When Sprite hired an ad agency to work on the brand in the late 1960s, it created an identity with green labels to emphasize the green bottle—which the brand had used since it launched a few years earlier, and which had become a signature. But today, you’ll see Sprite in new clear bottles rolling out on shelves in California, Florida, and the Northeast. By 2022, all plastic Sprite bottles nationwide will be clear.
It’s part of a push to make the bottles more recyclable. “Technically, green-colored plastic is recyclable,” says Alpa Sutaria, sustainability leader for the Coca-Cola Company North America, which owns the Sprite brand. But, she says, “it is a challenge to reuse that material in the form of high-quality, food-grade recycled PET. And that’s really what we’re after.”
Most recycling facilities use mechanical recycling, meaning that after plastic bottles are sorted and cleaned, they’re ground up into small flakes that can be melted into new material. If the plastic is dyed, it can’t easily be turned back into clear plastic, so it’s less valuable for the overall market. “It’s a widely known challenge across the recycling industry,” Sutaria says. New chemical recycling technology can overcome the problem, turning any form of plastic—not just colored bottles, but even things like old carpets or polyester T-shirts—into pristine clear plastic. But “the reality is that even though it may be something that we can do on a small scale, or in a lab, it’s not yet commercially available at a large scale,” she says.
The company has already started to shift to clear packaging in some other markets, including the U.K. and Southeast Asia. “What we are learning from some of the other markets is that as long as there’s still good branding and communication about the change from green to clear that consumers are excited about it,” says Aaliyah Shafiq, brand leader for Sprite. The color green isn’t going away entirely, since the company still plans to use it on labels and in glass bottles.
But shifting to clear Sprite bottles can help give a boost to the overall supply of recycled PET plastic. (Clear bottles for other drinks, such as Fresca and Seagrams, are also coming.) Coca-Cola is beginning to move to 100% recycled plastic across several brands, including Dasani and Smartwater, and new 13.2-ounce bottles of Coke. The new clear bottles of Sprite will also be made from 100% recycled plastic and will be available first in the 13.2-ounce size.
“There is an increasing demand for really high-quality recycled PET across the United States—and frankly around the world—as more and more countries and more and more manufacturers are moving to include higher levels of recycled content in their packaging,” says Sutaria. Coke aims to collect or recycle a bottle or can for every bottle or can it sells by the end of the decade, and to use 50% recycled material in its bottles and cans by that point. Right now, that much supply doesn’t exist. One large part of the challenge is to increase recycling rates and strengthen recycling infrastructure. The company could also theoretically help shrink its own demand by doing more to build up new business models that rely on reusable bottles. But ditching colored bottles is one way to help.