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Some of us remember walking into the local café clutching a brace of empty bottles, watching the owner dip into the till and hand over a refund, which was then gleefully and speedily spent on lollipops and ices. Or, if you had enough, another bottle of Coke. None of us recognised our important role in this early circular economy – we simply set off to find more empties.

A few decades later – give or take three or four – that role has again become a vital component of a value chain that seeks to create a sustainable, greener future. The Coca-Cola Company, recognising its responsibility to help solve the complex plastic waste challenges facing our planet and society, in 2018 launched its ambitious World Without Waste programme to develop a circular economy for its packaging and drive systemic consumer change.

Babongile Mandela, Director of Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability for Coca-Cola in South Africa, is candid about this platform’s contribution to the circular economy. “The global conversation about plastic pollution – and the call for urgent, collaborative action – is intensifying. Promoting a circular economy around packaging is an essential component of this collaborative process.”

The Coca-Cola Company uses multiple packaging formats – from glass and PET bottles to aluminium cans and refillable packaging – to give consumers numerous ways to enjoy its beverages. These packaging materials are all recyclable and can therefore be integrated into a circular economy. World Without Waste is an ambitious global sustainable packaging initiative focused on three measurable and interrelated areas – Design, Collect and Partner – each supported by additional goals and targets.


The company’s vision to create a circular economy for its packaging materials requires ‘designing out’ waste by harnessing the inherent value of recyclable materials. By 2025, innovative packaging design will make 100% of the Company’s packaging recyclable globally, and by 2030, at least 50% recycled material will be used in its packaging. In addition, by 2030, the company aims to have at least 25% of its beverages sold globally by volume in refillable/returnable glass or plastic bottles or in reusable fountain dispensers.

Several other initiatives are being explored, including a commercial-scale bio-based plastic packaging plant in Germany using Coca-Cola’s licensed technology to produce a 100% plant-based plastic bottle with a lower carbon footprint than other plastics.

In South Africa, its bottling partner, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA), has introduced a 2-litre returnable/refillable PET bottle in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga and parts of the Free State – and most recently in KwaZulu-Natal – saving landfill space, reducing the use of virgin PET and saving consumers money.

Bottling partner Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages (CCPB) in the Western Cape has used returnable PET bottles since introducing the 1.5-litre pack in 1992. In addition, it has invested in a returnable glass bottle (RGB) line and introduced 300ml and 500ml bottles. CCPB supplies 1.5l returnable/refillable PET bottles in 11 flavours, while RGB bottles are available in numerous flavours.

CCBSA reports that consumers are switching to returnable bottles – going to their local shop, collecting their refund and showing that they, too, recognise the value of the circular economy while also contributing to a world without waste.


By 2030, Coca-Cola aims to collect and recycle one bottle or can for every one it sells. This is an ambitious goal and in South Africa the company has partnered with the PET Recycling Company (PETCO), an extended producer responsibility organisation for PET, since 2004 to support collection.

PETCO’s recently published 2022 Annual Report identifies the collection and recycling rates for the products its members have registered with the organisation. The report shows that 121,369 tonnes of packaging was placed on the market by PETCO members in 2022. Of this, 83,967 tonnes (69%) of post-consumer packaging were collected for recycling, and 79,571 tonnes were recycled – achieving a 66% recycling rate. 

According to the Waste Pickers Association, South Africa has approximately 90,000 informal waste pickers. They are playing an increasingly important role in waste management. Many municipalities lack the budget to deal with recyclable waste, and when it is collected, it is often not separated and ends up in landfills. Households in South Africa produce approximately 12.7 million tonnes of household waste per year (2020) – almost 30% of which (3.67 million tonnes) is not collected by formal waste collection systems and is often dumped illegally. Therefore, partnerships with informal collectors are essential to the waste management chain. 


Coca-Cola recognises that it cannot create a world without waste on its own: it needs partners across business, government and civil society to bring people together to support a healthy, waste-free environment and a circular economy.

In South Africa, the company’s partnership with the PET Recycling Company (PETCO creates economic opportunities by supporting the recycling sector to increase collection efforts and divert packaging waste from landfills.

Several spin-off collaborations have emerged, most notably the launch of Project Up, an electronic record keeping system funded by the Coca-Cola Foundation. Project Up uses BanQu, a blockchain technology to create a digital record of recyclables, allowing buy-back centres to digitally track the types of materials coming in and the value of those materials to their business. At the same time, waste collectors have digital proof of the revenue they receive for their materials. 

A major benefit of the system is that it enables cashless transactions, reducing the risk associated with carrying cash. Meanwhile, PETCO can use the increased business insights gained from the system to maintain and improve trade volumes.

Achieving a world without waste is a complex process that requires long-term commitment. No company can succeed in isolation and The Coca-Cola Company will continue to work with partners, and engage and support stakeholders in order to achieve its goals. DM


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