Saturday, 20 July 2024

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Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle Revolutionizing Packaging

With the current focus and realization of the dire situation of the planet from human activity, individuals, corporations, and governments are taking active efforts to implement more sustainable lifestyle practices. Coca-Cola, one of the largest plastic producers, has created two plant-based biodegradable bottles that are eco-friendly and have a reduced carbon footprint. By 2030, Coca-Cola has vowed to make 100% of packaging recyclable and 50% of packaging produced from recycled or renewable materials. Through these efforts, Coca-Cola hopes to attain a net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Switching from predominantly used nonbiodegradable fossil fuel based plastic packaging to plant-based biodegradable packaging is not only a great way to tackle climate change, but an excellent way to unite the world over a single cause - saving the planet.


Recently, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) was held in Glasgow, Scotland. At COP26, world leaders discussed solutions to Global Warming and the imminent climate change emergency. There are so many ways to tackle climate change. On larger scales, there should be a decrease in the use of fossil fuels, controlled carbon dioxide emissions, more sustainable deforestation, and more. On smaller scales, there needs to be better waste management, sustainable life practices, and preservation of water and other resources. Looking specifically at waste management, it involves the collection, transportation, waste treatment, and recycling or disposal of waste products. However, if nonbiodegradable materials are increasingly used, the world will never achieve ideal waste management because there will always be excess trash that remains on the planet forever. There are many types of nonbiodegradable waste products like aluminum and copper materials, glass products, computer parts, and plastics. Plastic is mostly used in packaging and most types of plastics are made of fossil fuels and are nonbiodegradable. They will never disappear from the planet. Often, plastic is found in oceans interfering with marine life, killing marine animals, and polluting their habitats. Furthermore, because plastic is made of fossil fuels, the production of plastic is very toxic. For every kilogram of plastic (made of fossil fuels) produced, 1.7 to 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide is released, contributing to the current climate change catastrophe. Just the production and disposal of plastic has a great devasting impact on the atmosphere. Companies are encouraged by scientists, activists, and even many consumers, to seek alternate options to fossil fuel based plastic packaging. Many consumers prefer green packaging as they see it as their way to tackle climate change. While many small businesses have taken a step to eliminate plastic packaging, large companies need to take a step for there to be a significant change.

Coca-Cola Plastic Production

Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé have the largest contribution to annual plastic production. As shown in Figure 1, a 2020 statistic by Changing Markets Foundation shows that Coca-Cola produces nearly 2.9 million metric tons of plastic packaging every year - that is more than the combined plastic packaging production of Mars, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, P&G, and Danone, the companies that rank fourth through eighth for producing the world’s most plastic packaging (in metric tons).

This annual plastic production corresponds to around 108 billion bottles. Coca-Cola’s annual production of 108 billion bottles is made of more than 1/5 of the world’s annual polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic production. PET is made from petroleum and natural gas - two nonrenewable resources with very large carbon footprints. It became very important for Coca-Cola to seek an alternative option if it did not want to continue to be the “worst offender for plastic pollution.”

World Without Waste Program

To reduce the production of nonbiodegradable plastics, many companies are trending towards creating biodegradable waste - waste that can biodegrade into the environment without harming the soil or environment around it - or sustainable waste - waste that can be recycled or repurposed. In 2018, Coca-Cola launched their “World Without Waste” program that has a focus on creating new sustainable package production and delivery systems as well as encouraging recycling of non-sustainable package materials as shown in Figure 2. Coca-Cola announced a goal to cut 3 million tons of plastic from oil-based sources by 2025. 3 million tons corresponds to a 20% decrease in the use of oil-based plastics, and Coca-Cola hopes to achieve this by encouraging more recycling practices through recyclable and reusable bottles and creating new lightweight and bio-based bottles. Additionally, by 2030, in Japan and Europe, Coca-Cola hopes to eliminate the use of oil-based PET in plastic bottles. Just three years prior to launching “World Without Waste,” in 2015, Coca-Cola revealed a prototype for a 100% biobased PlantBottle through lab-scale productions of the biochemicals after introducing their first PlantBottle in 2009. The 2009 prototype contained terephthalic acid (PTA), made from oil-based sources, however, Coca-Cola’s mission was to reduce oil-based plastic as shown in Figure 2, so they worked on more formulas. Since 2009, after nearly twelve years, even though the PlantBottle packaging led to an elimination of 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions which corresponds to nearly 200,000 barrels of oil used in Coca-Cola’s PET plastic packaging, Coca-Cola has become one of the world’s largest polluters of plastic. Making a larger-scale switch to reduce plastic production and decrease its carbon footprint was imminent for Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola has sought many partnerships to achieve its sustainability goals. The Coca‑Cola Company partnered with UPM and Changchun Meihe Science to launch a 100% plant-based PlantBottle (excluding the cap and label), the 2015 lab-scale prototype was finally created into a full-sized bottle ready for large scale production. Around 900 prototype bottles were produced. Nancy, Quan, Coca-Cola’s Chief Technical and Innovation Officer said: “We have been working with technology partners for many years to develop the right technologies to create a bottle with 100% plant-based content– aiming for the lowest possible carbon footprint– and it’s exciting that we have reached a point where these technologies exist and can be scaled by participants in the value chain.”

