Fact checker: In the war on plastic is Coca-Cola friend or foe?

Coca-Cola produces over 100 billion plastic bottles a year.

There was a time for people of certain generations when Coca-Cola was associated with teaching the world to sing.

The famous 1970s song by the New Seekers was reprised in the hit show Mad Men, when advertising guru Don Draper had an epiphany on a hippie retreat about how to sell the fizzy drink as a symbol for global harmony.

Times have changed. For many people, the Coca-Cola brand now stands for plastic pollution and childhood obesity.

But talking to the BBC, global Chief Executive James Quincey insists that in the battle against public harms, Coca-Cola is a friend rather than a foe.

That is a bold claim for the head of a company that produces over 100 billion plastic bottles a year.

A recent global audit found there was more Coca Cola plastic waste in our environment than the next three big consumer companies combined. Quincey insists the company is moving in the right direction.

“We aim to recover every bottle for every one we sell by 2030. And then to use 50 per cent of them back in our own bottles. Where are we now? Well, we already recovered 59 per cent of our bottles, and we already use nine per cent of our bottles back in the bottle.”

Recovering and recycling 59 per cent of your own plastic waste is not nothing.

But that leaves 40 billion bottles out there. Every year. James Quincey concedes there is a long way to go. He admits that Coca-Cola has no plans to reduce its own use of plastic but says 50 per cent of its new plastic production will come from recycled bottles. Why not 100 per cent? “We actually compete with other industries to use recycled plastic. There are lots of industries that depend on buying recycled plastic.”

As a market leader with over $40 billion (Sh4.1 trillion) in annual revenues, many would think that Coca-Cola could afford to outbid others for the renewable plastic on sale.

So just how much of that $40 billion in sales is Coca-Cola spending on its various environmental initiatives? Quincey seems unsure. “It’s a very substantial number. I don’t have, I mean, I don’t have a number, we’re setting an ambition. We’re saying, look, we’re going to get there. If I were to say one per cent, rather than two per cent, or 0.1 per cent that seems to imply that there’s some number which are not going to do it. No, it’s the other way around. We’re going to find a way of doing it and work out how to do it and still have a business.”

Coca-Cola does not just sell calorific fizzy drinks. Its biggest growth areas are in zero-sugar formulations of Coca-Cola and its water and juice businesses.

However, Coca-Cola is the blockbuster fizzy drink and numerous studies have fingered those drinks as a major cause of what some describe as an obesity epidemic. In a policy response, the UK government introduced a sugar tax in 2016.

A recently-published report by Public Health England highlighted how the UK levy resulted in reductions in the sugar content of sugary drinks.