Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Coke, Pepsi court green cred but fudge on BPA

There’s a lot to like about Coca-Cola’s bid for green cred at the 2010 Winter Olympics.  A key sponsor of the Vancouver games, the multinational maker of more than 3,000 beverages  is boasting a no-waste, carbon-neutral presence, with coolers that don’t emit greenhouse gases, staff uniforms and café chairs of recycled materials, compostable coffee cups and hybrid carts.

And of course, Coke is touting its “Bottle of the Future”  — the PlantBottle, whose cachet is its 30 percent plant-based material content. (If you dig deep into the Coca-Cola website , you’ll find that the company has yet to confirm “preliminary research” suggesting that the PlantBottle’s carbon footprint is any lower than PET (polyethylene terephthalate)  polyester, the usual material for  Coca-Cola and other plastic drink bottles.  But both Pet and PB bottles are recyclable, Coke says.)

Still, Advertising Age’s headline — Coca-Cola Goes Completely Green at Olympics – is a bit too sweeping.   Coca-Cola’s soft drink cans are still lined with an epoxy resin containing bisphenol A (BPA), a petrochemical derivative and synthetic estrogen which readily leaches into food and drink.  On its website,   Coca-Cola defends this practice by asserting that “BPA is used to make the linings of cans to prevent spoilage and protect foods and beverages from direct contact with the can.”

The company adds that the U.S. and other industrialized nations believe that “the level of exposure to BPA that results from consuming canned foods and beverages poses no risk to the health of consumers.”

Well, not so much.  This was an accurate reflection of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s attitude under the regulation-averse Bush administration.

But things have changed.  Last month, reacting to a cascade of research studies linking BPA to serious health conditions, senior FDA leaders appointed by President Obama issued a strong warning to the public to avoid the chemicalFDA officials announced a series of investigations of BPA safety, meanwhile committing the agency, on its own and in conjunction with Canadian counterparts, to “support” food processing industry efforts to find a suitable replacement for BPA in can linings, particularly for canned infant formula.

Right now,  the Japanese canning industry voluntarily uses non-BPA can linings, but nearly all other major canners in industrialized nations use epoxy resin with BPA.  Scientists and policy-makers worldwide are stepping up research into BPA and into alternatives for cans.   Later this year, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are planning to convene an international “Expert Consultation on BPA.”

Ironically, while hanging tough on BPA in cans, Coca-Cola  doesn’t mind using the BPA controversy to market its  lines of bottled drinks:  its website assures consumers that “BPA is not used in the manufacture of the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic water and soft drink bottles used by The Coca-Cola Company.”

PepsiCo, another global giant that makes Pepsi-Cola, Gatorade, Aquafina, Tropicana and hundreds more beverages, takes a similar tack.  PepsiCo is courting   environmentalists and other advocates of corporate responsibility with its ambitious Refresh Project, which promises to dedicate $20 million to good causes.

Like rival Coca-Cola, Pepsi is keenly aware of environmentalists’ campaigns against the burgeoning plastic bottle glut.  Pepsi promises to develop “sustainable packaging strategies” by encouraging recycling and coming up with“biodegradable and compostable packaging solutions.”

Pepsi also says it is “eliminating environmentally sensitive materials and processes from our packaging.”

So – what’s in those Pepsi bottles?   The company says “the vast majority of Pepsi’s plastic bottles are made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate). A few of our products are packaged in a plastic called High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), which is a multi-layered material. Please be assured that all of these plastics do not contain BPA and are perfectly safe for consumption.”

Well then – what’s in the cans?  Pepsi is  silent on that question.  At least Coca-Cola’s website acknowledges the BPA controversy and takes a position.  Pepsi’s position is ostrich.  On Feb. 3, we emailed and telephoned Pepsi customer service and media relations to ask if Pepsi had managed to come with a non-BPA can lining.

So far – nothing.  Pepsi hasn’t returned our calls.  We can only assume this means Pepsi, like Coke and most other canners outside Japan, uses BPA-based epoxy resin.

Obviously major corporations have become convinced that going green is good for their customers, the planet and their bottom lines.   Fine, but a little healthy skepticism is always in order.  As long as the stuff in the cans is contaminated with a troubling industrial chemical like BPA, thinking people won’t consider it truly green.

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3 Responses to “Coke, Pepsi court green cred but fudge on BPA”

  1. I appreciated the thoroughness of your research, and the article’s balance. Revealing what’s beneath the marketing hype is a true public service. Thank you.

    • Elaine Shannon says:

      Thanks, Deb. It’s great that major corporations are promoting good-for-the-planet actions like recycling. But let’s not kid ourselves. As long as those can linings have BPA, we’re all going to eat and drink a little BPA. It’s only a trace, but the Endocrine Society has concluded that because of BPA’s hormonal action at trace levels, there may be no safe level of exposure. And temember, 93 percent of the people tested by the Centers for Disease Control have BPA in their bodies. We recently sent 10 cord blood samples to the lab. Nine of them came back positive for BPA– which means that those children were introduced to BPA contamination when their brains and other organs were forming.