Packaging, because it’s ubiquitous and because it is tied irrevocably to our purchasing decisions, is very personal. Branding has made packaging more than just the housing for the products we buy—in many cases, a product and its package are forever married. (The square Fiji Water bottle, for example, is much more than a vessel. To some, it’s a status symbol. To others, it’s a symbol of inefficiency.)
And so major consumer packaged goods manufacturers, including Coca Cola, are putting a great deal of effort into lightening the environmental footprints that their packaging leaves in its wake. I recently spoke with Scott Vitters, sustainable packaging director for Coca Cola, about the steps it has taken to improve its packaging.
As I’d explained in a post about the Odwalla bottle, I’ve heard some dubious information about what PlantBottle is and what its lifecycle looks like. Vitters tried to set the record straight.
Coca Cola introduced its PlantBottle one year ago. This bottle is made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), just like the plastic bottles Coca Cola had been using for years for its soft drink and water (Dasani) products. But the PET in PlantBottle is derived in part (up to 30 percent) from plant-based material. And just last month, Coca Cola-owned Odwalla announced that it plans to transition to a PlantBottle, as well. It sells its juice in high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and Odwalla’s PlantBottle will also be HDPE, but, again, it will be derived from some (nearly all) plant-based material.
The commonality between these two bottles is polyethylene (PE). The raw material in PE, ethylene, has traditionally been made from refined oil or natural gas, but it can also be made from, basically, sugar. And so this is the “plant” part of PlantBottle. This ethylene product only makes of 30 percent of the materials that go into PET. But, with high density PE, ethylene is the raw material. Thus, the higher percentage of plant-based material in the Odwalla bottle.
And as for recyclability, Vitters straightened me out on that, as well. Again, the chemical makeup of PET and HDPE in the PlantBottle is the same as bottles made wholly from petro-chemicals, so there is no barrier around what can be recycled.
Vitters explained that the ethylene used for the PlantBottles comes from a bio-ethanol plant in Brazil. Obviously, using a single source for this material means your PlantBottle will have a lot of miles and resources behind it once it reaches your hands, but it’s the most sustainable source for the material that the company has found. And in the future, Coca Cola plans to cultivate numerous sourcing options. For now, though, he says, the PET PlantBottle has a 10 to 20 percent smaller carbon footprint than its conventional counterpart and the HDPE PlantBottle’s footprint is upwards of 80 percent smaller.
So what’s keeping Coca Cola from sourcing the PET PlantBottle from all plant-based materials? In a word, terephthalate. It’s the other main raw ingredient in PET. The company doesn’t have a scalable, cost-effective and energy-efficient means of creating terephthalate from plant-based materials. Yet.
Vitters says that Coca Cola plans on finding a way to source all its plastic products from plant-based materials by 2020. He noted that Coca Cola has been studying alternative packaging materials for many years before the release of the PlantBottle. It had considered switching to polylactic acid (PLA), a move that Stonyfield recently announced for its multipacks of yogurt, but because the material couldn’t be recycled with conventional plastics, it was a non-starter for Coca Cola, which has invested in recycling by building its own bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
And, in tandem with research into rolling back the energy that goes into each bottle, Vitters says Coca Cola is trying to up the amount of recycled plastic in each bottle it sells. That effort is hindered by the introduction of non PET materials or materials of low quality that make their way into the recycling stream in Spartanburg.