ORLANDO, FLA. – For Michael O. Okoroafor, it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
And that when, he said, is really not that far away.
Okoroafor, vice president of global packaging innovation and execution for the H.J. Heinz Co., believes the development of a commercially viable 100-percent plant-based PET bottle is just five years away.
Heinz is part of a collaborative of some of the world's largest and most well-known companies now working on the project.
Dubbed the Plant PET Technology Collaborative, the group includes Heinz as well as Procter & Gamble Co., Nike Inc., Ford Motor Co., and Coca-Cola Co. and is pushing to increase the percentage plant based material used in PET.
Coca-Cola, since 2009, has produced billions of its PlantBottles, which contain up to 30 percent plant-based material. Heinz has licensed that technology for use in its own PET containers.
One hundred-percent plant based bottles certainly are a reality these days, but they are not ready for prime time.
"If you're talking about in a lab, you can make it today. But it doesn't count," Okoroafor told attendees at The Packaging Conference on Feb. 3 in Orlando. "We are really convinced that by 2018 we will come out with a commercial scale that really allows us to compete with the fossil fuel (based PET),' he said.
Advancing to the 100-percent level, he said, is beyond just any one company. And the PTC collaboration with non-competitive, world class companies, he added, "is the new normal."
"We don't think that any one company can go it alone. In fact, we don't think that Coke and Heinz can do it alone," Okoroafor said.
The conference is designed to cover various packaging materials, and Daniel A. Abramowicz of Crown Holdings Inc. also was there to talk about his company's work with universities and external partners to accelerate innovation.
"To have a successful collaboration, you really need to have an alignment of interests," said the executive vice president of technology and regulatory affairs for Crown, a metal packaging giant. "If it's not in both organizations' best interests to succeed, it likely will not succeed."
But working to find the right mix of companies takes planning and some thought. "You have to build the trust. You build this trust into a collaboration. You are off and running," Okoroafor said.
Current members of the PTC do not compete in the same markets, which allow them to share sensitive information without fear of damaging their own brands. Having these non-competitive relationships in the group is critical to success, Okoroafor said.
While Okoroafor puts a 2018 estimate on the commercial viability of a 100-percent plant-based bottle, he added the actual date will depend on market conditions, including the fluctuating price of oil.
Regardless of the environmental benefits of a plant-based bottle, he said there has to be a business case to further develop the technology.
"It's not just about saving the planet. It's about saving the planet and the bottle line," Okoroafor told the crowd.