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Coca-Cola Is Grappling With Our Karmic Anxiety Over All That Trash We Make

"By the time you’ve read this far, an estimated 40,000 plastic bottles have already made their way into our oceans."

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Coca-Cola — a creator of massive amounts of garbage around the world — announced Friday that it aims to "to help collect and recycle the equivalent of 100% of its packaging by 2030."

Again, that's the equivalent of 100% because, the company said in a statement, "It would be impossible to collect each of the packages we sell globally." So Coca-Cola will make it up by "collecting packaging from other companies."

The company told BuzzFeed News it sells 128 billion bottles per year, and nearly all the plastic bottles are made from new plastic, not recycled. Yet globally, the average rate of collection of Coca-Cola's bottles and cans by local sanitation systems is 51.5% — which means the problems are both that tons of used bottles never get recycled (ending up instead in landfills, the ocean, and as everyday litter), and that the majority of the millions of new bottles Coca-Cola sells daily aren't made from whatever fraction of plastic does get collected, but from new plastic. This unending churn all means that every minute there's more plastic junk piling up in the world.

@jderrera When this is happening across the globe, putting a plastic bottle in a blue bin instead of a trash can do… https://t.co/Mm5aJ0K4Pd

Environmentalists have been sounding the alarm on this crisis for years, and it's finally become an issue that people — and massive companies — are finding harder to ignore after decades of rising consumption.

New York City resident Andrew Domingue describes his worst nightmare as "an afterlife full of plastic trash consumed and forgotten by each of us." It's like a spiritual pool of garbage that we drown ourselves in.

This all developed a few years ago after he visited Sian Ka'an, a national biosphere in Mexico, he told BuzzFeed News. "Sian Ka'an is mind-boggling in its natural beauty — and also just incomprehensibly jammed up with plastic garbage. For miles ... literally no visible sand, just plastic waste." He and his friends began thinking about "how disturbing it would be if any of us did one day have to confront our own personal waste created during our lifetime." Afterwards, Domingue said, "I definitely lowered my consumption" of bottled beverages.

Executives now are grappling with a similar karmic anxiety. Friday morning, Coca-Cola's CEO James Quincey wrote in a post:

No matter who you are or where you live, one thing is certain: in that hour, an estimated 900 metric tons of plastic waste entered our oceans. That’s the mass of nearly 600 mid-size sedans.

That’s unacceptable.

It’s also unsustainable. If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways. This waste presents clear dangers to marine life, which we see in disturbing images of animals suffering. And make no mistake, this waste will likely have a broader impact beyond wildlife.

The world’s packaging problem is a symptom of a more serious condition. We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened. In fact, the use of natural resources globally grew twice as fast as the population during the 20th century.

Quincey said Coca-Cola will work with "local communities, our competitors, and even our critics to help address this critical issue," and he added, forebodingly, "By the time you’ve read this far, an estimated 40,000 plastic bottles have already made their way into our oceans."

Earlier this week, McDonald's announced a goal for 100% of its packaging to come from renewable, recycled, or certified sources by 2025.

For Coca-Cola to succeed in its goal, it also needs to resolve who will recycle all those collected bottles. China, which has long been the world's recycler, this year stopped accepting imports of other countries' scrap material. This set back the entire recycling industry and is causing collected materials to pile up.

"China’s refusal to accept more plastic waste, and the resulting backlog in plastic exporting nations, shows that we can't recycle our way out of this mess while we continue to make the mess bigger," Greenpeace said in a statement. The organization would prefer that beverage makers like Coca-Cola "expand its use of new delivery methods such as Freestyle dispensers and self-serve water stations with reusable containers."

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Venessa Wong is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Wong covers the food industry.

Contact Venessa Wong at venessa.wong@buzzfeed.com.

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