ATLANTA -- More than 15 billion drinks across 25 countries have been sold in the PlantBottle.
Since launching in late 2009, Coca-Cola Co.'s bio-based PET bottle has become a sustainability wunderkind. The bottle is now available in 25 countries — it launched in China earlier this month — and made up about 8 percent of Coke's PET bottles last year.
But the beverage giant isn't resting on its laurels. By 2020, Coke plans to make all of its PET bottles using first-generation PlantBottle material, said Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle Sustainable Packaging Platform, in a phone interview.
Another goal is building out the supply chain to support a broader industry change, Vitters said.
"We had to rethink what winning meant to us in the sustainability space," he said.
When companies get new technology, the instinct is to keep it to yourself, he said. "What we've realized is that if we just kept it to ourselves, how would we be able to do what we believe in terms of transforming an industry?"
The meaning of this work isn't just "making positive change for our bottles, but creative positive change in your car, in the carpet you walk on, in the clothes you wear … the polyester universe is huge," he said.
PlantBottles are made with a PET resin containing bio-based monoethylene glycol. MEG is about 30 percent of the PET equation; purified terephthalic acid, or PTA, makes up the remaining 70 percent.
In the next few years, Coke hopes to conquer that 70 percent. The company plans to debut its second-generation PlantBottle, a completely recyclable bottle made with entirely plant-based material, Vitters said. The company has been working with technology partners to achieve that goal.
"We are willing to invest in green. We're putting our money where our mouth is," he said.
Coke has invested millions with three R&D firms — Virent Inc. of Madison, Wis.; Gevo Inc. of Englewood, Colo.; and Avantium of Amsterdam — to develop bio-based PTA.
Coke has also teamed up with other major brand owners. The Plant PET Technology Collaborative, formed by Coke, Ford Motor Co., H.J. Heinz Co., Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co., is working to support the development of plant-based PET material and fibers, with the goal of finding a viable, bio-based alternative to PTA.
Heinz is also using PlantBottle resin in its ketchup bottles.
While the technology may exist to make bio-based PTA, the goal isn't to develop a solution in a lab, it's to make a commercially viable bottle that people can buy in the marketplace, Vitters said.
"For us, true change is only realized when innovation can be touched and used by the consumer," he said.
The success of the current PlantBottle required investing in bioplastics and taking on the costs involved in building out a supply chain, Vitters said.
Building scale is the key to making bioplastics a cost-competitive material, and while there may be extra costs upfront, it will pay off in the long run, he said.
Coke is willing to "not view it as an on-cost, but as an investment cost," he added.
He pointed to Coke's investments in plants that make bio-based MEG, including a 1.1 billion-pound-per-year plant in Brazil slated to come on line in 2014. The plant is part of a partnership with JBF Industries Ltd. of Mumbai
While lots of the focus has been on the second part of the PlantBottle journey — an entirely plant-based bottle — it's important to not lose sight of the first part — a bottle made with bio-based MEG, he said. Focusing on the first part — building out the MEG supply chain — is vital to realize the second part.
The JBF plant will help Coke reach its 2020 goal, but it's a "world-scale" facility — one that's an example of how bioplastics are about more than just a bottle, Vitters said.
"This is bigger than Coke, so build it bigger. There are companies other than Coke that want this technology," he said.
Because the company is the biggest player in the PET resin industry, it has the ability to truly make change and drive sustainability, Vitters said. Even though Coke is a consumer-product company, it does deals across the value chain, he said. "People think that we just buy the end product, but we're doing a lot more than that here."
Moving all of Coke's bottles to bio-based PET is a major change in the value chain, he added.
Along with a commitment to advance bioplastics technology, Coke is committed to doing so responsibly, according to Vitters. The company, along with its partners, is talking with third parties like environmental groups and academic institutions to make sure the PlantBottle is delivering improved environmental and social performance, he said.
"Just because it comes from a plant doesn't mean it's inherently better for the planet," Vitters said.