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Q-and-A with Bruce Karas, Coca-Cola’s sustainability VP

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Sustainability is a hot issue at Coca-Cola, where Vice President Bruce Karas takes the lead on environmental programs. We spoke with Karas recently to learn more.

Has sustainability become more important to Coca-Cola and to the industry in recent years?

Sustainability has been a constantly emerging and evolving space for most companies, including Coca-Cola. The late ’90s brought a real focus on the development of sustainable business practices as a growing focus for companies, with an explosion in interest in the 2000s due to the concerns about resource consumption, global warming and building the long-term viability of businesses in this developing environment. At Coca-Cola, we believe that the health of our business is directly linked to the health of the environment and the communities we serve. Participating in sustainability initiatives is not optional or something nice to do for companies and manufacturers. We have a responsibility to ensure we are doing everything we can to use our resources as efficiently as possible.

What role/responsibility do beverage companies have when it comes to protecting the Earth’s water and other environmental and sustainability causes?

There is a role and responsibility for businesses to steward resources properly, to engage with communities and to inspire the public where appropriate to highlight where we all need to do our part. For our business, water is the main ingredient in every beverage we make and a fundamental part of life, so protecting and conserving it is a top priority. We look at water as an area in which we must lead in our communities and with our stakeholders. We have a goal to return to communities and nature an equivalent amount of water to what we use for our beverages and production by 2020.

What environmental issues are most important to Coca-Cola and how is the company working on them?

Water stewardship — We support healthy watersheds and community water programs across North America. This has allowed us to target projects where we can have the most impact locally and apply some level of measurement to the projects. As a result, we have implemented a wide range of projects that include removal of invasive species from watersheds, restoring natural flows to rivers, building rain gardens and fostering local rain-barrel donation programs. Collectively these processes help protect and conserve local water resources.

More sustainable packaging — The PlantBottle package is our latest breakthrough innovation in packaging — the first-ever fully recyclable PET plastic beverage bottle made with up to 30% plant-based renewable materials and is 100% recyclable. We have work underway to develop and commercialize the 100% PlantBottle package, which will be a PET bottle that is no longer reliant on the use of petroleum. We are committed to increasing the recovery of consumer bottles and cans to ensure we are recycling and reusing those commodities in the next generation of bottles and cans or other materials. We are working to foster a significant increase in curbside recycling programs as well as continuing our Reimagine pilot project to create opportunities for the public to have a place to bring bottles and cans. These major initiatives are a part of our effort to increase access to recycling in public places and at people’s homes. Since 2008, we have placed more than 150,000 recycle bins in North America to help foster recycling behaviors.

Energy and climate — Our energy and climate protection efforts are focused on reducing carbon emissions in our production plants, fleet operations and cold-drink equipment. We are executing the energy Top 10 in our facilities, an initiative we are doing with our partner, the WWF [World Wildlife Fund]. It targets the execution of the most basic energy-efficiency steps in a facility such as eliminating air leaks or optimizing process set points. With our fleet operations, we have added over 750 alternative-fuel vehicles. Our hybrid electric truck commercial fleet is the largest in North America. This reduces emissions by approximately 30% and uses roughly 30% less fuel than standard delivery trucks. Additionally, by 2015, our goal is that 100% of our newly purchased cold-drink equipment will be HFC-free.

What are the key issues in the industry and does Coca-Cola collaborate with other beverage companies on any sustainability projects or initiatives?

Coca‑Cola manages the recycling of 280 million pounds of recovered beverage containers a year. We educated people on the importance of recycling at more than 250 events last year through our Recycling Education Vehicles.

We’re a member of various packaging organizations such as Keep America Beautiful and Ameripen, whose focus is to increase recovery rates. Through a partnership with the H.J. Heinz Co., more than 100 million Heinz Ketchup bottles made using PlantBottle packaging were introduced in grocery stores and restaurants across the United States in 2011. The partnership is an industry first, and one that we hope others will follow to transform how food is packaged around the world.

Water continues to be an industry concern and we collaborate with other beverage companies through the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, where we share data, best practices and strategies in the water space. We also work with our peers through trade groups such as the American Beverage Association and Grocery Manufacturers Association. While we represent separate companies, sustainability is an area that truly requires collaboration both internally and externally to be successful.