Innovation is happening constantly in the packaging sector. Often innovation comes in many little steps and improvements – lighter plastic bottles, the sleek new cans and ultralight glass materials can tell a whole story of resource productivity and cost saving.

Sometimes, however, innovation comes as a real exciting game-changer. For The Coca-Cola Company, one example of inspiring innovation is PlantBottle packaging – a plastic bottle that is made partly from renewable, plant-based material. What makes it different to other kinds of bio-plastics is, that is also 100% recyclable. 

We brought PlantBottle to the global market back in 2009, starting in Europe and have by now used more than 35 billion bottles across water, sparkling, juice and tea beverage brands worldwide. We have also shared PlantBottle material with other companies for application in the apparel, automotive and the wider food sector. In May last year, we took the next step in manufacturing the first PET bottle made entirely from plant-material.

As we are combining the benefits of lighter pack designs with renewable PlantBottle material and with recycled PET, we are effectively combining the ‘circular design’ and the ‘recycling’ model. Let me say this: we are actually very close to a ‘circular bottle’. 

So, if we look at it, the innovation and experience for transitioning to a circular model are there. Let’s focus on the HOW instead of the WHY: What we need is scale; and for scale, we need to set the right economic conditions. We need to ask ourselves:  Do we have the right incentives and the right price signals in the market; is there sufficient investment and do we have the right regulatory environment?

And getting that regulatory environment right is critical. Effective regulation will need to help shape the Circular Economy concept into an equitable economic model that creates a win-win situation for all partners, as well as for the environment.

There are many examples globally, where regulation has played a pivotal role in driving circular material use. The 1990’s introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in European law has been a turning point in the post-consumer packaging collection and recycling in this region. With hindsight, we can probably say this was the genesis of circular economy in the EU because it put the responsibility and the ownership of how we deal with packaging into the hands of the producers.

Legally speaking, EPR gives the packaging producers a legal obligation to achieve defined levels of material recycling - and industry achieved increasing levels of packaging recycling to 65% today. It is no secret that the Coca-Cola system in Europe has been at the forefront of setting up, investing in and managing industry-led packaging collection systems in many European countries. We believe that, also in the future, these systems have to play a key role for a more circular packaging model in Europe.

After 20 years in action, EPR legislation has passed its practice test, but the regulatory framework needs to evolve to ensure its proper functioning and to make it fit for the future.

EPR, nowadays, is not only an obligation – it’s also a business. That is a great achievement of good regulation and a sign of maturity of the market. But now European regulation needs to ensure fair competition and greater transparency in the sector.

For a circular model to work as part of the economy, EPR needs to be seen as a responsibility, not merely as a tax. That means producers need to be empowered to fulfil their obligations operationally, not only to contribute financially. At The Coca-Cola Company, we believe in the principle: who pays for EPR should be enabled to take responsibility in the management of the system, to contribute to its efficiency and its effectiveness.

And we need to make the economics work, for example by ensuring that the costs of collection and sorting, and the benefits of selling collected material, end up on the same balance sheet. That means: whoever pays for the collection of material also needs to own the material value.

And – very importantly – we need to keep the internal market functioning properly. The Commission’s proposal has made that very clear: The Circular Economy cannot be a shoo-in for protectionism and barriers to trade.

Let me close this series with a brief word about consumers, who are all too often absent from this conversation.

Naturally, as a major consumer brand, we see a huge opportunity for innovation involving the consumer. For example, the work we have done to build a new brand of recycled material products called EKOCYCLE brings to life our vision that packaging is a valuable resource and sustainable living can be desirable.

We should never forget that, although we will have to make changes, strengthen regulations, keep our foot on the innovation pedal and make a sound business case for moving towards a circular economy – consumers can be our biggest ally on that journey. Or to quote our EKOCYCLE partner – which I have to say, is an unusual way to wrap up any speech: “all good things must end, but an end can be a new start”.


This article originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of a four-part blog series from Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola’s director of sustainability for Western Europe. Read the next posts in the series: