Coca-Cola Builds Sustainability from the Watershed Up


Our series of interviews with key sustainability management at The Coca-Cola Company offers valuable insights into the inner workings of a global brand and how its associates, entrusted with various stewardship roles, work every day to support and improve sustainability.

Other recent interviews discussed the company’s approach to water resource sustainability and how it guides sustainability through its thousand disparate facilities.

Our last interview is with Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability, Coca-Cola Refreshments:

Sustainable Plant (SP): Please describe your role at Coca-Cola.

Bruce Karas: We have a team of about 20 associates in North America (at the plant level) and a parallel organization in corporate, developing a strategy that’s aligned with Coca-Cola’s plan for water conservation, plus more. My role is to work with our business to integrate our environmental sustainability strategy into our activities. My task is to make sure that all internal components of our business have an understanding of our requirements and commitments; I also make sure that our bottling partners are in alignment with our key sustainability direction. This extends to working with the sales team to help them understand our goals and accomplishments. We provide a governance role to our North American business.

Bruce Karas

Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability, Coca-Cola Refreshments

In addition to Water Stewardship, we have distinct initiatives in the areas of Sustainable Packaging and Energy & Climate protection. The work we do in each area has connections to the others in terms of our overall environmental footprint.

SP: What are some of the greatest challenges plant personnel face in pursuing/maintaining sustainability at the plant level?

Karas: At the production level, it is important to make your sustainability initiatives “come alive” for associates. If you are operating a filler machine, or a fork lift, the connection of our business to appreciating the facility’s source water, which may be a faraway reservoir, requires us to help associates understand our impact on the water we share with the local community. So, we do a number of different things that help them connect to the bigger picture.

For example, one of our biggest concerns is the health of watersheds in our communities. At one of our facilities in Dallas, we worked with The Nature Conservancy, to help Clymer Meadow’s ecosystem recharge water. To bring the point home, the facility manager took associates on a tour of the meadow to see how the whole ecosystem works. The associates, ranging from filler operators to forklift drivers, helped remove invasive plant species and replant the native prairie grass. This helps the prairie ecosystem retain rainwater. We also work with different organizations on local waterway clean ups to both remove litter and engage our associates in the importance of bottle and can recycling.

At the facility, we work hard at saving energy and being efficient. It is important to educate associates to take these conservation lessons from work to their home. For example, we ask our facilities to examine and adjust equipment set-points to minimize energy use while maintaining production and quality. At home, we encourage associates to install and use programmable thermostats to control their HVAC systems to save energy while remaining comfortable.

SP: Closer to home, Coca-Cola has a bottling plant right off Route I-95 that proudly proclaims it is ISO 22000 certified. Can you speak to that plant’s efforts?

Karas: You are referring to our Needham facility. They, too, share the philosophy that, as a business, we share responsibility for a surrounding community’s precious resources. Consider the issue of water consumption – we use water in every product we make; water is used as an ingredient and used to sanitize our systems. Each facility has its own water efficiency target each year. Water efficiency is measured in terms of liters of water per liter of product produced. In the case of energy efficiency, we have a target that is measured in terms of total energy used in megajoules per liter of product produced.

This same approach in terms of facility targets is extended to solid waste generation, as we aspire to divert 100% of our solid waste from landfills. At Needham, they have been able to divert more than 95% of their solid waste from landfills and are closing in on 100%. Our approach is to ask the question ‘how can we take a solid waste stream and make it a useful intermediate for another operation?’ A good example is in how we use our concentrate drums. Our product comes in a 55-gal drum, and after we use the contents, we donate the drums to conservancy groups to use for home use as a rain barrel, turning a solid waste to an opportunity to educate the public on the benefit of conserving and reusing water. This is a good way to illustrate sustainability.

In greater detail, we view sustainability as a product of 3 layers:

  • We have to minimize the amount of energy we use and practice conservation.
  • There are also innovation opportunities for Coca-Cola that become game-changers, like the PlantBottle package, which is a transformational technology. It is the first fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made with up to 30 percent plant-based materials.
  • The third is inspirational projects, an example is the rain barrels made from our 55-gallon drums.

SP: Let’s continue with plants like Needham that prominently display signs proclaiming ISO certification. For such plants certified to one or more ISO standards, does having such systems in place help the organization, and in what way?

Karas: Absolutely, we have a focus on looking at how these systems can help. Our approach is to develop an integrated system, so that when you look at all of our facilities they have a commonality. As far as numbers go, we are working on another 25 bottling facilities to certify to all four ISO standards. Among the tools would be environmental aspects and impacts, in which we think outside of the environmental compliance concerns, and as an example, include things like source water and their potential risks. In this manner, we look not only at basics like energy efficiency, but also areas for business sustainability improvement.

You need to have targets and objectives to address these issues, and the only way you can address the challenges of enhanced complexity is to have an effective process management system. Effective process management helps address system complexity, where companies face a large number of regulations and concerns to manage, as well as materials and processes to manage. Here’s a case in point – if you have a process management system (PMS) in place, you would develop a process compliance calendar to manage regulatory requirements. That way you know when a requirement needs to be addressed, who does the work, and by when. These processes then become auditable items for both internal and external auditors and are subject to continuous improvement.

