In a neck-and-neck race to break the news, Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co. each announced Tuesday that they plan to use recycled plastic in their soda bottles, a first in the industry.
With market shares of 40% and 30%, respectively, Coke and Pepsi buy the lion's share of soft-drink containers.
Although the two companies wouldn't comment on the timing of their move, the food industry has been under relentless pressure from environmentalists and consumers to curtail or justify their use of plastic packaging. Just last month, McDonald's Corp. announced that it would abandon its plastic-foam clamshell hamburger packages after years of criticism.
Many kinds of plastic are already recycled but usually to lower-value uses--such as from bottles to carpet backing or plastic lumber. This would be the first time that plastic bottles would be returned to their original use.
"It's pretty exciting," said Richard P. Swigart, director of external communications for the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, a plastics industry group. "As far as I know it's the first use of recycled PET resin to be used in contact with food." PET is the industry term for polyethylene teraphthalate.
"We believe that this process is feasible and that we can ensure safe products, comparable to virgin materials," said Fred R. Shank, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which is examining the cola companies' plans.
The new recycling process "takes PET bottles back to components that can be purified," said Jim Stanley, a Pepsi-Cola vice president. The new bottles, to be 25% recycled plastic, "will be no different in quality and safety than bottles made entirely with virgin materials," he said.
Coca-Cola plans to introduce its bottles first, sometime "early next year." Pepsi expects its bottles to appear by mid-1991.
Other container materials, such as aluminum, glass and paper, can already be recycled to their original uses, a process known in recycling terms as "closing the loop." The plastics industry has long considered it a necessary step in building recycling systems for their products.
Closing the loop, explained Steve Apotheker, technical editor of Resource Recycling magazine, "recovers a greater amount of the energy put into that bottle's production. Plus we're not generating as much initial toxic waste when we put the plastic into a recycling loop."
Environmental groups gave the cola company announcements, which came within half an hour of each other, mixed reviews.
Some, including Greenpeace, would rather see an end to plastic packaging period, citing it as a litter-prone material derived from a non-renewable resource, oil.
Other groups, including the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, applauded the move.
"The reality is, there is a lot of plastic out there now, and we'd like to see what's there recycled," Jackie Prince, an EDF staff scientist, told the Associated Press. "This brings plastics recycling further along the learning curve."
Efforts to recycle PET plastic are just getting off the ground, and observers see immense difficulties ahead. As a light but bulky material, PET isn't worth much compared to the costs of collecting and transporting it from curbside recycling programs. Also, as only one of many types of plastic--which can't be mixed together and still be used again for their original purpose--it is difficult to sort on conveyor belts if taken from mixed garbage.
"It gets to the issue of practical versus theoretical recycling," Apotheker said. He estimates that no more than 10% of recycling programs currently collect PET plastic, compared to more than 80% of the curbside systems that collect glass containers.
The market and recycling systems are growing, however, according to Luke B. Schmidt, president of the National Assn. for Plastic Container Recovering, an industry group promoting PET recycling. He says that current demand for recycled PET is already strong.