Recycling, rubbish and corporate responsbility

Last night, a Greenpeace-created TV advertisement was due to air on Channel 9 Australia but it was pulled at the 11th hour because TV bosses thought it was too offensive. Here’s the ad:

I don’t find it offensive. Do you? Has Channel 9 bowed to pressure from Coca-Cola?

We live in a disposable society. We buy things to throw away and much of this waste ends up in our oceans where it harms wildlife. Here’s a photo of a bird found in Midway Atoll in the Northern Pacific ocean.


The dead bird is decomposing while the plastic debris that killed it can live on for hundreds of years killing bird after bird after bird.

The Northern Territory (NT) in Australia recently tried to address this problem by introducing a cash-for-recycling scheme where consumers can hand in their empty bottles in exchange for 10c. In order to pay for the scheme, 10c is added to the price of the product at point-of-sale. Coca-Cola Amatil objected to the scheme and announced it would take the Northern Territory to court which it duly did. They argue that the 10c added at point-of-sale is an unfair cost to consumers. They say, “We don’t believe Australian families deserve to be slugged with yet another cost of living increase that will push grocery prices up when there are cheaper and equally effective alternatives on the table.” They view it as a tax on consumers.

I don’t believe that arguing against the recycling scheme on the basis of its being an unfair tax is valid. Consumers can easily avoid paying 10c for the scheme by not purchasing Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA) products. This would have no impact on their cost of living at all. But even if it did, the scheme acknowledges the role we play in harming wildlife and puts the responsibility on consumers who are partly to blame. If CCA was genuinely concerned about the cost of living for Australians, they could fund their own cash-for-recycling scheme rather than leaving it to the Government. This way they could absorb the 10c fee themselves, rather than passing it onto consumers.

It would be more valid for CCA to argue that the scheme does not work, but they cannot do this because the statistics show that it does.  South Australia introduced a cash-for-recycling scheme more than 30 years ago. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that they have the highest diversion rate – that is, waste that gets recycled rather than dumped – of any state in Australia.

CCA’s legal action against the Northern Territory may turn out to be corporate suicide. A huge backlash has developed as a direct result. One group, Out of Order, is a peaceful environmental movement targeting Coca-Cola vending machines by sticking an “Out of Order” sign to the front of them. It has gone viral and global. At the recent CCA AGM, shareholders and protestors prodded the chairman on this issue. This week the company warned of a profit drop and their share price plunged by 11%, although the reason they give for this is a price war with Pepsi rather than a tarnished public image. But it would be hard to imagine they are not suffering as a direct result of their war on recycling.

A question I have been asking myself recently is should industry be held responsible for the environmental impact of their business? After all, in this example, it is not CCA dumping empty bottles, but consumers. My feeling is that yes, they should be. I don’t think consumers should get a free ride either though, the responsibility needs to fall on all of us. But for CCA to deliberately circumvent effective action to increase recycling rates, goes beyond the question of whether they are responsible for the problem in the first place and into the realm of deliberate trashing of the environment.

An article in Harvard Science from last year makes the point that while consumers might want to do the right thing with regards to recycling, it is not always that straightforward. There are so many different types of plastic; recycling bins are not always present (Auckland has no public recycling bins); and when they are, not all types of plastic can be accepted. In Germany, industry is responsible for their products for the entire product life cycle, from production to disposal. I think we need to push for the same level of corporate responsibility here.

Maybe something good will come from CCA’s obnoxious behaviour in the form of legislation that requires corporations to ensure their products do not harm our wildlife.  The Australian government announced last week that it is going to legalise the Northern Territory container deposit scheme. Let’s hope this marks the beginning of an Australia-wide container deposit scheme and the placing of responsibility for recycling on both consumers and corporations.

If you want to help, here’s what you can do: Stop Coca-Cola trashing Australia: 3 things you can do. 

13 responses to “Recycling, rubbish and corporate responsbility”

  1. The only thing I find offensive is that Coca Cola gets singled out. There are hundreds of other brands and types of plastic litter. Just drive down any road and you will see lazy slobs happily tossing their rubbish out car windows. The edges of our highways are littered with rubbish, as is a local school in my suburb! I don’t believe the Harvard study applies to the majority. Mt Everest has enormous litter problems, and those brave Polars explorers of last century appear to have been total grubs also – a bit like the crowd who follow the Tour de France each year.
    If you want to start controlling litter, take a look at Singaporean methods.

    • I suspect Coca-Cola was targeted because they took legal action against the Northern Territory government. As far as I’m aware, no other beverage company has done that.

      • Of course recycling is terribly important but let’s not lose sight of the filthy pigs out there who expect someone else to clean up their litter. It’s all too easy to blame large corporations. I don’t own CCA shares and never have.

  2. And really, if some vandals stick “out of order ” signs on Coca Cola vending machines thereby interfering with their trade, surely CCA has a right to a legal remedy?

  3. Rachel,
    The “Peaceful environmental Group”,Out of Order might
    want to take some legal advice ,although they no doubt consider themselves above the law.Prima facie, by placing out of order signs on Coke machines they are committing the following economic torts,-
    Breach of secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act,
    Unconscionable Conduct,
    Interference with trade and commerce by unlawful means,
    Causing Loss by unlawful means etc.
    The remedies are damages including special ,aggravated and exemplary damages, injunctions etc.
    These vigilantes don’t care what damage they do to lawful activities .Ask some of the former Gunns employees in Tasmania now drawing unemployment benefits.

  4. The legal remedies that Doug mentions are not necessarily effective in a case when activists with widespread public support take on a corporate giant. The 20-year British legal saga known as the McLibel case,, is a salutory reminder.

    Closer to home and more recently, the so-called McGunns libel case,, was an absolute disaster for Tasmanian company Gunns Ltd.

    I lived in Adelaide for 18 months, where there is an effective recycling system. It served in addition to exert some moral influence over “filthy pigs”. The city was very free of rubbish, even stuff that didn’t carry a cash deposit. Sydney seemed like a pig sty when I moved here – with the exception of the municipality of North Sydney. When he was mayor there, Ted Mack ordered all street rubbish bins to be removed, so there was nowhere in public places to put rubbish. You had to always take it with you. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it worked.

    In Sydney Park last week:,

  5. Typical, though, that in this Age of Entitlement, big business, and not the litterbugs themselves, is targeted in such a cowardly manner by groups such as Greenpeace.

    • The litterbugs are paying for the scheme through the addition of 10c to the purchase price of their product. The consumer pays for this, not big business. They do not provide any money for the scheme.

      Coca-cola took legal action against a government for introducing a recycling scheme. I personally think that is outrageous and am not at all surprised for the public backlash.

  6. No, not just the litterbugs but the rest of us who are tidy and conscientious about keeping our environment clean! Something wrong with our society when you walk into a school yard full of litter!

    • I personally would be only too happy to pay an extra 10c for my bottle of coke (not that I buy that stuff) if it meant more bottles were diverted to recycling.

  7. But some “pigs” are nice – I agree with Sir Winston Churchill:-
    “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.
    Sir Winston Churchill
    British politician (1874 – 1965)”

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