Bottles from the dump prompt debate on the future of pop

Bottles from the dump prompt debate on the future of pop

A Coke v. SodaStream spat highlights questions about the sustainability of soft drink production

The SodaStream Cage at Yankee Stadium last September (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The SodaStream Cage at Yankee Stadium last September (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A long-simmering, David and Goliath-style struggle between an Israeli carbonation machine maker and an American beverage behemoth came to a head several weeks ago, when the Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta, Georgia, sent a cease-and-desist order to Israel-based SodaStream seeking to compel it to stop using Coke company cans and bottles in a traveling roadshow highlighting the impact of “bottle pollution” on the environment.

If SodaStream’s “Disposable Beverage Bottle Cage” hasn’t reached your town yet, you can take a tour online at SodaStream’s “Cage Challenge” Facebook page, as a real-world campaign to highlight the damage caused to the environment by disposable cans and bottles — damage that can be alleviated by using SodaStream’s beverage system, according to CEO Daniel Birnbaum — moves online.

But the issue, according to environmental activists, goes beyond a marketing or brand dispute. The problem SodaStream highlights is one everyone should be concerned about, they say.

SodaStream, if you’re not familiar with it, is a system that lets you turn tap water into carbonated drinks (“sodas” or “pop,” depending on where you hail from) of the sort most people buy ready-made from the store. SodaStream, in its marketing materials, emphasizes the flexibility and economy of its system: you can choose from dozens of flavors, make as much or as little as you want, and save lots of money, as a glass of SodaStream’s fizzies costs significantly less than even discount or supermarket-brand carbonated beverages.

Products that let consumers turn water into carbonated drinks at home have been around for decades (SodaStream has been an Israeli company since 1998, when it was bought by Israel’s Soda-Club), but due to habit, taste preference, or, perhaps, laziness, most consumers have stuck with bottled beverages.

If they knew what became of that bottle after they were finished drinking, they might think twice, Birnbaum told The Times of Israel. “Billions of beverage bottles and cans end up in landfills and dumps each year, and it’s choking the environment.”

Most people don’t recycle, Birnbaum said. “Even in the countries where recycling is well-entrenched, only about 20% of bottles get recycled. The rest are thrown into landfills, and in other countries the problem is even worse.” Not only that. “Even if we had 100% recycling everywhere, we’d still need to manufacture 340 billion new bottles and cans, with the required energy to run the factories, transport the bottles, and so on.”

To emphasize the problem, Birnbaum came up with the idea of trolling the dump for beverage bottles and putting the trash on display in a metal cage. The cage has been displayed for several days or weeks at high-traffic locations around the world — just recently, said Birnbaum, it was in Times Square in Manhattan. Staff distributes literature describing the problem and explaining ways to limit the damage, with an emphasis on SodaStream’s carbonated beverage system as a solution.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. The Coke people apparently noticed that the pile contained cans and bottles displaying the logos of Coca-Cola-affiliated brands (Coke, Sprite, Fanta, A&W Root Beer, Dasani Water, Nestea, and more). A “very urgent” letter from Coke’s attorneys in South Africa (where a Cage was on display at an airport), accused Birnbaum of “making unauthorized use of our client’s registered trademarks” to the detriment of the company. SodaStream’s marketing campaign, the letter said, “is disparaging of our client’s trademarks and products.”

Why Coke decided to take umbrage at the Cage right now is a mystery to Birnbaum, “since we’ve doing this for two years already.” From the letter it would seem as if SodaStream had it in for Coke specifically, but Birnbaum said that wasn’t the case at all. “We just went to the dump and took what we found. We’re not infringing on any copyrights, since we aren’t using them at all in our advertising or on our products. All we are doing is creating a visual aid to make the problem as clear as possible. We have nothing against Coke, but everything against their bottles.”

Coke doesn’t intimidate him, said Birnbaum. In fact, the company’s objections have spurred him to expand the campaign. “We decided to open a virtual Cage on Facebook, so that people all over the world will have the opportunity to see the problem for themselves.” Word has been getting around; the page has over 160,000 Facebook likes.

In a statement released to the media, Coca-Cola said the company “is a leader in recycling and sustainable packaging as demonstrated by our aggressive goal to collect the equivalent of 50 percent of the bottles and cans we sell globally by 2015. Coca-Cola South Africa is a member and founder of PETCO, South Africa’s PET recycling company, and is involved in the collection and responsible disposal of our PET plastic bottle post-consumer consumption.”

Experts said that Coca-Cola is aware that they have a problem with pollution, and have been trying some novel programs to stem pollution, at least to some extent. For example, in 2009 Coke began producing tens of millions of “Plantbottles,” made of 30% plant-based materials (derived from sugar cane and molasses). The new bottles cut down carbon emissions by up to 25% compared to traditional plastic bottles, and, more importantly, partially break down in the environment.

But Israeli environmental activist Yair Engel, who works in the area of eco-friendly sustainable product design, says recycling may be a better option, and can be encouraged. For example, Engel said “beer that comes in glass bottles generally has a recycle rate of well over 90%, meaning that nearly every bottle that is shipped comes back and is washed and refilled. For Coke and other soda brands, it’s at best 30%.”

Why do consumers make sure to return their glass beer bottles, but have no problem trashing Coke bottles? “Because they get NIS 1.20 [about 40 cents] when they recycle a 500 ml glass beer bottle. I don’t know what the economics of this for the beer companies is, but it’s clear that we have a model here. The more incentives consumers get for recycling, the more likely they are to recycle.”

Recycling is not the only answer, Engel continued. “One of the strengths of SodaStream is that it provides ‘beverages as a service,’” said Engel. Users buy the machine and CO2 cartridges to make their fizzy drinks. When the cartridges are finished, a SodaStream representative comes out and exchanges the used one for a new one. The old cartridge is then refilled at a factory, and then redistributed. “That’s a model right there, one that other beverage companies could adopt.”

In fact, the idea of drinking Coke and other beverages from recycled bottles that are delivered as a service is nothing new; it was the model for home delivery of milk, diapers, and many other consumables for many years. That model is still economically valid, said Engel, and could, perhaps, become the wave of the future.

“I don’t doubt that ten, fifteen, or twenty years from now the method of marketing and drinking soft drinks will be different than it is today,” he said.

Engel believes the SodaStream effort has opened up the debate on the future of packaging to a wide audience that may not have considered the issue before.

“Some would accuse SodaStream of ‘greenwashing,’ of using an environmental issue to make money. But I think this is more than greenwashing,” said Engel. “SodaStream has, perhaps inadvertently, opened up an important debate, and the more people talk about that debate, the more quickly things will change.”

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