SodaStream CEO: Plastic bottles will be the cigarettes of our generation

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Daniel Birnbaum explains why Coca-Cola's recycling efforts mean little and how he aims to get his brand's machine in every home.

Daniel Birnbaum has made no attempt to hide his contempt for the bottled water industry he has gone to war with in the past year, but the ferocity with which he talks about the likes of Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestle and Danone is still a little startling.

"Most brands and executives are fearful and afraid to challenge," he said. "This is a David and Goliath type of story. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to disrupt the beverage industry, and you can’t do that fearfully, or even logically.

"The odds are against you – the amount of money these guys have. Not just with their lawyers – they have tremendous marketing budgets. And they're using those to seduce and scare consumers around the globe."

The scene of the brand’s face-off with the International Bottled Water Association, and UK body the Natural Hydration Council, has been the "Shame or Glory" ad, which riffed on a famous sequence from "Game of Thrones" to make the case that buying bottled water was something to be ashamed of, when there was a perfectly good alternative (hint, it’s SodaStream).

It has now followed it up with a more light-hearted film that depicts bottled water-swilling humans as a race of primitive troglodytes, the "Homoschlepians," who have not yet achieved enlightenment about the reality of plastic bottles.

Birnbaum is uncompromising in his attitude. "This generation, plastic bottles deserve the treatment of cigarettes," he said. "These bottles deserve to have warning labels on them. Single use bottled water should be illegal, and I believe there will be a time in our lifetime when it is."

Recycling doesn't help

With global plastic production standing at around 300 million tons a year, the sustainability issues and their impact on consumers have not totally escaped the soft drinks industry. Coca-Cola last week announced an increase in its target for the amount of recycled plastic used in its bottle to 50 percent by 2020, up from the previous target of 40 percent.

But to Birnbaum, this is almost meaningless. "Recycling doesn’t really help, and that’s proven," he claimed.

"The research from the Carbon Trust establishes that recycling PET bottles will only reduce its carbon footprint by 15 percent. So even if all were to be recycled we’d still be left with 85 percent of the hazard.

"If Coca-Cola is increasing its recycled content from 40 percent to 50 percent, it would only reduce its carbon footprint by 1.5 percent."

He added that a move towards smaller bottle sizes would wipe this out, because they use a larger amount of plastic per liter of drink.

Birnbaum clearly feels vindicated by May’s ASA ruling, in which the ad watchdog gave the all clear to "Shame or Glory" for its messages around the impact of bottled water, while giving the brand a smack on the wrist for its use of an f-bomb.

On this point, he is barely credulous, "The dolphins are not concerned with the cleanliness of my language, but of the oceans." The ruling seems to have created a real Streisand effect, driving an extra 3 million views of the video.

Getting consumers to hate on plastic bottled bottles is one thing, of course, and asking them to buy into SodaStream quite another.

Remarkably, Birnbaum says the machines were once in one in every two UK households – but the brand today occupies a similar space in the UK popular imagination as the likes of Babycham and Angel Delight (at least among people too young to remember the 1970s).

Birnbaum admits the "challenge is great" to shift the image of a brand with "a heritage that’s off-strategy", but says UK consumers have the intelligence to understand its benefits if they are communicated well.

He won’t put a timeline on his aspirations, but he wants to see SodaStream once again become a "staple appliance" seen in every other kitchen.

"Sodastream is the brand of the future," he argued, while bottled water and soft drink brands "belong to the past. We empower the consumer to do what he or she wants."

This article originally appeared on Campaign UK.