The weekend after Earth Day, I was at a swap meet in Carlisle, PA when I stumbled across a 50-year old Coca-Cola bottler’s ad. The headline read “Stop litter. If you love me don’t leave me.” and the image showed their line-up of aluminum cans and reusable glass bottles with the “NO DEPOSIT NO RETURN” slogan on the labels. Not sure if the guy selling it was even aware of his timeliness, but the sign stirred up some thoughts about the current state of recycling, and if we’ve actually gotten anywhere in the last half-century since Coca-Cola was offering to buy everyone a Coke and wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Sure, consumer demand for sustainable packaging is up, but according to some recent studies, most people have no idea how much packaging is actually recycled or what can be recycled and what can’t be, because each community sets its own recycling rules. And in 2020, despite pledging to clean up its act after producing single-use plastic bottles for the last 31 years, Coca-Cola was named the world’s worst plastic polluter for the third year in a row. Clearly, the buying everyone a Coke part worked out pretty well for them financially, but as for the health of the planet, not so much.

The burden falls on the food and beverage industry to come up with more sustainable packaging options and to educate consumers on how to properly recycle their waste. But when every community has different rules, doesn’t that only increase the level of confusion? The brand Nature Valley recently announced that they are moving to a recyclable wrapper for their granola bars, but it has to be returned to the store in order to be processed. Are consumers really going to save all of their bar wrappers and return them to a store drop-off? Or will they innocently toss them into their home recycling bin when they see the chasing arrows symbol on the box? And what about any other bar wrapper? If one brand’s wrapper is recyclable, aren’t they all?

Many CPGs have the best intentions and are taking their responsibility to be more sustainable seriously, including Coca-Cola, but unless and until there is some level of national standardization in our recycling procedures, how is any program going to be truly successful? If a package is recyclable in Des Moines but isn’t in Duluth, is it really recyclable at all? Add to that the fact that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled and it seems clear this isn’t working.

It’s exciting to see the push for sustainable packaging options going on in the natural foods space, but the costs involved in using these more expensive materials leave these products out of some consumers reach. Since it is such a costly endeavor to make a manufacturing change of this magnitude, it’s going to take one of the global players to be the innovator and break away from single-use plastics once and for all. So, go ahead Coca-Cola, buy everyone that Coke. But this time, just make it refillable and reusable, okay? Sometimes, old ideas CAN be new again.

Do you have thoughts on recycling? We’d love to hear them.