You wouldn’t know it from looking at them on the grocery store shelf (and you’d need carbon-14 dating tools to make an accurate identification), but Coca-Cola’s recyclable PlantBottle PET plastic bottles are an innovative and ground-breaking step in the food and beverage industry. Up to 30 percent of the PlantBottle materials are derived from plants, and the company’s goal is to eventually roll out bottles that are made 100 percent from renewable raw materials, and still fully recyclable.
I recently spoke with Scott Vitters, general manager of Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle Packaging Platform. He explained why it’s better to have a recyclable bottle than a biodegradable one; how bottles recycle into chairs; and how the manufacturer is now relying on sugar for something other than sweetening its carbonated beverages.
One-third of your PlantBottle is made from plant-based materials. Explain how that works.
When you look at the chemistry of PET plastic, think of it as two key ingredients. We have today been able to figure out how to replace one of those ingredients, which is by weight 30 percent of the bottle. When you look at 30 percent of all our packaging, that’s a tremendous shift.
In a lab, we’ve already demonstrated an ability to do the other 70 percent. Our strategy is to roll out PlantBottle at 30 percent throughout the world while we are working on the technology for the other ingredient.
There is no other bottle in the marketplace today that is made with plants, fully recyclable and capable of meeting our quality requirements. There are other bottles made with plants, and they may be claiming to be recyclable, but is there a commercial market to recycle it?
The initial kickoff was in Copenhagen around the same time as a small climate event there. It was kicked off within the Nordics, then started up and down the west coast of the U.S. and Canada and has moved west of the Mississippi. A lot of it at first was timed with major events like the climate conference and the Olympics in Canada, but the remainder has been driven on building out the supply chain model. We’re operating in nine markets today.
Not only have we taken technology and have been the first in terms of applying it to containers—using plant-based material to produce PET, which is pretty innovative in terms of thinking and thought leadership--but we are also building the supply chain.
Are some Coca-Cola products more compatible with PlantBottle than others?
That was key driving principle for us--a number of the existing plant-based materials could only be used with water, and even those—no pun intended—didn’t hold water. So we wanted to find a material that could be used for all our products. We’ve launched it across our product platforms. Our ultimate goal is to have it in 100 percent our packages by 2020.
What we are making is the exact same plastic we’re using today. The only way to tell a difference is if you do carbon-14 dating--you can look at the source of the carbon and see whether it’s from fossil fuels or not.
Across everything. All of our plastic is being converted to PlantBottle materials.
The plant part of your PlantBottle is made from sugar and molasses. What is the source for those ingredients?
Just because you make a product from plants doesn't mean it’s better for the environment. You have to look at the energy input, the water use, fertilizers, growing, the total harvesting of the product… and ask, is it truly better for the environment than what we’re using today? We spent more than a year specifically looking at that issue. Coke was the first in the food and beverage industry to develop life cycle analysis in the late ‘60s to guide our decision-making; it has been a cornerstone of our program.
Today, for this program, we’ve only approved one agricultural feedstock: sugar cane and molasses from Brazil. The types of plants used and the places they are grown made a big difference on environmental performance. Brazilian sugar cane –it’s mostly rain-fed, so you have very little irrigation; and you have mainly organic fertilizers.
Our commitment is to depend not only on Brazilian sugar cane. We are advancing using the solutions that use the waste from plants—bark or stems or husks –and being able to turn that into the [recyclable plastic bottles].
The important thing around this has been partnership and transparency. We’re working with World Wildlife Fund, Imperial College, Michigan State University Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability and a German environmental and an energy institution called Ifeu that has done a lot of our life cycle modeling over the years. We’ve also been engaging in a broader dialogue on, for example, the sustainability of sugar. We use a little bit of sugar in our business already. So we already had a program with WWF looking at the sustainability of sugar in the Better Sugar Initiative.
Can you describe the process and behind-the-scenes of developing PlantBottle?
You have to go back to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake. We had rolled out a bioplastic cup at the time, and we were really looking at advancing renewable and recyclable materials for our business. We had a desire around this goal of decoupling PET growth from fossil fuels as well as waste generation. We kept looking at materials, but either they weren’t recyclable or didn’t meet our standards in another way.
We had this tension in the company for a while—marketing wanted plant-based plastic, but grounded in the reality that there were environmental concerns and technical limitations: At the time the materials didn’t deliver the environmental benefits. But instead of compromising we ended up discovering that we could start making plant-based plastic using the same type of plastic we were using today, as recyclable as PET plastic. That was a major breakthrough—not only for us but for the industry, in terms of realizing we could move to a new material.
There were paradigms that needed to be shifted on what truly was better for the environment--one was a focus on biodegradable. I still get the question a lot: “Is it biodegradable,” with the assumption that biodegradable would be better. The reality is that for our containers, recycling is better than biodegradable because you can reclaim the energy and use it again and again, rather than having it make a single trip and then just go back in the dirt.
It sounds really good—made from nature, back to nature. But for plastic bottles, it is much preferable to recover the material and use it again and again. So it’s not about designing it to be biodegradable. It’s about making a closed loop.
People were trying to innovate an entirely new plastic, which was throwing out all the advantages of the existing plastic--a material that is very efficient: It holds carbonation and protects product quality; consumers love its weight and shatter-resistance; it’s resealable. However, it’s still based on non-renewable petro-chemical resources. So we said the challenge is not to throw out all those advantages, but how do you build on those advantages by making it renewable.
As consumers have gotten more engaged in green marketing, it’s easier to communicate stories by focusing on one attribute—the lightest packaging, the most plant-based material. Those are all attributes that could lead to better environmental performance. But if it’s so lightweight that in shipping the product breaks and you have to double the secondary packaging—that’s not necessarily better.
What is the end market for the bottles?
Have you seen the Navy 111 Chair? It’s an iconic design chair made from 111 recycled Coke bottles. We also have a merchandise line made out of recycled products, mostly to engage and inspire consumers. We’ve also been building bottle-to bottle recycling technologies, which is the closed loop cycle we hope to advance.
Where is that bottle-to-bottle recycling plant?
Over a year ago we opened in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the largest bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in the world.
Our first plant we invested in was in Australia. It’s one thing to say you want to use recycled material. It’s another thing to build the infrastructure.
How many PlantBottles were produced last year?
2.5 billion. We believe that this is the future. We believe in terms of both decoupling plastic from fossil fuels as well as generating zero waste to landfill that this is the right approach. And we are putting our money where our mouth is by investing in the technology and building the supply chain out. In 2011, we will more than double the amount [of material produced in 2010].
When will I be able to buy my own PlantBottle in D.C.?