- Bill Nye teamed up with The Coca-Cola Company to make an animated video promoting recycling.
- Coca-Cola is one of the world's biggest plastic polluters, and recycling isn't solving that problem.
- Recycling only delays disposal, and it doesn't protect human health from plastic pollution.
Nye, best known for his TV show, "Bill Nye the Science Guy," appears in a Coca-Cola stop-motion video posted to YouTube Tuesday and originally reported in Gizmodo. Nye narrates as an animated doll of himself with an upside-down plastic bottle for a head and a Coca-Cola label for a bowtie.
"If we can recover and recycle plastic, we can not only keep it from becoming trash, we can use that plastic again and again. It's an amazing material," Nye says, popping off his plastic-bottle head in one hand, and presenting a Coca-Cola bottle in the other.
"What's more is that, when we use recycled material, we also reduce our carbon footprint. What's not to love? So the good people at The Coca-Cola Company are dedicating themselves to addressing our global plastic waste problem. They know they have a responsibility to help solve this issue, and their goal: create a world without waste," he continues.
Then he explains how recycling a bottle works, as Coca-Cola runs a cutesy animation of the process.
In reality, recycling doesn't create a world without waste. Plastic bottles can only be recycled a few times before going to the landfill or getting lost in the ocean. Turning them into new products only delays their disposal or incineration.
Recycling can reduce the amount of new plastic produced, and therefore reduce the amount of carbon emitted during that process, but it doesn't do so on a very large scale. Because recycled plastic is more expensive and lower quality than new plastic, experts say that it's unlikely to ever overtake plastic production.
Plastic pollution abounds — from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest — and Coca-Cola is one of the worst offenders. The company produces about 3 million metric tons of plastic packaging each year, according to the company's reports to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That's the equivalent of 200,000 bottles a minute, making it the top plastic producer out of the 130 businesses that report their numbers to the foundation. An audit by the NGO coalition Break Free from Plastic has ranked Coca-Cola as the world's top plastic polluter for four years in a row.
The company has pledged to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030.
Coca-Cola did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Nye did not immediately respond either.
Recycling has only made a small dent in plastic production
Even when recycling happens, it doesn't prevent that plastic from becoming garbage or pollution. Bottles like Coca-Cola's are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which means they can be recycled more times than other plastics. Some companies claim PET can be recycled infinitely. In reality, just 29% of PET bottles and jars were recycled in 2018.
Each round of recycling degrades the quality of most plastics, so bottles are often "downcycled" into fibers or wood replacements.
The market for this recycled plastic is limited, since it's often cheaper to make new plastic from oil or gas, according to an investigation by NPR and PBS.
That investigation also probed the origins of recycling, and found that plastic-producing companies spent millions of dollars to make the practice popular. The companies' own scientists, however, told them that recycling wouldn't work on a large scale.
"Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace," Ron Liesemer, a former DuPont manager who led the industry's recycling campaigns in the 1980s and 90s, told PBS and NPR. "It improves the image of the material."
Recycling doesn't stop microplastic pollution or protect human health
Even if every plastic product was recycled, it wouldn't prevent plastics from polluting our environment and bodies. Years of research show that plastic products we use every day are shedding microscopic bits and leaching invisible chemicals.
In fact, recycled bottles may leach even more chemicals into their beverages than fresh plastic bottles do, a study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found last month.
A 2019 analysis estimated that the average American ingested about 50,000 microplastic particles each year and inhaled about the same amount. Another study from 2021 estimated that the average person ingested a credit card's worth of plastic each week.
The health consequences of that exposure aren't fully clear. Research has linked common chemicals in plastics — such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — to increased risk of cancer, issues with fertility and development, and hormone disruption. One study suggested that microplastics in the human gut could trigger harmful inflammation and start processes associated with cancer. Another found that the particles altered cell function in human lung cells.
No matter how much plastic Coca-Cola recycles, as long as it keeps using PET bottles, it will be part of the problem.