The partnerships with companies like UPM, Changchun Meihe Science & Technology, and other companies allow Coca-Cola to make the developments they do. Sarah Dearman, the Sustainable Packaging Program Director at The Coca-Cola Company said, “The Coca-Cola Company’s goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of our packaging. We know that we can’t do it alone. The way we can maximize progress is by working together. Our suppliers play a critical role by working together to advance innovation to help enable all parties to meet their goals.” With the help and support from different partners, many changes were made from the 2009 prototype to eliminate the use of oil-based sources and the 2015 prototype to be able to produce the bottles through large-scale commercial production methods.

Ingredients of the PlantBottle

Plastic bottles are made from PET which is made from two molecules monoethylene glycol (MEG) and terephthalic acid (PTA) at a 3:7 ratio. Coca-Cola’s original PlantBottle, released in 2009, contained 30% plant-based monoethylene glycol (bMEG) from sugarcanes and 70% PTA from oil-based sources, making it only 30% plant based. The new PlantBottle, as shown in Figure 3, is 100% plant based, the PTA is also derived from plant-based sources. In response to the 2009 PlantBottle formula, Dana Breed, the Global R&D Director, Packaging and Sustainability for The Coca-Cola Company said, “Our goal for plant-based PET is to use surplus agricultural products to minimize carbon footprint, so the combination of technologies brought by the partners for commercialization is an ideal fit with this strategy.” Coca-Cola determined the source of their bio-based ingredients to create the plastic. Also, in considering the ingredients, Coca-Cola sought to create sustainable economic practices along with sustainable production practices. Scott Vitters, the Director of Packaging for The Coca-Cola Company at the time commented about the 2009 PlantBottle ingredients and said, “The plants we use in PlantBottle packaging are specifically selected based on sustainability criteria to ensure that they do not compete with food crops and are capable of delivering improved environmental performance.” In creating the 2021 PlantBottle, Coca-Cola worked with partner companies to deliberately choose certain crops that can be sustainably produced which’s feedstock or bio-based waste products can be repurposed and used to create plastic.

Virent Energy Systems, Inc, a company that converts sugar feedstocks into petroleum products, has a method of creating plant-based PTA. Coca-Cola used Virent’s method to convert plant-based paraxylene (bPX) - derived from sugar from corn- to plant-based PTA (bPTA). Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle is the first beverage package that is made from large-scale production bPX. Additionally, Coca-Cola was able to create a more efficient bMEG production technology. With Changchun Meihe Science & Technology, Coca-Cola created a technology that directly converts sugars into bMEG rather than the previous process in which sugarcane or corn was converted into bioethanol which was then converted to bioethylene glycol. At the same time, UPM, a Finnish paper mill company, is currently building a commercial facility to convert hardwood feedstock from sawmill and other wood industries to bMEG, like the sugarcane and corn conversion to bMEG.

Figure 3: Coca-Cola's 100% biobased PlantBottle launched first in 2015, then released to the public in 2021

Extending Partnerships

Coca-Cola seeks not only to come up with sustainable solutions to environmentally hazardous practices within the Coca-Cola industry, but also shares practices with other companies. Breed said, “Our goal is to develop sustainable solutions for the entire industry, we want other companies to join us and move forward, collectively. We don’t see renewable or recycled content as areas where we want competitive advantage.” Coca-Cola shared its technology and brand products with noncompetitive companies like Heinz, a ketchup company. As shown in Figure 4, in partnership with Coca-Cola, Heinz created a ketchup bottle from the plant-based packaging prototype Coca-Cola launched in 2009. Then in 2018, Coca-Cola shared the PlantBottle IP with competitive companies as well. They sold over 10 billion PlantBottle packages around the world. Distributing the PlantBottle IP to all competitors encourages a greater demand of the bottle ingredients which in turn, brings down the prices.

Effect of Sustainable Packaging on Consumers

Many people take small steps to sustainable practices in their everyday lives reusing glass jars, taking reusable bags to grocery stores, cutting water usage when washing dishes or showering, and more. These small acts empower people and remind them of their contribution to a world-wide plague: climate change. According to Trivium Packaging’s 2021 Global Buying Green Report, 67% of consumers consider themselves environmentally aware and take into consideration whether the packaging is recyclable when they purchase products. Of the younger consumers (ages 44 and younger) polled, 83% of them expressed that they would be willing to pay extra for sustainable packaging, and of all the consumers polled, 70% expressed that they would be willing to pay extra for sustainable packaging. With the increased attention given to climate change and climate change activists on the news and on social media, people’s knowledge about various packaging materials has increased. While many people do not know much about metals and glass, most people are very well versed with the nonbiodegradability of plastics.

Companies need to start taking the extra step to providing environmentally friendly packaging. Consumers are willing to pay the extra money for sustainable packaging, companies do not need to worry about possible additional expenses because they can compensate for that by raising the prices of their products. When consumers are willing to take a step, companies should be ready to make a run. Coca-Cola launching the “World Without Waste” program gives consumers hope that one of their favorite beverage companies is taking active steps to eliminate environmentally disastrous practices and they can be a part of such efforts.


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