Dr. Stefan Kunerth, Technical Director for Germany, Benelux and Scandinavia at Coca-Cola, explains why there is no such thing as sustainable packaging and why the use of recycled material is an investment in the future. He also points out that packaging reduced solutions can be an alternative.
When it comes to packaging, there seems to be almost only one issue at present, namely sustainability. Is packaging not more than just a waste problem?
The subject of packaging does not even have to become a waste problem in the first place. And not if I design packaging accordingly, for example, by focusing the design on recyclability. A rather simple example is that I choose transparent instead of colored PET so that the transparent stream of recycled material is not affected by colored material. Of course, packaging has not only an ecological aspect, but many important functions. First of all, it has the task of bringing the product to the consumer, including all the intermediate stages. Numerous technical, but also economic factors must be taken into account. Marketing also plays a role. The fact that packaging is a success factor is demonstrated not least by our iconic Coca-Cola glass bottle.
You have recently introduced a 1-liter returnable glass bottle and are planning to introduce a 0.4-liter returnable glass bottle next year. Are refillable solutions the best way to go?
In Germany, Coca-Cola has the highest proportion of returnable bottles among soft drink suppliers. We have introduced refillable PET bottles here in Germany. But reusable packaging is only one way to achieve greater sustainability. After all, the issue of “reusable” has become a kind of question of faith. I don’t think much of it. There is no one, best packaging for all drinking occasions. If I want to go on a long hike in the Allgäu, I will certainly think twice before I take the heavy glass bottle with me – or not the lighter PET bottle. Sustainability also works with disposable bottles. For me, the term disposable contains a contradiction in terms anyway.
Why a contradiction?
Under certain circumstances, for example, if the disposable bottle is made of recycled PET and is very light, it can be more sustainable from an environmental point of view than the reusable bottle. For example, transport and the frequency of refilling play an important role. This is especially true in Germany, where we have high return rates for PET beverage bottles thanks to the deposit system. The deposit system in Germany is a great success because it gives bottles a value. Consumers are given incentives to return the bottles. The infrastructure in industry and trade is in place. Germany has a pioneering role here. About 98 percent of the deposit bottles are returned to the cycle. The Coca-Cola Company therefore also supports the introduction of deposit systems in other markets. In Germany, we are always ready to support the other markets with our experience.
In some countries, such as the Netherlands and Norway, Coca-Cola is on the way to converting all PET bottles to 100 percent rPET. In Sweden it has already been implemented. Are you striving to do the same in Germany?
We are also working on projects in Germany to convert selected packaging and brands to use 100 percent rPET. Specifically, we will be the first to market our ViO mineral water in 100% rPET bottles. The availability of the appropriate material, which meets our approval criteria, prevents us from making a more comprehensive changeover. The size of the German market will certainly present us with special challenges. There is high demand not only from beverage producers, but also from other companies in the FCMG sector. Therefore, it cannot be avoided that food-grade material leaves the cycle again and again and is used as rPET in other areas.
Is chemical recycling possibly a future-oriented way to better meet the demand for recycled plastic?
Together with the start-up Ioniqa, we presented a sample bottle in the fall of 2019 that contained parts of plastic from the sea. With the help of chemical recycling and the associated depolymerization, this material has been made “food compatible” again. The project shows what is possible with appropriate technology. There are different approaches to chemical recycling. Our bottling partner CCEP has recently invested in the recycling start-up CuRe Technologies. In other words, in a company that is also pursuing an innovative approach in this segment. If we generate demand as a large company, we give innovations a chance. Whether chemical recycling can one day replace mechanical recycling, I cannot say. But I do believe that it can be a valuable addition.
New plastic has been cheaper than recycled material for a while now. This is certainly a problem from an economic point of view…
It is true that new plastic is cheaper than recycled PET. But as a company, you have to show your colors. Coca-Cola has made the conscious decision to use the more expensive recycled PET despite the higher price.
What else are you thinking about to promote sustainability?
We are thinking in many directions. One of them is to partially do without packaging. We already have successful freestyle dispensers in use in several markets, mainly in the USA, but also in Germany. More than 500 self-service vending machines are located at catering partners in Germany. Consumers can mix their own drinks there, from Coke, Fanta, Sprite or mezzomix but also Powerade, Kinley and Fuze Tea. We will be introducing an innovative “touchless” function for some of the vending machines this year. Consumers will be able to connect to the machine very easily via a QR code. If the partner then also offers refillable cups for its consumers – or gives them the opportunity to bring their own bottles – the whole thing is even more sustainable. Selling beverages almost “unpackaged” is also an instrument to promote sustainability.