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Coca-Cola sustainability report suggests steady progress on packaging, water stewardship

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The company's eight annual update demonstrates that ongoing stewardship requires marathon endurance and perseverance.

In mid-December 2011, The Coca-Cola Co. revealed partnerships with three biotechnology companies intended to help it make much, more more of its PlantBottle plant-based packaging program. The company's latest corporate sustainability report offers a snapshot of how far that initiative has already come.

The company reports that by the end of 2011, the packaging was available in 20 markets and had been used in almost 10 billion packages. Coca-Cola's goal is to move all of its bottles over to this format by the year 2020. But the relationships it established in December 2011 suggest that PlantBottle could be bigger than Coca-Cola, provided it with a new revenue stream based on its packaging innovation.

This statement is telling:

An idea like PlantBottle has too much good potential to keep to ourselves. So in February 2011, we shared our technology and entered into a partnership with H.J. Heinz Company, enabling Heinz to bottle its ketchup in PlantBottle packaging. Moving forward, we will continue to explore the potential of such partnerships with other companies.

It is worth mentioning that PlantBottle packages are still recyclable, which is a major consideration toward the company's goal of recovering at least half of all the bottles and cans that it ships by 2015. Right now, according to the latest report, Coca-Cola recovers about 36 percent of those containers, so it has a ways to go in the next three years.

The other metric that seriously matters to beverage companies, of course, is water stewardship. The latest report suggests that Coca-Cola is making progress, although perhaps not as quickly as it originally anticipated when it set certain goals over the past decade.

An example: the company's latest report on water stewardship estimates that Coca-Cola has seen a 16 percent improvement in its water use ration (the amount of water used for the beverages it produces). That's pretty good, except that the company has been targeting 20 percent against its 2004 baseline. Over the past year, it improved on the previous year's ratio by about 3 percentage points so it is reasonable to expect that the company might deliver on the goal, but it will be a challenge.

In 2007, the company embraced a 2020 goal of replenishing the water supply each year by an amount equivalent to what it uses for its operations each year. As of the latest report, the amount being replenished by Coca-Cola is about 23 percent of production volume.

There are many other environmental metrics by which Coca-Cola is managing its mission to be a more sustainable corporate citizen. Here are some other highlights:

  • The company managed a 2 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the past year, even though it grew production volume
  • The company now has 500,000 hydrofluorcarbon coolers installed, compared with about 277,000 units at the end of 2010

(Thumbnail photo courtesy of The Coca-Cola Co.)

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure