Juice maker Odwalla has announced that, starting in March of 2011, it will move to a new type of plastic for its single-serve juice packaging. That bottle of C Monster or Mango Tango you pick up on your lunch break will no longer be derived from a completely petroleum-based plastic. The new “PlantBottle” will be comprised of 96 percent (or more) of a bio-based plastic derived from molasses or sugarcane juice.
This news comes on the heels of announcements from Stonyfield Farm, which is moving to corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) for its multi-pack yogurt packaging, and the debut of the Replenish cleaning product, which basically reinvents cleaning product packaging in a very clever way.
Together, these are important parts of a larger trend toward reducing the environmental impact of consumer packaged goods. It’s an encouraging trend, and also a difficult task for producers, who need to find ways to maintain the attractiveness of their goods while also making them more eco-friendly and keeping the same price points, since consumers might pay more for organic tomatoes but not for the same old yogurt they’ve been buying for years.
However, the landscape of new and earth-friendlier packaging options is complicated and, for now, void of any clearly superior solutions. Are compostable plastics better than non-compostable ones? Is it enough to use a plant-based material such as PLA if it means that you need to trash the stuff once you’re done with it (because recycling options for PLA are basically non-existent)? And why can’t all plastics be bio-based and recyclable and compostable?
It comes down to trade-offs, in terms of the cost, performance, collectability and recyclability of the various plastics. But another factor is that big companies move slowly on these efforts, until they’re faced with a clear cost savings and/or until consumers start to demand change.
Take Coca Cola as an example. It owns Odwalla, and Odwalla is marketing its new bio-based bottles under the same moniker that Coke and Dasani: PlantBottle. But there is a big difference between the PlantBottle that might hold your Coke or Dasani water and the one that, come March, will contain your Odwalla juice. It’s a difference of about 66 to 70 percent.
What I mean by that: the Coke and Dasani PlantBottle packaging, which came out last year is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and 30 percent of that material comes from plant sources, rather than petroleum sources (not accounting for the petroleum that might go into growing those plants). The Odwalla PlantBottle is high density polyethylene (HDPE) and anywhere from 96 to 100 percent of the material is derived from plant sources.
Both bottles are recyclable, just as a conventional PET or HDPE bottle is recyclable. Back in June, when I asked Tom LaForge, Coca-Cola’s global director of human and cultural insights, why the PET PlantBottle didn’t contain more than 30 percent plant-based materials, he said anything more than that would cause problems with recycling systems.
Uh, so then why is Odwalla’s HDPE recyclable, even with so much more plant-based material?
I decided to fact-check LaForge’s answer about the PET PlantBottle, so I called the National Association for PET Container Resources and spoke with its communications director, Kate Eagles. The reason the PET PlantBottle is recyclable at all, she said, is because the end material has the same chemical composition as a conventional PET bottle, it’s just the source material that’s different. For that reason, she said, it seems like it shouldn’t matter whether the PET PlantBottle is one percent or 100 percent derived from plant sources.
Eagles isn’t a chemist, she noted, and there might be more information at play behind the 30 percent figure, so I plan doing a bit more digging.
In the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon hear another announcement from Coca Cola, saying that the PET PlantBottle is upping its plant-based content. My suspicion is that it’s not a matter of the bottle’s recyclability and more a matter of the cost or complexity of adding more plant-based ingredients.