Does Coca-cola have a secret agenda against seabirds? David Ritter writes to the company to find out.
Originally posted on ABC Environment, 11 April 2013

Mr Terry Davis
Managing Director
Coca-Cola Amatil
North Sydney

Dear Mr Davis – may I call you Terry? This is Australia, after all.

Okay, so I know what you are thinking: “just what I need, a letter from the CEO of Greenpeace”. And it is true, just lately Greenpeace and Coca-Cola have not been getting along so well.

Things probably reached rock bottom when Coca-Cola called the cops on me a couple of weeks back. At least, I guess that is what happened, but maybe I am wrong and a dozen police officers simply happened to be strolling past your Sydney offices, entirely coincidentally at the time when we arrived…

In any event, you might be aware that, along with my mates Ian Kiernan from Clean Up Australia and Jeff Angel from the Total Environment Centre, I was coming over to your offices in North Sydney to pay a visit. We did let you know we were dropping by, so there was no surprise. Just popping in, I thought. Quick cup of tea, maybe a nice bicky and a chat, I thought. But oh no. We never even made it as far as the reception, because the police officers, including some top brass, stopped us on the pavement and said that if we took another step towards your offices, we’d be arrested.

I’ve got no complaint with the police who were exceedingly polite, but let’s be honest Terry, it wasn’t a great moment in our relationship.

Was Coca-Cola worried? Surely not. Let’s recap on some key facts. Coca-Cola is the 212th biggest corporation on the planet, with 2012 profits of US$8,572 million, and extraordinary global reach and brand recognition. Ian, Jeff and I are three average looking blokes who were approaching your offices slowly and peacefully in broad daylight. It is true; we were carrying a few plastic bags of Coke’s own empty bottles and cans that had been pulled out of a local creek to return to head office. But hey, come on, surely the company can take a Coke! And it was Coca-Cola’s rubbish after all. It is not like we insisted that Coca-Cola go and retrieve its own garbage from the river – a crew of Clean Up Australia and Greenpeace volunteers had done the cleaning up already.

If it was Coca-Cola who called the constabulary, I do wonder whether the marketing department had been properly consulted. After all, it is a pretty big leap going from all the usual stuff – teenagers on beaches, ecstatic crowds at concerts, ‘just for the taste of it’, yada yada yada – to thinking that calling the cops on Ian Kiernan was a bright idea for Coke’s image. I mean, it does seem pretty hard to imagine that calling the cops on a septuagenarian former Australian of the Year really conveys those cherished brand values of fun, freedom and refreshment. Or maybe I am missing something.

But let me cut to the chase. What really puzzles me is the seabirds. What is it with Coca-Cola and the seabirds, Terry?

According to scientists, around two thirds of Australian seabirds are affected by plastic pollution in our oceans, and heck of a lot of this comes from the beverage sector. It’s no wonder when 7 billion cans and bottles end up in landfill or are chucked away in our parks, rivers and oceans every year – that’s 15,000 a minute! The good news is that it is possible to massively reduce the amount of plastic pollution from the drinks industry. In South Australia and 43 other precincts around the world, there’s a scheme in operation known as ‘cash for containers’ which is proven, achieving over 90 per cent recycling rates in some places. So there is a proven solution out there.

On its website, Coca-Cola says “[w]e recognize… that our planet has scarce resources and we are working to first minimise the packaging we use and then look to find ways to recover and reuse as much as possible”. Now I don’t want to leap to using an expression like ’empty commitment’ and may be it is just my interpretation, but what the Coke website says does seem to me to be just a little at odds with what the company has actually been doing in relation to the ‘cash for containers’ proposal… like lobbying politicians, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on misleading advertising campaigns, and even suing the government of the Northern Territory to prevent cash for containers being introduced.

The thing is I just can’t see why Coca-Cola would want its brand to be associated with dead seabirds. It is not like Coca-Cola has some kind of morbid organisational detestation of seabirds, and it can hardly be essential to Coke’s business to clog up the stomach of an albatross with plastic waste. I mean, if Coke really wanted to see dead seabirds, then there are far more efficient ways available for wiping out marine wildlife.

I can sort of imagine some kind of weird fictional parallel dimension in which maximising seabird fatalities was one of Coca-Cola’s key business objectives. In this fictional world Coke would find ingenious ways of promoting its orniscidal agenda. The company might announce that something big is coming, for instance, before launching an exciting new customer competition – let’s call it Coke-aim! Under the rules of Coke-aim, any punter who handed in six dead seabirds to any participating retailer would get a six pack of Coke in return. Bingo! Pretty soon in this strange world, thirsty Coke drinkers would be taking Coke-aim at our fine feathered friends all over the country, with guns, bows, sticks and stones employed to devastating effect. Seabirds out, Coke-aim in!

In this Coke-aim crazy-world no picnic would feel complete without some promising young fellow bludgeoning half a dozen gulls to oblivion or an enterprising young lass swiftly garroting three brace of petrels, before heading down to the local delicatessen to redeem the carcasses for the cold sweet flavor of the real thing.

Back in the real world though, my assumption is that nobody who works for Coca-Cola does want to see seabirds unnecessarily suffering and dying with stomachs full of plastic waste and I’m guessing your gazillions of customers feel pretty much the same way. So how about taking another look at that cash for containers scheme and helping give Australia’s seabirds a decent break? Just think of it as buying the birds a Coke.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this Terry. Hopefully we can sort things out.


David Ritter, chief executive officer, Greenpeace Australia Pacific