Aluminum cans emblazoned with the Diet Coke logo huddle on a conveyer belt waiting to be blasted with ionized air, a cleaning technique that replaced water at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in College Park, Ga.

The change is part of Coca-Cola Enterprises’ effort to lessen its impact on the environment and reduce its mammoth carbon footprint –– an estimated 6.1 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2007. 

The company, based in Atlanta but separate from the Coca-Cola Company, distributed 2 billion cases of beverage worldwide last year, generating revenues of $21.8 billion.

In 2005, company leaders started on a path to cut CCE’s carbon footprint 15 percent by 2020. They also pledged to leave a water-neutral impact on the communities where they operate and to recover the equivalent of 100 percent of their packaging.

The goal of 15 percent may sound modest, but CCE plans to produce and sell twice as much product by 2020, says Chairman and CEO John Brock.

The company appears to be making progress. CCE was just ranked first in the food and beverage industry (#36 overall) in Newsweek’s Green Rankings. Two years ago, the bottling process required 1.95 liters of water to make a liter of beverage. Today, it takes 1.73 liters of water. A European plant is down to 1.3 liters. To get even lower, CCE will have to replenish the watershed, Brock says. The company does that through rain gardens, water filtration systems and rainwater harvesting.

Efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions will be “driven through innovation and technology,” Brock says. The company will not rely on offsets –– contributions to pollution-prevention efforts made to mitigate environmental impact.

Here are some steps the company has taken:

      Hybrid trucks: CCE has 328 hybrid trucks in its fleet. The company is piloting fully electric vehicles and exploring forklifts powered by fuel cells. New diesel trucks have replaced inefficient older models.

      Lighting: Replacing out-of-date lighting with energy-efficient products has cut energy use as much as 50 percent in some facilities.

      Alternative energy: Three facilities in California are using solar panels to generate electricity, and the company is researching wind energy in Great Britain.

      Efficient vending machines: Vending machines are a major contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions. CCE has developed smart vending machines that can activate lights and adjust cooling based on usage.

CCE and other beverage companies responded to pressure in the early 1990s to eliminate hydrofluorocarbons from refrigeration equipment. Coca-Cola Enterprises went a step further in creating “the Prius of vending machines,” says Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace U.S. “What they have done with refrigeration has raised the bar,” he says. “They took it as a challenge to build the greenest machine they could.”

But Greenpeace does not endorse Coke products or other aspects of the production cycle, such as acquisition of water for the Dasani brand, which has been criticized by environmental groups as predatory. "This is a delicate dance we do," Davies says. "There are important chances to collaborate ... but we are not greenwashing them."

Brock says his company has worked with organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, as well as government agencies and other corporations in an effort to address global environmental problems. “There’s a collective will,” he says, adding that the company has not found common ground with some environmental groups, though collaboration is more possible now than just a few years ago. “The game has changed.”

The company’s motivation is to do right by the planet and by the business, Brock says. Energy conservation and waste reduction enhance the bottom line. CCE also wants to improve its image among consumers, many of whom have chastised the company for marketing unhealthy products to children. (Brock notes that CCE voluntarily replaced carbonated soft drinks in school vending machines with healthier drinks, a route preferable to government regulation.)

He goes on to discuss CCE’s efforts to educate consumers about the importance of exercise and making healthy food and drink choices. But he doesn’t apologize for the products he sells. “We cater to all consumers’ tastes,” he says. “We provide moments of pleasure for people around all geographies at a reasonable price.”

By calculating its footprint and publishing its findings, the company hopes to convey transparency and honesty. It also hopes to be perceived as a leader in the charge toward sustainable business practices, working with Carbon Trust and other organizations on standard measures.

In some areas, the financial aspect of doing right by Mother Earth has proved problematic. For example, plastic remains expensive to recycle. “It’s just as cheap to use virgin plastic as recycled,” Brock says. CCE has a “hugely vested interest” in making recycled plastics economically attractive, and that could prove a more powerful force in advancing technology than pressure from advocacy groups.

“It’s a journey, not a destination,” Brock says. “Each year we get better.”

Many of the company’s changes are on a smaller scale. Yes, executives have scaled back on airplane travel, Brock says, noting that he recently interviewed a job candidate in New York using remote technology rather than flying her to Atlanta.

Employees have found ways to cut waste, such as eliminating duplicate packing slips and repairing wooden palates for reuse instead of discarding them.

The bottling plant in Georgia once needed seven Dumpsters and now only needs two because of recycling efforts. Office Manager Kim Johnson removed Styrofoam cups from the break rooms, which are equipped with fountains, and supplied employees with a reusable bottle.

“I liked that idea a lot,” says Johnson, whose next goal is to get employees to bring their own coffee mugs. “I liked it because it was simple.”