The combination of political and investor pressure is leading some of the world’s largest corporations to pursue recycled plastics more aggressively. Coca-Cola is among them. They have signed on with Republic Services to ramp up their consumption of recycled PET (rPET) in the coming years. They hope to be utilizing at least 50% rPET in their packaging by 2030.
PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is one of the most recycled plastics in the world. It is also one of the most produced, by volume. Recycling it is fairly simple as long as PET materials are kept separate and free of contamination. That being the case, returning larger volumes of rPET to the bottling sector should not be a big deal.
Republic Services has demonstrated a significant commitment toward improving rPET capacity and consumption. Their more recent efforts include a commitment to building dedicated polymer centers focused on reclaiming PET and passing it on to manufacturers like Coca-Cola.
Their first polymer center is located in Las Vegas. It should be operational by the end of 2023. When it is, Coca-Cola will be its largest single customer, purchasing a majority of the rPET produced there.
Coca-Cola used 15% rPET in their bottles in 2022. The company also collected bottles and cans equaling about 61% of the total they produced in 2022. If they can continue those efforts and simultaneously reach their goal of 50% rPET by 2030, the amount of virgin plastic the company needs to manufacture bottles should decline steeply.
Plastic recycling has taken a lot of flak in recent years. Most of the negativity is related to post-consumer recycling which, to date, has been an utter disaster. The post-consumer market struggles because the demand for the recycled materials it produces just isn’t there. Where there is no market there is little money to be made. And where there is little money, there is little incentive to do the work.
All it takes to make recycling work is a healthy market. The market for rPET is there. Not only that, but it is also growing. Typical rPET applications include carpets, fabrics, and sunglasses. Republic hopes to expand the demand for rPET by selling it the companies that put it back into food and beverage packaging.
Their plan is similar to what companies like Seraphim Plastics have already been doing for years. Although Seraphim Plastics does purchase and recycle baled PET bottles, they do so much more. The Tennessee company purchases and recycles plastic buckets and dunnage trays, plastic tubes and pipes, and even cut-offs and purge from injection mold manufacturers.
What Seraphim Plastics does is profitable because there is a market for the regrind they produce. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe Republic won’t be able to make money on its polymer centers. As the demand for rPET grows among food and beverage manufacturers, they should be able to take advantage of a fairly simple mechanical recycling process to make money with rPET.
Despite so many efforts to increase rPET use, getting more rPET into the system is the goal. Creating a circular market for rPET would be the ultimate accomplishment. But for now, it is not quite a circular market. In fact, there is a lot of work to be done to move things in that direction. Republic and Coca-Cola are doing their part.
Time will tell if Coca-Cola manages to reach its 50% rPET goals on time. Perhaps they will get there sooner rather than later. If they do, expect other manufacturers to follow.