Coke Swallows Honest Tea

Coke Swallows Honest Tea

What's wrong with this picture? Bottle bills are among the most visible environmental laws. The Coca-Cola Co. opposes bottle bills. The National Recycling Coalition just gave its annual "Recyling Works!" award to Coke.

Actually, nothing's wrong. Although cynics might point out that Coke is a financial supporter of the NRC, the recognition, in fact, reflects the growing sophistication of big companies and the environmental movement about sustainability in general and recycling in particular.

Companies like Coca Cola have come to understand that they can no longer just be against regulations or laws like bottle bills. They have to be for solutions to problems-like waste and litter-that they help create. So Coke has set ambitious goals and made substantial investments to promote recycling, notably with its plan to spend more than $60 million to build the world's largest bottle-to-bottle recyling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. It's an investor in RecycleBank, an exciting small company that aims to pay people to recycle more and throw away less. And the company has set an aspirational goal of recovering 100% of the PET that goes into its bottles and the aluminum that goes into its cans. Like other beverage companies, it's also "light-weighting" its packaging.

Environmentalists like the NRC have come to understand that bottle bills are at best an imperfect approach to recyling and at worst an impediment to a robust recycling infrastructure that can sustain itself. As Jeff Seabright, Coke's vice president for the environment, told me at the NRC's annual dinner last week, bottle bills are the "apartheid of resource recovery" because they separate out PET bottles and aluminum cans, which have considerable value once they are recycled, from the rest of the waste stream. That makes it harder for recyclers, whether public or private, to pay for the trucks, bins and recycling centers needed to make the business of recycling work.

Put simply, recycling has evolved from a movement into a business, and that's a good thing.

John Casella, the chief executive of Casella Waste Systems, who's big into the recycling biz and gave the award to Coke, praised the company for "quenching the world's thirst for solutions to the challenge of limited resources."

Sounding more like an environmentalist than a garbage guy, John told the crowd:

No matter what business you're in, no matter what you make or sell, the world will reward those who dedicate their skills, talents and passion to solving the world's looming problem of limits.

I confess - thinking about limits and limitations does not come easy to me, nor do I suspect does it come easy to most of you. After all, for several American generations over the last two hundred-plus years, we've been conditioned to think freely about "vast, untapped potential" and "no limits." And, in particular, about no limits to the resources - especially natural resources - we thought necessary to build a booming nation, bursting with opportunity and material abundance.

But, clearly we are waking up - we must wake up - to the idea there are limits, and specifically to the idea that our available natural resources are finite.

The more we throw stuff away, the better John's business gets-but he has bought into the mantra of reduce, reuse and recycling in a big way.

The dinner, presided over by Kate Krebs of NRC, was a lot of fun. It was held at the Willard, a Washington institution since 1853. (Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Dr. Martin Luther King polished his "I Have Dream Speech" there.) Turns out that the venerable old hotel is changing with the times: These days, the Willard says it is buying local and organic food whenever possible, purchasing wind energy, composting food and waste materials, saving water and, of course, using only compact fluorescent bulbs. We were served organic onions, blue cheese from all-natural grass-fed cattle, hormone and antibiotic free beef (although a fish or veggie dish would have been better given the carbon footprint of meat) and, for dessert, vanilla ice cream doused with (what else?) a shot of Coke. My friend and dinner companion Joel Makower even told a recycling joke which, unfortunately (or perhaps not), I've now forgotten.

It's impressive to see what Kate Krebs has done with NRC since she came to Washington (from her home off the grid in the wilds of Northern California) back in 2001. Kate forged a partnership with Dell that has accelerated electronics recycling throughout the computer industry (though clearly more needs to be done). She's worked closely with Coke, and with the waste industry, including the behemoth Waste Management. She's been involved with the magazine industry's stepped-up recycling plans, called ReMix, along with Time Inc.'s David Refkin, who chairs the NRC board.

Now Kate and the NRC are about to launch a new marketing platform and campaign called BrandEarth. One goal is to remind people that recycling is among the best ways to save energy, save water and significantly lower greenhouse gases. Keep an eye out for it. I'm pleased that Kate will be joining us on Earth Day at FORTUNE's Brainstorm: Green.