Coca-Cola has successfully road tested “several” ways of creating a 100 percent plant-based PET (polyethylene) bottle in the lab, but says more work is needed before it can be scaled up to work at an industrial level.
Its comments came hot on the heels of an announcement from arch rival Pepsi that it would test market a fully plant-based PET bottle made from orange peel, potato peel, oat hulls and other by-products from its food and drink operations in 2012.
But Coca-Cola, which announced a national rollout of its 30 percent plant-based PET PlantBottle for single-serve Dasani and a 100 per cent plant-based HDPE (high density polyethylene) PlantBottle for Odwalla on April 4, said it was confident it could “crack the code” to create fully plant-based PET bottles and was also experimenting with raw materials such as bark and fruit peel.
The Pepsi Challenge: 2012
A spokeswoman would not say whether Coca-Cola aimed to beat Pepsi to market with 100 percent plant-based PET on an industrial scale, but said: “We’ve been working for the past four years toward our ultimate goal of developing a 100 percent plant-based bottle. We’ve successfully demonstrated several approaches to a PET package made fully from plants in a lab. Currently, we’re working to advance this science to ensure it is commercially viable.”
And in the meantime, Coca-Cola was some way ahead of Pepsi when it came to plant-based products already on the market, she noted. “The biggest difference is that today we are rolling out a PET bottle for Dasani made with up to 30 percent plants, and an HDPE Odwalla single serving bottle made with up to 100 percent plants. And it’s not in a lab, it’s on store shelves now.”
Higher gas permeability makes HDPE unsuitable for carbonates
While it was possible to create 100 per cent plant-based HDPE (from sugarcane based ethanol) for juice-based products such as Odwalla, HDPE was not suitable for packaging fizzy drinks because it had a higher gas permeability, and not ideal for bottled waters because it was translucent, she said.
But creating fully plant-based PET was tougher, she explained. “Our PET PlantBottle is up to 30 percent plant-based because we developed an innovative solution to one element of PET plastic: monoethylene glycol (MEG).
“MEG is approximately 30 percent by weight of the material in PET. We’re working to identify a solution made from plants for purified terephthalic acid (PTA), the other 70 percent of PET by weight.
“We’re working with partners to crack the code on plant-based (PTA). This involves new science but we’ve got some of the smartest minds in the field focused on it today.”
And while Coca-Cola was using sugar cane today, it was also exploring other raw materials, she added: “We’re working with several R&D partners, including researchers at universities and research institutes globally, to advance technologies to extract sugar from plant wastes for future generations of PlantBottle packaging.
“So, while we’re using sugar cane today, we also expect to be able to use natural resources like stems, fruit peels and bark in the near future.”
Price of plant-based materials more stable in long-term
While plant-based bottles were currently more expensive than petroleum-based plastics, they could prove more sustainable economically as well as environmentally in the long-term, she predicted.
“We’re seeing a lot of variance in pricing because the price of petroleum is so volatile. Over the long term, we believe the cost of materials made from plants will be more stable than the cost of petroleum.
“We’re absorbing the additional costs today as an investment in a more sustainable future.”
In 2010, more than 2.5bn PlantBottles were distributed in nine countries, revealed the firm. This year, that number will double to more than 5bn PlantBottles in 15+ countries.
Currently, PlantBottles are made using sugarcane ethanol from Brazil, are fully recyclable and can be processed through existing systems.
The technology behind PlantBottles has recently been adopted by Heinz, which will begin using it for ketchup this summer under license from Coca-Cola.