The Japan-based beverage company Suntory Group is targeting “100 percent sustainability" in packaging by using only recycled or plant-derived materials for all the plastic beverage bottles it uses globally by 2030. The company behind consumer beverages like Orangina and spirits like Jim Beam recently announced a major achievement toward this goal: a 100 percent plant-based bottle prototype that is completely recyclable.
This announcement is the product of a strategic partnership that dates back to 2012 between Suntory and Anellotech, a U.S.-based sustainable technology company that uses non-food biomass. Suntory didn’t provide details on how quickly it plans to mass-produce the plant-based bottles, but it says the development is critical to realize its goal of 100 percent sustainable bottles by 2030.
“We’re delighted with this achievement, as it brings us one step closer to delivering this sustainable PET bottle to the hands of our consumers,” said Tsunehiko Yokoi, executive officer of Suntory Monozukuri Expert Ltd, in a statement. The bottle is made from two plant-based raw materials, terephthalic acid (PTA) and mono ethylene glycol (MEG). “The significance of this technology is that the PTA is produced from non-food biomass to avoid competition with the food chain, while MEG is also derived from non-food grade feedstock," Yokoi said.
Annellotech’s Bio-TCat process uses pine wood and agricultural residues and is less expensive than bio-based processes that use sugar as a feedstock. Thus, it uses economical, renewable and readily available inputs. Annellotech uses a one-step thermal catalytic process, going directly from biomass to aromatics, which is chemically identical to petroleum-based counterparts. However, this approach significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum-based PET bottles and uses energy from the biomass feedstock itself.
Currently, bio-based plastics account for about 1 percent of the total plastics produced each year. Although bioplastics seem like an ideal solution to some of the environmental issues that plague the packaging industry, this hasn’t been the case historically. Existing bio-based plastics need to be recycled separately, which is neither practical nor economical. Also, many of them do not use sustainable feedstocks and rely on food products like corn, sugar cane or sugar beets.
However, the Suntory prototype is an exception to the recyclability issue because it is chemically identical to petroleum-based PET, and the two can be recycled together. In the United States, Maine and Oregon recently passed extended producer responsibility laws for packaging to encourage companies to minimize packaging and make it more readily recyclable. If this movement gains speed, it could incentivize producers to use more recyclable packaging or else foot the bill.
But, the new 100 percent plant-based bottle from Suntory wouldn’t tackle the issue of ocean plastic waste because PET bottles are not biodegradable. Sadly, an estimated 21 billion to 34 billion PET bottles end up in the oceans each year, according to Oceana. Consumer concern about ocean plastic pollution has skyrocketed in recent years and now rivals concern for climate change. Although the plant-based bottle addresses greenhouse gas emissions and recyclability, Suntory still needs a plan for preventing pollution.
In addition, there has been an increasing push to hold producers responsible for the plastic pollution associated with their products, so brands not addressing this issue could be a liability in the eyes of consumers. For example, Break Free From Plastic’s Global Brand Audit Report examines which companies are manufacturing the packaging that ends up in the oceans. (For its part, Suntory didn’t make the top 10 list of the most polluting companies.) Greenpeace has also criticized Coca-Cola for not addressing ocean plastic pollution and being slow to adopt reusable bottles, even on the heels of an announcement that it will use 50 percent recycled materials in its single-use bottles by 2030.
Suntory was founded in 1899 and produces numerous alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages including Japanese whiskies Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu, American spirits Jim Beam and Maker's Mark, and consumer beverages like teas and soft drinks. Its annual revenues in 2020 were $20.4 billion, and it serves the Asian, American, European, Oceania and African markets.
The company has set several strong sustainability targets. It aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its entire value chain by 2050, which will involve using energy efficiency renewable energy solutions and working with supply chain stakeholders. It also plans to cut water consumption in half at its worldwide plants by 2050 and preserve water resources and ecosystems.
“Suntory has been entrenched in the work to create sustainable packaging solutions since 1997. This plant-based bottle prototype honors our historic dedication while shining a light, not only on our path to achieving our 2030 fully sustainable PET bottle goal, but also towards our ambition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the entire value chain by 2050,” said Tomomi Fukumoto, COO of sustainability management at Suntory Holdings, in a statement.
Images courtesy of Suntory
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.