Coke Is It: Aiming for Water Neutrality by 2020

150 150 Justin Ewers

Restoration of Indian Valley Meadow, sponsored in part by Coca-Cola, began early September this year.
(Photo credit: 
US Forest Service photographer Ann Dunsky)

When you think about water issues in California, does the world’s most popular soft drink come to mind?

Maybe it should.

With state leaders at loggerheads once again over water issues—a century-old fight that shows no signs of letting up—it’s clear water isn’t just another resource in California. It is the indispensable pillar of the state’s economy, providing everything from the food we eat to, well, the water we drink. 

It’s also a vital resource for businesses responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the state, including some in unexpected places.

“People don’t realize how important water is to our company—it’s the number one ingredient in every beverage we make,” says Jonathan Radtke, water resources director for Coca-Cola, which has nearly 7,000 employees in California in 52 production facilities from Sacramento to San Diego. “Water is integral to basically everything we do.”

Which is why Coca-Cola has set an ambitious new goal for itself that is not only changing the landscape for how businesses operate in California—but may also provide a roadmap for how state leaders might work together on water issues. 

“We’ve pledged to be a leader in water stewardship, and our goal is to return to nature an amount of water equivalent to what we use in our beverages,” says Radtke. 

This goal of “water neutrality” raised eyebrows when it was first proposed in 2008, but the company continues to make steady progress thanks to a set of unlikely partnerships with groups like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Foundation. 

“Healthy water supplies are critical to healthy communities, and any good business knows you need a prosperous community to have a healthy business,” says Radtke. “The reason we’re doing this is it actually makes good business sense.”

So what does water neutrality actually look like? Coke started by focusing on reducing the amount of water it uses in its nine large California production plants. The company invested millions to eliminate water from its production lines, rinsing bottles with deionized air instead of water and replacing soapy lubricants on its conveyer belts with a silicon-based product, instead. 

These efficiency efforts were aimed at driving down what Coke calls its “water-use ratio,” the number of liters of water it requires to produce one liter of its beverages. Since 2004, Coke has lowered this ratio more than 20 percent, from a global high of 2.70 eight years ago to 1.72 in California today.

Reducing the amount of water a global beverage company uses is one thing—replacing it is something else entirely. But Coca-Cola is making strides there, too.

“We have a goal to replenish 100 percent of our production volume by 2020,” says Radtke. This effort began in fits and starts: Replacing water is not as simple as offsetting one’s carbon footprint, for example, by planting trees. “It took us awhile to figure out what types of projects worked,” says Radtke. 

But in the last year, Coke says it has doubled the amount of water it is replacing by working together on local watershed restoration projects with conservation groups from the Nature Conservancy to the U.S. Forest Service. 

One of these projects—at the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, high in the Sierra Nevada—is focused on restoring the same watershed the Coke plant hundreds of miles downstream in San Leandro depends on. 

Coke has spent some $250,000 in a joint effort with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore a 500-acre mountain meadow that has been eroded by a century of overgrazing. By restoring vegetation in the river’s uppermost watershed, the river will be able to hold an estimated 300 million more liters of water a year that is currently lost to runoff in the spring. This amounts to about 90 percent of the water used every year in Coke’s entire San Leandro plant. 

“We haven’t figured everything out,” says Radtke, who estimates that Coke is now replenishing about 20 percent of the water it consumes globally. “But we’re striving to replace every drop of water we use in California.”

With state leaders squabbling once again over California’s water issues, Coca-Cola and its partners provide an important reminder: It is possible to work together to preserve California’s most important resource. 

Coca-Cola sent a representative to the first California Economic Summit last May, which has continued its work to modernize the state’s crumbling water infrastructure. This effort is one of seven signature initiatives the Summit Action Teams has prioritized to move California forward.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers