Coke investing millions in firms to accelerate development of plant-based plastics

Published: December 15, 2011 6:00 am ET

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Topics Materials, Mergers & Acquisitions, Suppliers, Sustainability, Packaging, Blow Molding

NEW YORK (Dec. 15, 12:25 p.m. ET) — Beverage giant Coca-Cola Co. is making what it said was a multi-million dollar investment in three bio-based companies in an effort to accelerate the development of a PlantBottle made entirely from plants.

The Atlanta-based beverage company said Dec. 15 that it is investing in three companies:

• Virent Inc., based in Madison, Wis., which make a bio-based feedstock, BioForm X, for paraxylene

• Gevo Inc., in Englewood, Colo., which has developed a 100 percent renewable isobutanol, which is a building block for paraxylene.

• Avantium Research and Technology, a Netherlands company whose YXY chemical catalytic technology has led to the company’s development of a new bio-based plastic, PEF, to make 100 percent bio-based bottles that could be a replacement for today’s PET bottles.

Coke’s aim is to advance the technology to make purified terephthalic acid from non-petroleum sources. PTA accounts for 70 percent of the PET bottle formulation by weight and monoethylene glycol the other 30 percent.

Since December 2009, Coke has been marketing a PlantBottle with the 30 percent MEG portion made from non-petroleum-based renewable resources. Coke said it has sold 10 billion PlantBottles since it was introduced, and it now sells the bottles in 20 countries.

The world’s other beverage giant, PepsiCo, said in March that it has developed a 100 percent renewable PET bottle, but that it will not go into pilot production until sometime in 2012,. Even then, Pepsi said it would limit quantities to between 100,000 and 500,000 bottles.

Rick Frazier, Coke’s vice president of commercial bottle supply, said the company investigated more than 30 companies before choosing the three partners to help them “develop the next-generation PlantBottle package.”

“This is a big step to lead the industry away from non-renewable materials,” Frazier said during a Dec. 15 news conference in New York. “We felt we needed to disrupt the flow and that we could gain speed by identifying the leading biotech companies and accelerate it by funding.”

Coke did not specify the size of its investment in any of the three companies, or the total amount of its investment.

Frazier said moving to a PlantBottle made entirely of plants is imperative as the company’s goal is to double the daily serving from Coca-Cola beverages to 3 billion by 2020.

“To double our business in a sustainable way, we must find a new way to do more with less,” he said.

“This is a significant R&D investment in packaging innovation and is the next step toward our vision of creating all of our plastic packaging from responsibly sourced plant-based materials” by 2020, if not sooner, he said.

The three companies that entered in the partnerships with Coke all bring different technologies to the game.

Virent

Virent, for example, has been making its renewable BioForm PX paraxylene since June at a 10,000-gallon-per-year demonstration plant in Madison, Wis. The company said it can make BioFormX from a variety of agricultural products such as beet sugars, corn, sugar cane, corn stalks and pine tree scraps.

It expects to have a commercial plant online by 2015.

“Paraxylene is the key ingredient in all PET packaging because it makes up 70 percent” of the product, Virent CEO Lee Edwards said at the news conference.

“Our product requires no special handling or certification, is fully recyclable and can be used in existing processes,” Edwards said. “Our patented technology features catalytic chemistry to convert plant-based sugars into a full range of products identical to those made from petroleum, including bio-based paraxylene—a key component needed to deliver 100 percent plant-based PET packaging."

Gevo

Similarly, renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company Gevo brings to the table a 100 percent renewable isobutanol that can be made from a variety of feedstocks.

Gevo’s process uses an integrated fermentation technology that converts the sugars in biomass into isobutanol—the raw material used to make paraxylene.

The Englewood, Colo., company has a 1 million-gallon-per-year demonstration ethylene plant in St. Joseph, Mo., where it makes the renewable isobutanol and paraxylene, and expects to begin commercial production in late 2012 at a facility in Lucerne, Minn., that it purchased last year.

“We are in the midst of the commercialization of our first plant,” said CEO Patrick Gruber, who invented the first commercially viable process for making polylactic acid, the first bio-resin of the new bio-resin era.

"We are excited to support Coca-Cola's sustainable packaging goals with this agreement to develop and commercialize technology to produce paraxylene from bio-based isobutanol,” Gruber said.

Avantium

“Based on the performance of the new PEF material, Avantium believes PEF will become the next-generation bio-based polyester,” CEO Tom van Aken said at the New York news conference. “It is 100 percent bio-based and fully recyclable.”

He said PEF has “exceptional functional properties [such as] outstanding barrier properties and a better ability to withstand heat.”

Van Aken said PEF provides a CO2 barrier that it is three times better than PET and an oxygen barrier that is six times better than PET.

“We believe that PEF is economically viable once we are producing it on an industrial scale and that it has a carbon footprint that offers a significant advantage over PET,” van Aken said. “We have already made bottles with exceptional barrier and thermal properties and our production process fits well with existing supply chains.”

Avantium just opened a 40-ton pilot plant Dec. 8 in Geleen, the Netherlands, to produce PEF, said van Aken. “We plan to have commercial-scale production of PEF three-to-four years from now.”

He said PEF can be made from any biomass feedstock containing carbohydrates, such as sugarcane, agricultural residues, plants and grains.

”Using YXY as a fast and efficient chemical-catalytic technology, these carbohydrates can be converted into a wide variety of bioplastics,” he said.

Coke’s Frazier said the three companies “would work independently, but within the guardrails of our strategy” to develop a 100 percent plant-based PlantBottle beverage container.

“We can’t do it alone,” said Frazier. “The technology to produce bioplastics is still very young. There are a lot of things we know, a lot of things we don’t know and a lot of things we will learn along the way.”

“There is not one technology answer,” he said. “But we have identified three viable options that we believe can get us there. This shows our commitment and our aggressiveness to achieving a 100 percent PlantBottle.”

Coca-Cola and H.J. Heinz Co. have had a partnership since July for Heinz to use PlantBottle technology for all of its 20-ounce ketchup containers. Heinz said that by the end of 2011, it expects to have sold 120 million PlantBottle ketchup containers.


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Coke investing millions in firms to accelerate development of plant-based plastics

Published: December 15, 2011 6:00 am ET

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