Australian beverage companies win court case shutting down program that has dramatically increased recycling of plastic bottles
TIMOTHY STRÖM, MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: On 4 March 2013, Coca-Cola successfully sued an Australian territorial government over a law which encouraged recycling.
Australians use up to 13 billion beverage containers each year, and the majority of which are not recycled. Rather, these bottles end up as either landfill or rubbish, whereupon they may join the 20 million items of plastic that enter the world’s oceans every day.
In response to these ecological problems, the government of the Northern Territory introduced the Container Deposit Scheme, commonly called “Cash for Containers”. Beginning in 2012, this law forced beverage bottling companies to pay a $0.10 refund to anyone who returned their containers to a recycling centre.
It has been widely considered a success, with the Northern Territory’s recycling rate doubling within its first year. A similar recycling scheme has been operating in South Australia for over 30 years. Under this system they achieve a recycling rate of 74 percent for plastic and 84 percent for glass. This is over double the national recycling rates of only 27 percent for plastic and 38 percent for glass. The South Australian scheme enjoys a 98 percent public approval rating.
Founder of ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ and former Australian of the year Ian Kiernan said:
Forty percent of the rubbish removed by volunteers on Clean Up Australia Day is bottles and cans. But in South Australia, where there is a refund system, they are just 10 percent.
However, major bottling companies, namely Coca-Cola Amatil, in league with Schweppes and Lion, were opposed to ‘Cash for Containers’ scheme. They claimed that the refund will act as a tax on their products and harm their sales.
Coca-Cola, who control around 56 percent of the Australian soft drink market, are totally opposed to the cash-for-containers scheme. As their Australian spokesman Alec Wagstaff says: “In terms of why we don’t support a container deposit scheme, it’s quite simple: we don’t think they’re the best way to improve recycling in Australia. They only address a small part of the problem, and they’re very expensive. Effectively they’re a green tax on consumers”.
Coca-Cola have worked to develop their image as a company devoted to sustainability.
BEATRIZ PEREZ, VP & CHIEF SUSTAINABILITY OFFICER, COCA-COLA COMPANY: When you open a Coca-Cola, you know there’s a refreshing beverage inside. And inside every bottle, there is also a story to be told, a story of the journey we’re taking with you to make a positive, lasting difference wherever our business touches the world and the world touches our business.
STRÖM: Rather than the cash-for-containers scheme, Coca-Cola have put their support behind an “industry investment solution” called the “National Bin Network”. This is aimed at boosting recycling rates and claims to be 28 times cheaper while still delivering “similar environmental outcomes”.
Coca-Cola made a string of arguments denouncing the cash-for-containers scheme. For instance, they claim that it will increase “the cost of an average household grocery basket by 1.35 percent”. And they also claim ithat it is a “supplement to the welfare system by providing income to people who scavenge bottles and cans from bins”.
The Boomerang Alliance, a group of 26 environmental organizations committed to a zero waste future, have systematically responded to Coca-Cola’s arguments. They describe the companies claims as being partially “complete nonsense” and mostly “misleading at best”.
The cash-for-containers scheme is quite similar to other recycling laws that exist in much of Europe, parts of Canada, and the U.S. Coca-Cola is actively profitable in these countries, despite having to contribute to recycling. Indeed, Coca-Cola has an annual trading revenue of around $47 billion.
To fight the cash-for-containers scheme, Coca-Cola took the government of the Northern Territory to court. Their lawyers argued that the scheme was in breach of Australia’n federal law. The legal grounds for their challenge was the Mutual Recognition Act. This forbids different production procedures from being applied to the same product in different states or territories.
On 4 March, Justice John Griffiths of the Federal Court ruled in favour of the beverage companies, and the Northern Territory’s cash-for-container scheme was declared illegal.
A number of environmental organizations have condemned Coca-Cola, Schweppes, and Lion. Greenpeace launched a campaign against them and have supported calls for a national container scheme to be implemented. They have called on the government “… to stand up to Coke’s relentless bullying and take action to protect the environment from Coke’s blatant corporate self-interest”.
A direct action campaign has been launched to symbolically slander the companies while also attacking their profit margins. Going under the name Out of Order, a collection of independent activists around the country have begun disabling vending machines with nothing more than a piece of paper and some tape.
I spoke with Katso, a street artist and the founder of the Out of Order campaign:
KATSO, STREET ARTIST, OUT OF ORDER CAMPAIGN FOUNDER: What started as an action has kind of grown into a campaign. And we’re hoping to create more of a movement, like, a grassroots movement based on creativity and humor and social media, combining it with direct action, so we can create awareness about really what are really serious, important issues that affect everyone.
STRÖM: This protest has been taken up by many individual activists around the county and has received solidarity from around the world. Katso told me that in one week his Facebook based campaign reached 800,000 people.
As yet, no official organizations have either supported or even commented on the Out of Order campaign. This may be out of concern for any potential legal ramifications of endorsing such civil disobedience, which, from the perspective of Coke, could be considered acts of vandalism. The Out of Order campaign has yet to attract any mainstream media attention in Australia.
Out of Order have joined a number of other environmental organizations in supporting The Green Party’s call for a national cash-for-containers scheme to be set up. According to one poll, this proposition is supported by over 80 percent of Australians.
The national container refund scheme will be discussed in the upcoming Council of Australian Governments, or COAG, meeting on 11 April.
KATSO: I’m happy to stick my neck out for this because this is a real opportunity for Australia to get container-deposit legislation, which would just do huge things for our marine environment and for our communities.
STRÖM: A national cash-for-containers system would undermine the legal grounds on which the Northern Territory’s scheme was declared illegal. Thus, Coca-Cola, Schweppes, and Lion would likely fight this possibility, instead pushing for their industry investment solution.
Conversely, community and environmental groups are determined fight what they see as corporate profits being put before the interests of people and the planet.
I’m Tim Ström, reporting for The Real News, Melbourne.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.