Coca-Cola touts progress in plant-based PET packaging

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ATLANTA (Oct. 2, 8:30 a.m. ET) — Maybe far more quickly than anyone anticipated — except maybe executives at Coca-Cola Co. — plant-based PET has established roots in soft drink and water bottles.

In less than three years, Coke has sold more than 10 billion PlantBottles that contain plant-based monoethylene glycol, or bio-MEG, which represents 30 percent of the weight of a PET bottle.

Even more significant, by the end of this year, 8-10 percent of the company’s total resin consumption will be plant-based, Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle Sustainable Packaging Platform at Coca-Cola, told Plastics News in a recent interview.

But he was quick to add that the rapid emergence of plant-based PET is just the beginning of the journey for Coke.

“We’re trying to make a difference,” Vitters said. “We are looking at second generation solutions to meet environmental needs. We’re going to continue to push innovation. We’re looking at what we can use and what we can’t use” to replace petroleum-based feedstocks for PET.

“100 percent of our virgin PET will be converted to the one plant-based ingredient — bio-MEG — by 2020,” Vitters said.

However, how quickly a 100 percent plant-based PET bottle will emerge is uncertain, he said.

“We don’t know when it will be fully applied. But in the next few years, you will see a fully 100 percent PlantBottle.”

“We have three drivers for this program,” said Vitters. “We want to improve our environmental and social performance. We want to ensure our cost-competitiveness and our long-term ability to meet all of our packaging commitments. We want to differentiate ourselves from our competitors in resin costs and leverage technology to give our customers and consumers a better package.

“The driver for us with packaging is ultimately about meeting consumer needs.”

At the heart of Coke’s strategy: partnerships with others. It is working with two firms to build plants to make plant-based MEG, including a partnership announced Sept. 27 with JBF Industries Ltd. to build a 1.1 billion pound-per-year plant in Brazil that is scheduled to come on line in late 2014.

Coke also has invested in three firms that are working to develop plant-based purified terephthalic acid, which accounts for 70 percent, by weight, of PET resin.

To further push plant-based PET in end-use markets, Coke put together a partnership with Ford Motor Co., H.J. Heinz Co., Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. three months ago — dubbed the Plant PET Technology Collaborative — to spur the development and use of plant-based PET material and fibers.

That alliance further builds on the agreement Heinz inked with Coke in early 2011 to use PlantBottle technology in 20-ounce ketchup bottles.

“We realized we could accelerate the build-out by bringing other brands into the innovation space,” said Vitters. “We are building out the supply chain to make it a reality.

“PET plastic is not just used in PET bottles,” he said. “It is used in fibers, in markets on the inside of your car, your running shirt” and other forms of packaging.

“This collaboration makes it clear that the evolution from conventional petroleum to biofeedstocks is not just an idea, but a commercial reality.” said Vitters. “We put together the collaborative because we realized that there were other industry leaders who had a shared interest in finding a solution to the 70 percent portion of the PET formulation.

“These are companies we respect and it made sense to us to collectively pull our resources together to potentially advance the needed technologies even faster,” he said. “If those questions can be answered together, it will speed up development. It makes sense from an efficiency standpoint.”

“It will build awareness around an emerging trend and technology investment,” said Vitters. “It sends a market signal that this is a technology platform that others see and believe as well.”

“The alliance will help [develop] processes for the use of the material and ensure that it delivers on its environmental and societal benefits,” said Vitters. “It provides a forum for sharing perspectives on environmental performance and how we ensure that.”

That’s critical for Coke, as one of its corporate objectives is to increase the number of 8-ounce servings of Coca-Cola products from 1.8 billion per day to more than 3 billion per day by 2020, while reducing its carbon footprint at the same time.

“We don’t want to do anything that adversely affects our environmental footprint or adversely impact recycling,” Vitters said.

He also underscored that Coke’s commitment to renewable materials does not mean the company is backing away from the use of recycled content in its packaging, or that Coke is not committed to recycling, as some critics have suggested.

“We aren’t moving away from our assurances on recyclability,” said Vitters. “One isn’t more important than the other. We view them together.”

And PET is vital in that recycling picture, as 51 percent of Coke products are sold in non-refillable PET packaging.

“We want PET back,” said Vitters. “Recycling is essential. We don’t want to lose that carbon footprint. But ultimately, we want recycling material that is plant-based material.”

Coke also is looking down the road to develop other feedstocks for bMEG in addition to sugarcane.

“For us, it’s a must to have additional sources, not just sugarcane,” said Vitters. Among other things, the company is looking at molasses, rice hulls, tree bark, organic material from landfills, and waste material from plants.

“We are looking for regional sources of biomass globally. We expect to see cellulosis material move into the material stream next year,” he said.

“We want to move the growth of the PlantBottle worldwide with the right feedstock solutions,” he said. We don’t want to compete with food. “There will be different solutions for different markets [because] we believe you have to have feedstock locally where you build your plants in order to meet the social and environmental performances needed in each market.”

“There is a clear sense of awareness that is causing shifts around the world, particularly with regard to resource scarcity [of both petroleum and water] and the impact on the environment,” Vitters said. “That has created rising demand and expectations among consumers around the world.

And not only is the PlantBottle a promising solution to that, it has had an added dividend for Coke in that it has increased sales where it has been introduced.

“We continue to see encouraging results from its ability to drive growth for our business,” Vitters said. “We’ve seen encouraging market signals and indicators of the PlantBottle being able to drive growth.”

“The PlantBottle has not just radically changed the way plastic can be produced, but it is beginning to radically change the way businesses view their sustainability initiative,” Vitters said. “We have demonstrated the ability to drive growth” using materials made from plant instead of fossil fuels.

“To us, it’s about a 100 percent, renewable, completely recyclable bottle and package,” said Vitters. “At the end of the day, Coca-Cola is a beverage company, not a packaging company. But there is no beverage delivered without some form of packaging.”