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The Real Thing? Greenpeace helps Coke to end HFC use in vending machines by 2015

December 3, 2009

Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO also claims to be the company's Chief Sustainability Officer.

The Gods must be crazy.

Today Coca-Cola and Greenpeace (yes, Coca-Cola and Greenpeace) held a joint press conference to announce the mega-brand’s initiative to significantly reduce its direct greenhouse gas emissions.  Coke plans to do this by eliminating the use of hydroflourocarbons (HFC) refrigerants in all new vending machines and coolers by 2015.


Coke and Greenpeace began discussions on HFC use back in 2000 when Greenpeace challenged Coke to use only HFC-free machines for the Syndey Olympics. According this morning’s press release, the transition to HFC-free refrigeration will reduce the equipment’s direct greenhouse gas emissions by 99 percent. A recent peer-reviewed report by top scientists shows that HFCs will be responsible for between 28 percent and 45 percent of carbon-equivalent emissions by 2050 if society reduces carbon dioxide while leaving HFCs unchecked. Eliminating HFCs in the commercial refrigeration industry would be equivalent to eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Germany or Japan.

Coca-Cola corners about 1% of the refrigeration market globally and has made today’s announcement in an effort to bring together the industry to eliminate the use of HFC. “We are issuing a call to action to our peers to join us in investing in climate friendly systems,” said Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent at this morning’s press conference, “Success isn’t going to happen through independent players… The real innovations in business will happen at [the intersection of] sustainability and supply chains. “

Coke and its bottling partners have approximately 10 million coolers and vending machines in place today around the world. The use of HFCs is Coca-Cola’s largest contributor to GHG emissions. As a result of the switch, Cokes expects carbon emission reductions will exceed 52.5 million metric tons over the life of the equipment. Put another way, that’s like removing 11 million cars off of the road for a year.


It was odd to hear the leadership of both Greenpeace and Coca-Cola to speak of each other with such… admiration, respect, and appreciation. About five years ago, the relationship between these two organizations changed.  Greenpeace – USA Executive Director Phil Radford admitted that the two “haven’t always worked together so well.”

But still, Greenpeace is applauding what they believe to be a major achievement. “Over the years both working with Coca-Cola and putting pressure on Coke, we didn’t know if this day would come,” Radford said in today’s call. “We can either dance with or dance on companies – but I’m happy to say that today Greenpeace and Coca-Cola are doing the tango.”

Moreover, what really seems to have made Greenpeace so elated about this change is not just that Coke is willing to play ball, but that Coke is taking a leadership role. “When companies take steps that fundamentally change the market, they should be applauded,” said recently retired Greenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold. “We want the beverage and supermarket industry to take note and take action. Greenpeace did not take money from Coke – and as a matter of principle we do not take any funds from businesses – all we want is real climate action. “


HFCs are the “worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of,” according to Greenpeace’s web site. Originally implemented as an alternative to ozone-depleting Clorofluorocarbons (CFC), HFCs were the lesser of two evils. But as society became more aware of the impact of GHG emissions, HFCs remained still… evil.  HFCs are less stable than CFCs and didn’t harm the lower stratosphere as much. Still, they are a very powerful greenhouse gas – about 1,400 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the Greenpeace / Coke press release this morning.

So, Coke is going to use two different alternatives in their new refrigerants – hydrocarbon and carbon dioxide. The company’s preference is for the use of CO2 because its nonflammable. But isn’t CO2 also evil? Well, yes. But remember, this is basically substituting a tremendously, incredibly powerful set of molecules (HFCs) with C02 which, although not the best thing for the environment is tremendously, incredibly more manageable.

Interestingly, after $50 million in R&D investment and decades of research, Coca-Cola doesn’t hold any patents on these two alternatives, but does hold patents on a helium alternative that won’t be used. The Coca-Cola representatives all stressed that they hoped that this open sharing of technology would fulfill Coke’s intent to get more companies onboard. “We have no intent on making money [on these alternative refrigerants].”


This is not a formal partnership announcement as Greenpeace doesn’t take money from companies and prefers to remain independent of influence. But it is *ahem* refreshing to see Greenpeace play the role of a cheerleader for companies that are making substantial efforts to make a positive impact on the environment.

Coca-Cola is not a company absent of critics. But it is undeniable that this company’s impact on everything from branding and marketing to water usage and obesity cannot be ignored.

Coke’s “platform for sustainability” is encapsulated by its “Live Positively” program.  Live positively focuses on themes ranging from achieving healthy & active living in the communities, sustainable packaging, water stewardship, energy management, and climate protection.

Most relevant to the environment, the Live Positively program has a few goals that are very intriguing: 1) return to nature an amount of water equal to their beverages by 2020 and 2) provide energy labeling on the front of Coca-Cola’s packaging by 2011.

“This is our brand promise,” says Coca-Cola Chairman & CEO in the company’s sustainability video. “And if a good brand is a promise, a great brand is a promise kept.”


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The writer is the editor of —  You can contact him at JamesERatcitizenpolitydotcom or follow him on Twitter:

Copyright 2009 – CitizenPolity & James Epstein-Reeves – Not to be used without the written permission of CitizenPolity or the author.

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