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Sprite ditches its iconic green bottle — but environmentalists say it's not enough

On left, the classic green Sprite bottle. On the right, the new clear bottle.
Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images; The Coca-Cola Co.
On left, the classic green Sprite bottle. On the right, the new clear bottle.

Updated July 28, 2022 at 3:24 PM ET

For more than 60 years, the soft drink Sprite has come packaged in iconic green bottles. Now, that era has come to an end.

Starting Aug. 1, the Coca-Cola Co., which produces Sprite, will package the lemon-lime drink in clear plastic bottles in North America, the company announced Wednesday.

By bottling Sprite in clear plastic, Coca-Cola says, the bottles will be able to be recycled more times. One goal, the company says, is to increase the supply of recycled plastic that the company can then use to make future bottles.

"Taking colors out of bottles improves the quality of the recycled material," Julian Ochoa, the CEO of R3CYCLE, a plastic recycling company working with Coca-Cola, said in a statement.

Sprite's green plastic bottles were already recyclable. But colored plastic bottles are typically separated from clear plastic bottles during the recycling process in order to keep the recycled plastic from becoming discolored, Coca-Cola said. The green Sprite bottles were more often recycled into things like clothes and carpeting, which are more difficult to recycle again.

Environmental groups say single-use plastic is the problem

Environmental organizations say the problem with Sprite bottles is not the color, but the material: single-use plastic.

"Coca-Cola's recent announcement is yet another blatant greenwashing attempt from one of the world's worst plastic polluters," said Kate Melges, who leads the Plastics Project at Greenpeace. "We are in the midst of a massive plastic pollution crisis and we cannot recycle our way out of it."

Coca-Cola produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles every year, according to data it provided in 2019 to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, making it one of the world's largest producers of single-use plastic waste.

Soft drink bottles are usually made of a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. PET is lightweight, food-safe and recyclable — but like other plastics, PET can take hundreds of years to decompose.

In the U.S., only about 29% of PET plastic is recycled, according to the EPA.

"Bottles with recycled content will still be thrown away, sent to landfills, or littered," said Matt Littlejohn of Oceana, an ocean conservation organization.

Concerns about single-use plastic have led to calls for food and beverage companies to increase sustainability by avoiding the creation of new plastic where possible.

Coca-Cola has previously pledged to boost sustainability

Coca-Cola has previously made a variety of sustainability pledges, including promises to increase the portion of its packaging that can be recycled — currently 90%, with a goal of 100% by 2025 — and to increase the percentage of recycled material used to make its packaging — currently 23%, with a goal of 50% by 2030.

In recent years, Coca-Cola has experimented with bottles made entirely of recyclable PET — also called rPET — along with the use of plant-based material.

"Demand for rPET currently exceeds supply, so the first step to scaling up use of 100% rPET across our portfolio is building a sustainable pipeline of high-quality material," said Chris Vallette, Coca-Cola's senior vice president of technical innovation and stewardship.

The clear Sprite bottles were first introduced last year in a smaller, 13.2-oz bottle, in a handful of regions across the U.S.

Other Coca-Cola drinks that come in green plastic bottles — including Fresca, Seagram's and Mello Yello — will also transition to clear plastic bottles.

In the statement, the company also announced that its brand of bottled water, Dasani, will be packaged in bottles made entirely from recycled plastic. Coca-Cola estimates that will save more than 20 million pounds of newly created plastic compared to 2019 — a savings that represents a tiny fraction of the company's overall plastic production.

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace and Oceana have called on the company to move from single-use plastic bottles to refillable bottles.

Coca-Cola says its goal is for at least 25% of its beverages globally to be sold in reusable or returnable containers by 2030. That includes drinks sold at soda fountains and in glass bottles. Refillable and returnable packaging made up 16% of sales in 2020, the company says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.