Environmentally conscious liberal arts students aren’t the only ones concerned about waste from plastic bottles—the Coca-Cola company, one of Bon Appétit’s main beverage providers, has taken significant steps to make its production process more environmentally friendly.
Last spring, Wesleyan instituted a campus ban on bottled water as the result of a sustainability initiative led by the Environmental Organizers Network, Bon Appétit, and the College of the Environment. In a letter to The Argus, General Manager of Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Southeastern New England Steven Perrelli expressed his discontent with the bottled water ban while referencing the priorities shared by Coca-Cola and the University.
“While we are disappointed about the bottled water ban at Wesleyan, we understand your commitment to becoming more sustainable and share that goal,” he wrote.
Perrelli also mentioned his desire to maintain a good relationship with the University and invited The Argus to visit the facility in Waterford, Conn., and learn about their sustainability practices.
The visit to the bottling plant began with a tour through the warehouse, which distributes 3 million cases of products each year, which translates to 57 million individual cans and bottles. The 85,000-square foot warehouse also holds the remnants of recycled bottles, cans, and plastic shrink-wrap, which Coca-Cola sells to outside companies.
In addition to their varieties of soda, Coca-Cola sells Dasani bottled water, Honest Tea, Vitamin Water, Monster, and Powerade, among other products. Though the company no longer provides water to Wesleyan, its other products can be found in vending machines and dining halls across campus.
“There [are] so many items that sell so well on the campus, like Honest Tea, which is an all-natural product,” said District Manager Tristan Goff. “That sells very well on campus; [it’s a] very popular brand. Obviously Coca-Cola does well; I’d say that’s probably number one…a lot of the zero brands do very well.”
Despite the popularity of flavored beverages, campus-wide bottled water bans like the one at Wesleyan can significantly affect business. On-Premise Sales Manager Phil Labanara estimated that bottled water sales represent half of the company’s business in schools and on college campuses.
“Water did well,” Goff said. “A lot of the students used it as a convenience, not necessarily a replacement for municipal waters, but you know, if they’re on the go, like they’re running to class and they need something [to drink].”
Goff also commented on the reasoning behind the ban.
“I understand the concept, but I think people should still have the decision [to buy bottled water],” he said. “I would want to have that decision if I was on campus.”
The campus ban was suggested as a way to avoid the amount of waste involved in the production, transport, and disposal of bottled water. The Coca-Cola representatives explained that they make efforts to make and package their products locally to minimize the environmental impact of transport.
The process of making the bottles begins with preforms, which are test-tube-shaped plastic containers that are expanded into a bottle shape.
“[The preform] would get made in Virginia and shipped up to Londonderry, NH,” explained Sustainability Manager Ray Dube. “It comes into our building, we blow it into a bottle, [and] the bottle gets filled. Our water usage in our production facility in Londonderry comes from the Manchester, NH water supply.”
After being purified, the water, either by itself or mixed with flavored syrup for Coke or other beverages, is emptied into the bottles, which are then shipped down to Waterford. The bottled drinks are then separated according to their ultimate destinations, one of which is Wesleyan.
“From there, the students, faculty, whoever, would purchase the bottle and, since you have single stream [recycling], hopefully when they’re done with it they’ll throw the bottle into your single stream recycling system,” Dube said. “Your single-stream is probably going to Hartford.”
Once in Hartford, the recycled materials are cleaned, separated, and then sent to companies who will use the materials to create new products. According to Dube, recycled materials are in high demand because of their value to clothing companies and the makers of board games, composite decking material, and plastic food containers.
“[Chopped, cleaned bottle pieces are] what makes your polyester thread,” he said. “From your polyester thread, you get your North Face Jacket, … You get Earth Tec…You get your Patagonia. Polar Tec—huge, huge manufacturer in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. All their material is made from [polyester], which comes from [these pieces]. And their biggest problem: they cannot get enough of it.”
In addition to the environmental benefit, many of these companies prefer to use recycled materials because they are less expensive than “virgin material.” Aluminum cans are also useful byproducts of the beverage industry because their structures do not break down after being recycled numerous times.
“Aluminum [is the] second most recycled metal on the planet—4.5 million pounds I sold last year,” Dube said. “Huge demand, nowhere near enough in the marketplace. Aluminum cans? Recycle them forever. Put them through the process over and over and over again.”
The crushed cans that end up back in the Waterford warehouse are quickly reprocessed and turned into new receptacles for Coca-Cola products.
“What comes through our system is back on the shelf full in 30 days,” Dube said. That’s how quickly we can move through our system. The Northeast is very compact; we have a lot of the industries that we need right up here, so it doesn’t take long to flow through the system.”
Coca-Cola currently has the technology to make bottles out of one hundred percent recycled plastic but cannot due to a shortage of material. This is partly a result of consumers not recycling enough, but the biggest obstacle is the demand from the clothing companies.
“Right now we’re running about five percent recycled content in our bottles,” Dube said. “We’d love to be ten; we’d love to be 20. We can do one hundred; we’ll never get there, but our biggest problem in getting there is these guys [clothing companies].”
According to Coca-Cola, bottled water bans are not the solution to concerns about waste. Rather, representatives of the company acknowledge the high demand for recycled bottles and cans, and they urge everyone to recycle—caps and all.
“Last year alone, I sold six and a half million pounds of used bottles,” Dube said. “There’s a huge demand for it out in the marketplace. There’s nowhere near enough of it. We just don’t recycle in this country enough, which is really, really sad.”