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 percent to 10 percent of the company's total resin consumption will be plant-based, said Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle Sustainable Packaging Platform at Coca-Cola, 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 — b-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,” Vitters said. We have three drivers for this program. 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.
“PET plastic is not just used in PET bottles. 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 bio-feedstocks is not just an idea, but a commercial reality. 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. If those questions can be answered together, it will speed up development. It makes sense from an efficiency standpoint,” Vitters said.
“It will build awareness around an emerging trend and technology investment. The alliance will help [develop] processes for the use of the material and ensure that it delivers on its environmental and societal benefits,” he said.
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.
He also underscored that Coke's commitment to renewable materials does not mean it 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. 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. … 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. Among other things, the company is looking at molasses, rice hulls, tree bark, organic material from landfills, and waste material from plants.
“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. 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,” Vitters said.
“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,” he said. “That has created rising demand and expectations among consumers.”
Not only is the PlantBottle a promising solution to that, it has had an added dividend to Coke in that it has increased sales where it has been introduced, indicating that the bottle is 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.
“To us, it's about a 100 percent, renewable, completely recyclable bottle and package. 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.”