by keeping food and drinks free of contaminants[1]. While some argue that not all plastic packaging is necessary, it is certain that the way we treat plastics must change, particularly at the end of life.

This change must occur across the whole value chain of plastics – for producers, converters, manufacturers and consumers – as plastics pollution becomes one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Marine ecosystems are now threatened by the amount of plastics in our oceans – as a direct result of plastics escaping into the natural world. The current production of plastics is also heavily dependent on non-renewable fossil fuels, providing further grounds for a rapid revision of behaviour to ensure the circular use of this valuable material.

Sustainability strategy

However, with such public scrutiny of plastics, it is easy to forget that the use of every material has its consequences and that companies must take a more holistic approach to the packaging of products. All materials have the potential to cause harm to the environment if handled incorrectly and not treated as part of a circular economy. The more sustainable use of plastics in packaging must be matched by considering the sustainability of other packaging materials, such as cardboard, aluminium and glass, something Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) has committed to in its ‘This is Forward’ Sustainability Action Plan[2], which was launched in November 2017.

Plastics can also be instrumental in tackling food waste by increasing shelf life and have improved public health by keeping food and drinks free of contaminants.

Recycling plastic packaging

CCEP’s overarching ambition is to collect all its packaging to ensure more is recycled and none ends up as litter or in the oceans. The company is working to invest and innovate to ensure that all its packaging is as sustainable as possible, regardless of the material used. This includes ensuring the recyclability of all packaging. Currently over 91% of the primary packaging produced by CCEP is 100% recyclable, which includes all our plastic bottles, glass bottles and cans[3]. Our ambition is to ensure all of our packaging is 100% recyclable by 2025.

Ensuring that packaging can be widely recycled by consumers is critical to supporting the circularity of the materials that manufacturers use. However, consumers expect packaging to have high levels of recycled content as well as being readily recyclable. With members of the UK Plastics Pact signing up to 30% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025[4], this may well become a reality, with an industry-wide shift expected over the next seven years.

CCEP has a history of using recycled content for its packaging. All our glass bottles and aluminium cans currently contain more than 50% recycled content and our plastic bottles have on average 25% recycled content. The company’s ambition is to double this to at least 50% recycled plastic by 2020.

One of the limiting factors in increasing recycled content is the availability of the high-quality food-grade PET resin needed. CCEP recognised that in order to achieve its recycling ambitions, it would need to invest in reprocessing capabilities in Great Britain. That is why in 2012 CCEP invested in creating the largest and most sophisticated food-grade PET bottle-to-bottle reprocessing plant in Europe[5]. The sustainable future of plastics in packaging is dependent on actions such as these, to cope with the volume of plastics that must be repurposed to support the circular economy.

In turn, the supply of high quality, used plastic bottles to feed the reprocessing facility is critical to its success. One of the other key pillars of CCEP’s Sustainable Packaging Strategy is to ensure consumers can readily understand what is recyclable. To make it easy for them to make an informed decision with regard to recyclability of packaging, it is necessary to ensure that our brand conveys that message. It remains vital to make the consumer’s role in the circular economy as easy as possible, which requires input from many in the materials value chain.

As it stands, there is much confusion around what can and cannot be recycled. Addressing this, CCEP now features messaging on the closures of more than 500m bottles every year with a ‘please recycle me’ message. We ensure our packs carry the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) symbol to show they are widely recycled, and we ensure that our adverts carry a clear message about the recyclability and the need to recycle our packs.

Improvements to collection systems, particularly for out of home environments, are needed to enhance capture of materials and to prevent leakage into the environment.

Practical solutions

However, in order to make the future of plastics in packaging a reality, brands must do more than leverage their market prominence to shape behaviours. They must also make the circular economy as practical as possible – as laid down in the 2018 UK Plastics Pact[4], of which CCEP is a founding member. The targets of the UK Plastics Pact are very much in line with CCEP’s own ambitions around packaging.

At the University of Reading, for example, CCEP helped launch Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, where staff and students can purchase a refillable bottle, microchipped to make it recognisable on each use[6]. The user can pre-load their bottle with credit so that they can easily and conveniently refill it with drinks; the credit on the bottle ensures that it will be reused. Today, many beverages are still dispensed using a disposable paper cup, so we continue to work with the University to try to understand what motivates and demotivates consumers from engaging with a refillable scheme.

Deposit return schemes

Recycling rates for common packaging formats, like glass bottles and jars, aluminium cans and plastic bottles, are relatively high. But improvements to collection systems, particularly for out of home environments, are needed to enhance capture of materials and to prevent leakage into the environment. This is why CCEP is championing new collection systems as part of its sustainable packaging strategy.

CCEP recognises the role a well-designed Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) could play to remedy flat recycling rates and improve the quality of materials. Here, consumers would be asked to pay an additional charge on the cans and bottles they purchase, which is then refunded once the vessel is returned. Countries, such as Germany or Denmark, are successfully operating these schemes[7]. A DRS in the UK has massive potential to shape the future of packaging, increase recycling rates and engage consumers in more sustainable practices – but this would require mass coordination between government, industries and consumers alike to provide an effective solution. Only with this kind of collaboration can we develop effective solutions to the problems posed by plastics waste.


We stand at a momentous crossroads. If we fail to effect rapid and immediate change, the damage done may become irreversible[8]. We now have the rare opportunity to overhaul more widely our relationship with plastics and packaging, and implement a strategy that will preserve the world for future generations. Only by accounting for end-of-life of packaging, investing in the infrastructure needed to repurpose it, and working together as governments, industries and consumers can we make the circular economy a reality, allowing us to utilise the undoubted benefits of plastics while mitigating irresponsible disposal and its consequences.

Lisa Foster, Sustainable Packaging Manager at Coca- Cola European Partners


Telephone +44 797 697 6447











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