Is Coca Cola or Pepsi More Sustainable?

Coca Cola vs Pepsi  

Coca Cola and Pepsi are two of the most well known beverages around the world. According to Coca Cola, there are only two countries in the world where you can’t (officially) buy their drinks – Cuba and North Korea. Pepsi seems to be available in a similar number of countries. I’m a regular Coca Cola drinker myself. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking: Is Coca Cola or Pepsi more sustainable? Is there actually a difference? Or is there a better choice between the two giants? In this post I’m going to talk about what I’ve been able to find.

I begun by taking a look at the ingredients used in each of them. They are notoriously secretive about some of the ingredients which makes it harder to compare. Luckily, we can still look at the major ones.

The ingredients

One of the obvious ingredients is carbonated water. Coca Cola has had a lot of negative publicity over the years for building water extraction plants in relatively poor areas and then taking large amounts of water, leaving nearby residents with water shortages. Pepsi doesn’t appear to have had this kind of publicity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing things any better. Finding out any information on where Pepsi extracts water is very challenging.

Coca Cola ingredients
The two companies make it very difficult to find out the ingredients they use and where they come from.

Both drinks use high-fructose corn syrup for sweetening. This originates from corn, a commonly-grown crop in various countries. It also has a large environmental impact due to the need for high quantities of pesticides. Corn is also normally grown on land with no crop rotation (meaning that corn is constantly grown there with no other crops). This depletes the land of essential nutrients. Since both drinks (and in fact a lot of soft drinks) use this ingredient, it seems neither get any points for this one.

They also contain caffeine, various colorings, and flavorings which are rumored to include non-organic cinnamon, vanilla and lemon. An interesting ingredient is phosphoric acid which sounds a little scary, but is simply used to keep mold from growing on the drink and doesn’t appear to be particularly problematic for health. The manufacturing of phosphoric acid can produce a lot of waste that can be harmful to aquatic life if not disposed of correctly though. It is unclear where Coca Cola and Pepsi obtain their phosphoric acid.

You might have realized that both of these contain essentially the same ingredients and both are very secretive of where they come from. There are some other areas where these companies diverge however. PepsiCo is a more diverse company, owning many other brands such Tropicana, Quaker-Oats and Lay’s. They have made a number of targets for all of their brands, including exclusively using ‘sustainably sourced’ corn, palm oil and potatoes. You can find their full list of targets here. As a result, whilst the ingredients of the drinks might be similar, it seems likely that going forward Pepsi are much more likely to use sustainably sourced ingredients.

Winner of the ingredients: Pepsi

Packaging

You’re probably familiar with the different types of packaging that both drinks use – the aluminum cans for smaller drinks and plastic bottles used in the others. As you were probably expecting, these are responsible for some of the biggest sustainability issues with these companies. Since they use essentially the same types of packaging in the same contexts, let’s take a look at what they’re doing to reduce this impact.

Coca Cola has set a target to make 100% of their products recyclable by 2025 and to use 50% recycled materials in their products by 2030. Based on their own reporting, so far 88% of their packaging can be recycled but only 20% of their materials are recycled. It seems they’re making a start, though there is an argument whether these targets are good enough. The debate continues into whether recyclable plastic bottles can fit into a sustainable society. It’s unclear if we can trust the numbers as well, since there have been questions raised about their calculation methods used for their water sustainability goals.

Coca Cola paper bottle
Example of what Coca Cola’s paper bottle might look like. Still contains a small plastic liner unfortunately.

What are Pepsi’s packaging sustainability targets? They are essentially the same, with 100% products recyclable by 2025 and 50% recycled materials by 2030. They’re progressing at about the same speed as Coca Cola as well. They intend on launching a paper bottle in 2021 which sounds like it could be a huge improvement for their environmental impact. Coca Cola have a similar paper bottle in the works as well. It should be noted that the production of these bottles weighs less heavily on the environment, but can be harder to recycle. Whether they are actually an improvement depends on a wide range of factors.

As I write this in 2021, neither companies have, unfortunately, made enough of an effort to really stand out.

Winner of the packaging: Draw

Conclusion

It is time to wrap this debate up. Is Coca Cola or Pepsi more sustainable? The answer: Pepsi. It is a close call though, and neither of these drinks can really be considered sustainable. Both companies need to become more transparent and make more effort to ensure their bottles are properly reused.

There are more sustainable alternatives to both of them available right now as well. Whole Earth apparently make a great cola and so does a company called Gusto. Both of these use organic ingredients and seem to only use glass or aluminum cans and bottles which can be easily recycled. Personally I’ve only been able to try Gusto so far and it tastes delicious, so it seems I’ve found my alternative 🙂 Sadly they aren’t widely available yet though, which means we’re still reliant on Coca Cola and Pepsi cleaning up their act.

If you’ve found any other sustainable alternatives or if you’ve come to a different conclusion on this Coca Cola vs Pepsi debate, feel free to let us know in the comments!

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