In my role, if we determine a process is not working, the auditors and managers can drill down to finding the issue and determine if these are addressed by the current targets and objectives. Our facilities go through an overview of their management system to make sure they are walking the talk.

SP: On that same theme, what efforts do plant managers take to make employees more engaged to follow corporate mandates?

Karas: There are a number of different things we do. For example, we cannot expect associates to do something simply because it is a corporate mandate, that doesn’t work; instead, our EHS teams seek to engage the associates to start. As an example, I will use a water assessment exercise. The process is to educate each associate about where our water supply originates. In this training exercise we often take facility associates to visit the local water utility to see where their water comes from and how it is processed. This helps our associates understand the water cycle, how it affects them personally and in the community.

In another example, the focus on solid waste recycling is an important associate-driven activity. The Target 100 facility recycling program originated from associate suggestions. This program challenges our production facilities to divert all solid waste away from the landfill and into productive recycling efforts. This input helps make recycling easy and convenient for associates to connect with, and interestingly, a lot of them take these practices home. The trick is how to identify the right waste streams at the facilities, find an opportunity to reuse it and reach our goals.

Here’s another example – a plant team in Apopka, Florida involved in the juice business built a simple gathering system to collect condensate from their HVAC and extended that to capture water from all the gutters to use in a cooling tower. While inexpensive, this project was innovative, and the team exuded a sense of pride in helping conserve our source water. By building this collection system, the team essentially created a rainwater harvesting system that displaces the use of potable water in operations. With this data collection, they can share with us what metrics they measure to capture sustainability efforts, and if they are reflected in any ISO objectives/targets mandates.

rainwater harvesting

Rainwater Harvesting

We use specific water and energy use efficiency measures to track our environmental compliance and incidents, while also evaluating a host of leading indicators to track key process areas.  An example would be the completion of the required water source vulnerability assessment. We have a process measure for percent completion as well as an output called a source water protection plan. These are typical plant level sustainability metrics. Recently, we have worked driving facilities to focus on the basics. We have developed “Top 10” lists of best practices for both water efficiency and energy efficiency, and we track each plant’s completion of these practices.

SP: These are all notable efforts, and you should be commended for them. Are any incentives or rewards provided to make such efforts more attractive to associates?

Karas: One of the things we try to do is create opportunities for recognition, such as acknowledgment in our quarterly internal sustainability newsletter; basically, we share stories that target the plant team and showcase their efforts. We also display local external recognition, such as a wastewater compliance award from the local treatment plant for no violations. And, we highlight notable efforts that take place on the facility floor. We believe that our associates are ambassadors, talking about what we do. In fact we offer ambassador training to help everyone understand what our values and activities are. We celebrate our successes and encourage associates to share these stories with others and the public. The bottom line is, people are proud to work for this company.

SP: Can you share with our readers some anecdotal examples to showcase your plant-level sustainability efforts, and could these be considered innovative?

Karas: There are a couple of activities in the energy space; efforts that really have that wow factor. We have successfully implemented fuel cell technology at four facilities (Hartford and Elmsford in the east and two in California) where a significant portion of their base electricity load is generated by the fuel cells. The fuel cells can use either biogas or natural gas. In addition to providing clean power, the fuel cells generate a significant carbon benefit for us.

Fuel cells at AmCan

The fuel cells at AmCan

In our recent plant expansion in Atlanta, we built a cogeneration facility, and run the system using biogas from a local landfill (Hickory Ridge landfill). This landfill-gas-to-energy system supplies most of the facility’s energy needs, including electricity, steam and chilled water. It is one of the largest biogas projects of its kind in the United States. This plant is also LEED Gold certified, and features a rainwater harvesting system. The landfill-gas-to-energy system installation helped us earn the No. 3 spot on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of the largest on-site green power generators.

Coca-Cola's cogeneration plant in Atlanta

Coca-Cola's cogeneration plant in Atlanta

Another plant innovation is to install rain gardens. A rain garden is a designed feature that uses a combination of plants and gravels to capture rain water and allows it to slowly soak water into the ground rather than rushing into a storm sewer. In Atlanta, we installed one at the For our manufacturing plants or distribution centers, a rain garden is a part of our “Look of Success.”



The rain garden at the Fernbank Museum of Science

The rain garden at the Fernbank Museum of Science

SP: Given all your efforts to date, what are the biggest challenges the plants face, and how does the company manage these?

Karas: For a facility, the biggest challenges are continuous improvement in water and energy efficiency and frequently optimizing our process from a natural resource perspective. It includes ensuring that when we put in new equipment, we have considered the efficiency impact while responding to challenges in water and energy, supply and cost.

SP: Thank you for a great interview and your thoughtful answers. Finally, we always ask, “What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you, and to the company?”

Karas: Coca-Cola has been in business for more than 125 years and we want to make sure we are here for the next 125, and strike a balance between business and being sustainable. An essential part of business is that, if sustainability is not a part of your business model, you won’t be around. If our community is healthy, then our business will be healthy, representing a key balance. For me, it’s really about getting a delicate balance between the natural resources we have and making sure I can be more thoughtful in how I am doing things while passing on my passion to family and friends.

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