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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Last week I had a fantastic meeting with the CEO of a mid-sized energy company. We had a number of fascinating conversations ranging from Personality Poker, Open Innovation, and alternative energy.

In the meeting, I was drinking my “caffeine in a can” – a diet cola.

The CEO pointed at my soft drink and said that it was one of the worst energy hogs.

He pointed out that years ago, Coke was sold as syrup (in fact, it was originally sold for medicinal purposes). The carbonated water was added at the point of sale (e.g., the pharmacy or soda shop). Less energy was expended in the packaging process. Less material was used for the packaging itself. But more importantly, less energy was used in shipping.

After doing some digging, I found that, according to one website, 500ml of syrup makes the equivalent of 12 liters. That means that a can of cola contains <5% syrup and over 95% carbonated water. According to one study, nearly 300 billion liters of soft drinks are sold a year. Hoovers research shows that only 35% of that is from fountain sales.

Ok, so let’s do some math.

A liter of soft drink weights approximately 1 kilogram. This means that a liter is over 2.1 pounds of water, and .1 pounds of syrup. At 65% bottle/cans (excluding the 35% fountain sales), this is over 400 billion pounds of carbonated water needlessly shipped with the syrup. Let’s not forget the weight of the cans/bottles. To put this in context, this is the weight of 100 million cars. In 2007, 16 million cars, SUVs and trucks were sold in the US. Every car sold in the United States over the past 6 years weighs less than the weight of the excess water shipped EVERY year with bottled soft drinks.

Enough of the math. I could attempt to calculate the average distance the bottles travel and the amount of fuel required for transportation, but I just don’t have the time. And I suspect you get the idea.

What do you do about it?

  • Of course advocates are trying to reduce the amount of soft drinks we consume. But so far nothing points to that being a successful strategy.
  • Encourage people to buy and use soda machines. There are several companies that provide this type of product.  You buy the machine, the syrup and the gas cartridges.
  • Another option might be to find a solution similar to Crystal Light “On-the Go.” The challenge is adding carbonation to a powder. While eating Pop Rocks Candy the other day, I realized that there must be a way of addressing this.

Of course there are many more possible solutions. But the solution is not the point of this article.

Innovation is about asking better question. It is about surfacing the hidden assumptions. When looking at issues (environmental, business, or personal), sometimes you need to question everything…even the can of soda in your hand.

P.S. Soft drinks account for the largest percentage of the “liquid refreshment beverage” market. This article did not even include the oft-maligned bottled water industry, which is smaller in size. Do you want to know how far your bottled water traveled to go to you? Check out this article.

P.P.S. I am not suggesting we eliminate soft drinks.  My consumption of diet cola – especially first thing in the morning – is one of my guilty pleasures!

  1. You haven’t saved any energy (except for the soft drink company). You’ve just moved it around. Assuming soft drink consumption does not change significantly, the same amount of carbonated water will have to be shipped by someone to the point of sale or to wherever it is added to the syrup. I don’t see any savings here.

    • JoeT,

      Thanks for your comment…

      Only the syrup is shipped. Tap water that is carbonated at the point of consumption is added. The water does not need to be shipped. Sorry if I did not make this clearer.


  2. If you had cut soda out of your diet in college, the Ithaca P&C would have gone bankrupt. Think of how many jobs were saved in Tompkins County all because of your guilty pleasure.

    • Don, I suspect you are correct. The soft drink industry is a staggering $72 billion a year in the U.S. alone. According to one source, the average American drinks over 200 liters of soft drinks a year. That translates to about two 12 ounce cans a day. During my worst periods, I drank over a dozen cans a day or 1,000 liters a year. Ouch. I have since tamed that habit a bit…

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