Coca-Cola’s innovative renewable, recyclable, plant-based plastic bottle

The “PlantBottle”, made partially from plants, is fully recyclable, has a lower reliance on non-renewable resources, and reduces carbon emissions, compared with petroleum-based PET bottles.
Traditional PET bottles are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. The new bottle is made from a blend of petroleum-based materials and up to 30 percent plant-based materials.

“The Coca-Cola Company is a company with the power to transform the marketplace, and the introduction of the “PlantBottle” is yet another great example of their leadership on environmental issues,” said Carter Roberts, President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, U.S.

Before we describe the PlantBottle in detail, let’s have a look at the sustainability and recyclability of renewable resources first. Is the PlantBottle a “great example” as the World Wildlife Fund claims?

Apart from overflowing landfills and shameful dispositions in nature, petroleum based plastic is responsible for the deaths of millions of sea creatures and has, as the story goes (I have never been able to check it) created a plastic garbage island twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

In the industrialized world, packaging for all types of products has become both necessary and truly ubiquitous. As more people become “modern consumers” around the world, it is an increasing burden on producers, individuals, and the environment. According to a new study from Pike Research, sustainable packaging is a fast-growing segment of the global packaging industry, and will grow to 32% of the total market by 2014, up from just 21% in 2009.

“The $429 billion global packaging industry is huge but extremely fragmented, with no clear market leaders,” says Pike’s managing director Clint Wheelock. “As such, the move toward sustainable packaging represents a broad-based effort by manufacturers, retailers, industry groups, and governments to promote the design of minimal packaging that can be easily reclaimed. A tremendous amount of innovation is going into reducing energy requirements to manufacture packaging and using more recyclable and compostable materials, but there is still a long way to go.”

The market intelligence firm forecasts that plastic-based packaging, which represents 35% of all materials used, will be the fastest-growing sector of the sustainable packaging market over the next five years.

But there is a little problem, as Napcor (National Association for PET Container Resources) calls for restraint in the use of degradable additives in PET packaging. Napcor, the trade organization for the PET packaging industry, is concerned that no data has been made publicly available to substantiate or document:
1) the claims of degradability of PET resin products containing degradable additives;
2) the effect of degradable additives on the quality of the PET recycling stream;
3) the impacts of degradable additives on the products made from recycled PET; and
4) the true impact on the service life of these products.

In this light Napcor urges manufacturers of PET resin and packaging to refrain from introductions of degradable additive-containing products until data is made available for review and verification.

In 2007, 1.4 billion pounds of post-consumer PET containers were recycled in the United States. The post consumer recycled PET infrastructure depends on the quality of the recyclate and its suitability for a variety of next-life product applications. The value of recycled materials, such as PET, is an important economic driver for curb-side recycling programs throughout the country.

Aside from the potential impacts on recycling, Napcor questions the value of the concept itself. Whether or not it’s proven that packaging will safely degrade in landfills, or as roadside or marine litter, the value of the inherent energy used in the manufacture of plastic packaging is lost, not recaptured as it is through a recycling and re-manufacturing process.

“Even if a package were to disappear or fragment – and we’ve not yet seen this evidence – it would not make the package sustainable, nor does it provide any positive impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions or resource conservation,” said Mr. Sabourin, Napcor’s Executive Director. “Degrading plastic provides no useful nutrients to the soil, and the impacts to soil and sea of reducing the plastic to molecules using degradable additives is unknown.”

What does that mean for Coca Cola’s PlantBottle? In the first place, Coca Cola claims that, unlike other plant-based plastics, the PlantBottle can be processed through existing manufacturing and recycling facilities without contaminating traditional PET. So, apparently the material of the PlantBottle does not bio-degrade, but can be recycled without contaminating the PET recycling process.

The PlantBottle is currently made through an innovative process that turns sugar cane and molasses, a by-product of sugar production, into a key component for PET plastic. Coca-Cola states that it is also exploring the use of other plant materials for future generations of the PlantBottle.

Manufacturing the new plastic bottle is more environmentally efficient as well. A life-cycle analysis conducted by Imperial College London indicates the PlantBottle with 30 percent plant-base material reduces carbon emissions by up to 25 percent, compared with petroleum-based PET.

Coca-Cola North America will pilot the PlantBottle in select markets with Dasani water.

The PlantBottle is undoubtedly an interesting development, as it reduces carbon emissions by some 25% compared to petroleum-based bottles. That’s a drastic cut in emissions considering the millions of Dasani bottles manufactured each year. It’s a great marketing tool too, as Coca Cola plans on identifying the bottles with “on-package messaging and in-store point of sale displays”.

Earlier this year, Coca Cola opened the world’s largest plastic bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in South Carolina. The plant will produce approximately 100 million pounds (45.359 mtons) of recycled PET plastic for reuse each year – the equivalent of nearly 2 billion 20-ounce (593 ml) Coca Cola bottles.


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