A Greener Rack for Soda: Worst Way to Save the Planet?

Coke and Pepsi are fighting for the title of most sustainable soda—but their green efforts don't always seem like the real thing

With Coca-Cola's recent announcement of its Give It Back campaign, the Coke/Pepsi competition for most sustainable soft-drink company continues. Hoping the program will work like the bottle deposit system, Coke developed a recyclable display rack for its soda bottles, which it encourages merchants to return for recycling after use. For now, Coke is releasing the racks in a limited number of markets, running the program on a trial basis. But they expect the racks will be widely available later this year.

GiveItBackLiterRackedit.jpgMade of corrugated cardboard, the racks are indeed more environmentally friendly than plastic versions. But perhaps more importantly, the brown cardboardy shelving looks crunchy, communicating Coke's "hey, look, we're green!" message to its customers.

While eco-consciousness is certainly a good thing, sometimes companies—like Coca-Cola, in this case—take advantage of this trend as a marketing tactic. Given that most soda bottles aren't shelved on display racks in the first place, how much will this initiative really curb waste? And isn't the very act of manufacturing these seemingly unnecessary racks unsustainable? It seems Coke cares more about giving off the impression that the company cares about the environment than actually taking steps toward sustainability. It even admits its intention to please the eco-concerned customer in a promotional video for the campaign. "The thing that really is important is that now there is something in the store that is a physical manifestation of sustainability," explains Bruce Karas, Coca-Cola's director of sustainability and environment.

Not only does the idea of sustainability trump actual results, but Coke's modus operandi is to get consumers to buy rather than save the planet. "Some of our research already shows that about 70 percent of the people that buy products look at sustainability as one of the factors that lead to their choice," Karas admits.

The announcement also comes at a curious time. Just a month ago Pepsi revealed the "world's first 100-percent plant based" biodegradable bottle, beating Coke to the discovery. While soda bottles are recyclable, a biodegradable container would reduce waste. Coke also markets a plant-based bottle, but it contains only 30 percent plant-based materials.

While it's encouraging to see large food companies making some effort to create more eco-friendly products and containers, tricking consumers into buying under the guise of sustainability tarnishes the sentiment a bit.

Images: Coca-Cola   

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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