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Coke’s UK head of sustainability says we don’t have a packaging problem, we have a waste and litter problem

This is the “guns don't kill people, people kill people” defense.

Bea Perez, senior vice president and chief communications, public affairs, sustainability and marketing assets officer for Coca-Cola, flew into Davos for the annual World Economic Forum to talk about how Coke would be “part of the solution” to the plastics crisis. But she says the company won't be giving up on single-use plastic bottles, telling Daniel Thomas of the BBC that “the firm could not ditch plastic outright, as some campaigners wanted, saying this could alienate customers and hit sales.”

She is not the first to use this argument. In fact, according to Plastics News, Tim Brett, president of Coca-Cola Europe, goes much further, and denies that they have a problem at all; the problem is you and me, the consumer.

I really believe strongly we don’t have a packaging problem. We have a waste problem and a litter problem. There is nothing wrong with packaging, as long as we get that packaging back, we recycle it and then we reuse it again. Packaging per se is not the problem. It’s the packaging that ends up in landfill or in litter. That sounds jarring when you first hear it and I am not denying there is a packaging waste problem – but it is not necessarily the material.

Simon Lowdon, the head of Sustainability for Pepsi backs him up.

We absolutely agree with that. Packaging is a necessity, and it is about safety as much as anything else. It’s the education of the use after, and the materials used to build the packaging, but it’s not packaging per se that’s the issue – it’s how we use it pre and post. I couldn’t agree more with what Tim said. We should be very careful that we don’t think of packaging being a demon. What we do with it afterwards is the job we have to focus on.

This is what we call “blaming the victim” or as the people who make guns say, “guns don't kill people, people kill people.”

Returnable Coke bottles for a circular economy!Returnable Coke bottles for a circular economy!/ C`est moi-es on Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Coke didn't used to talk this way. In 1970, they were so proud of their reusable bottles that they and ran a famous ad calling them “The bottle for the age of Ecology.” It described their returnable bottles as “the answer to an ecologist's prayer,” noting that each one made about 50 round trips, and “that means fifty less chances to add to the world's litter problems.”

Then they did everything they could to kill returnable bottles, so they could centralize production and close all those labor-intensive local bottling companies around the country. They took a very efficient circular system and turned it into a linear “take-make-waste” one that was much more profitable, thanks to subsidized highways for transport, cheap gas, and taxpayer supported waste pickup and recycling.

They were part of what we have called the Convenience Industrial Complex, selling bottles made from petrochemicals that the customer is responsible for dealing with. Perez says that's what the customers want, but they really have no choice in the matter. And then she says “Business won't be in business if we don't accommodate consumers.”

But they have spent 50 years since that ecology bottle ad making it harder and harder to accommodate customers who don't want disposable bottles. They weren't trying to accommodate customers, they were trying to train them, first to buy single-use bottles, then to not throw them out the car window, and then how to separate them into little piles and recycle them, never taking any responsibility for creating this mess.

And then they have the gall to say “we don’t have a packaging problem. We have a waste problem and a litter problem.”

I am sorry, but they made this bed.

Coke's UK head of sustainability says we don't have a packaging problem, we have a waste and litter problem

This is the “guns don't kill people, people kill people” defense.