The Drive To 100% Bio-based Plastic Bottles

When Coca Cola set about thinking about how to drive sustainability into their supply chain, they recognized from the outset that the entire end to end life cycle of a bottle of Coke needed to be considered. Most people don’t think about this relationships – but the fact is that recycling and renewable feedstock go hand in hand when thinking about a simple item like a plastic bottle. Renewables are the feedstock that go into the “Plant Bottle”, and on the back end, when the consumer is through with it, it can be recycled and ground up to crate a carpet and keep the CO2 sequestered. As such, the plant is used to not only create the product, but the plant is also used to create the following product that comes in the secondary form of the carpet.

Coke’s website[1] notes that: PlantBottle™ is made with a combination of traditional materials and up to 30% made from plants. Because the end product is still PET plastic, the PlantBottle™ package delivers the same performance (e.g. shelf life, recyclability, weight, chemical composition, appearance), but it reduces potential carbon dioxide emissions when compared to PET plastic bottles made from fossil fuels. PET plastic is made up of two components: MEG (mono-ethylene glycol), which makes up 30% of the PET by weight, and which is made from plants, as well as and PTA (purified terephthalic acid), which makes up the other 70%. What is now exciting is the on-going innovation projects by Coke and other companies to take the 70% of the bottle that is non-renewably sourced, and move it towards a 100% biobased resin technology. This will involve using second generation feedstocks, such as cellulosic sugars and technologies, to utilise new available technology on the journey to a 100% plant bottle.

This is moving slowly, but definitely in the right direction. The avenue that is being explored is the development of Furanics building blocks from plant based sugars, under the name YXY. These Furanics building blocks are the basis of a next-generation plant-based plastics and chemicals, and the company producing it (Avantium) is focused its efforts on using the YXY technology as a catalytic process to convert sugars to FDCA, a biobased alternative to terephthalic acid (TA). FDCA can be used to produce the polyester Polyethylene-furanoate (PEF), a 100% bobased material that could replace PET in large markets such as bottles, fiber, and film. Coca-Cola is working Avantium, Danone, Gevo, and Virent, to support the scale-up of Avantium’s plant-based PEF.   Virent’s chemical allows the remaining 70% of the bottle to be plant-based.

Coke is in more than 40 countries with the plant bottle, and has launched over 40 billion bottles. This is a large and critical mass of PET that is used in a number of other leading brands such as Simply and Minute Maid, Gold Peak team, Dasani, and Smart Water. The program is continuing to grow, despite the drop in crude oil prices. Bio-based PET was predominantly used for the packaging of CSD (Carbonated Soft Drinks), accounting for more than 75% of market share in 2013. Growing beverage consumption in emerging markets of BRICS is expected to drive bio based PET market growth. CSD marketing companies such as Coca-Cola are committed on promoting the use of bio-based PET in packaging, which is expected to have a major impact on market growth in the near future.[2] This is occurring despite the price of crude coming down. The feedstock for the Plant bottle is sugar cane out of Brazil, which is moving towards cost parity relative to crude oil-derived PET. The small premium for biobased is absorbed by the system, but Coke sees a pathway to having the renewable plant bottom emerge as the dominant package in thelong run, especially as oil is expected to go up in price in the long run.

There were three driving forces around the championing that occurred in making the decision to move towards a 100% plant bottle.

1.  Sustainability platform and carbon capture. The response from consumers was overwhelmingly positive around the plant bottle, and any misunderstandings occurred around the technology, and has been a strong positive reaction.

2.  Cost and line of sight around competitive elements. This came about as the cane sugar feedstocks in Brazil proved to be cost competitive. Coke also needed to prove that the cane was being farmed on arable land and was not creating competition for land or water with other crops , and used by-products derived from extracting sugar from products. GMO-grown products was also not a factor in this case.

3.  Top-line growth and brand differentiation. The Plant Bottle has become a core differentiating element to the Coke brand, especially in light of the growing awareness of sustainability in the population. Coke works with the WWF and other consortiums, including competing brands such as Nestle, Danone, Unilever, Ford, P&G, and others – to set the guidelines and industry standards that prevents others from jumping in with “green washing” claims, and drive confusion over the issue.

A Coca Cola representative notes that “We are the largest biobased PET buyer, and we see ourselves as a catalyst for the industry to move towards renewable material, and we are working with our partners to make it happen. We are working hard to enable other companies to come into the space and benefit from the PET supply chain that we are creating, and allowing access to technology. ”

It should be noted that one of the benefits that the Renewable Fuel Standard provides significant benefits to biofuel, but the polymer market does not enjoy such benefits. It is easier to get ethanol into biofuels then to take ethanol and make plastic out of it. Ethanol goes into fuels, but the benefit does not translate into plastic. Fuel companies also tend to have limited partnerships that provide tax benefits, that the buyer of renewable plastics do not have. Hopefully, this will change!

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