Moving towards a circular economy – bottles from plant-based plastic

In 2009, Coca-Cola Company launched PlantBottle, the world’s first fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made partially from plants. By replacing up to 30% of the petroleum used to make PET plastic bottles with material from sugar cane and other plant matter, PlantBottle avoided the CO2 emissions equivalent of taking nearly 1 million vehicles off the road since then, the company says.

Now Coca-Cola has reached yet another stage –  through two new technologies that will let it make its bottles entirety from plant-based plastic. And, as it did with PlantBottle, it is offering to share this ‘second-generation’ technology with others, including its competitors.

Photo by Fuzzy Rescue from Pexels

In 2018, it opened up the PlantBottle more broadly to competitors in the beverage industry. As its CEO James Quincey said: “We need more companies using this technology across a wide range of applications to achieve the impact we know it can have. This isn’t just about PlantBottle. It’s about fundamentally shifting our mindset. We can’t afford for anyone to hoard good ideas if they could help protect the planet.”

But it wasn’t entirely altruistic. Only a few suppliers were producing the type of biomaterial used to make PlantBottle resin, so by encouraging wider use of bioPET, Coke hoped to scale up demand and thus drive down pricing.

“Broadening access to our PlantBottleIP aligns with our ‘World Without Waste’ vision and goal of getting renewably sourced polymers into our closed loop,” said Scott Pearson, senior director of global R&D innovation. “It’s about driving a circular economy and using and reusing our resources more efficiently. Part of that, for plastics, means using renewable feedstock materials that are not based on fossil fuels.”

And that is what now has been achieved, in the form of 900 prototype bottles made entirely from plant-based plastic. Fossil fuel free PET, in other words. Given that about eight percent of the world’s oil is used to make plastic, this could have a significant impact if others begin to emulate it.

“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,” says Nancy Quan, Coca-Cola’s chief technical and innovation officer. 

By 2025, it aims to reduce the use of virgin plastic from crude oil-based sources by 3 million tonnes. Using bioplastic is a “significant technological breakthrough in our ongoing efforts to reduce our use of virgin oil-based plastics, by increasing our use of recycled and renewable alternatives,” she says.“It can not only help us achieve our commitments to carbon emission reduction but can also enable the entire industry to shift to a more circular economy.” Coca-Cola aims to reach net zero carbon by 2040 in its Western European value chain and 2050 across all its operations.

The company sees the new developments as part of its World Without Waste vision. “Coca-Cola is working to make all its packaging more sustainable, including maximizing use of recycled and renewable content while minimizing use of virgin, fossil material. The company has pledged to collect back the equivalent of every bottle it sells by 2030, so none of its packaging ends up as waste and old bottles are recycled into new ones; to make 100% of its packaging recyclable; and to ensure 50% of its packaging comes from recycled material.”

This is the first planned commercialization of technologies to efficiently convert second-generation biomass to plant-based monoethylene glycol, removing the step of creating ethanol as part of the conversion process. 

“The inherent challenge with going through bioethanol is that you are competing with fuel,” said Dana Breed, Coca-Cola’s global R&D director, packaging and sustainability. “We needed a next-generation MEG solution that addressed this challenge, but also one that could use second generation feedstock like forestry waste or agricultural byproducts. 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.”

UPM, the Finnish forest-based bioeconomy leader, is building a full-scale biorefinery in Leuna, Germany. “The biochemicals produced in Leuna will enable a true sustainability transformation in numerous consumer applications, providing a dramatically reduced CO2 footprint and replacing fossil raw materials with a renewable alternative: certified and sustainably sourced wood,” says Juuso Konttinen, vice president of biochemicals.

UPM will offer commercial quantities of the breakthrough biochemicals to anyone in the industry, including direct competitors to Coca-Cola. “Our goal is to develop sustainable solutions for the entire industry,” says Breed. “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.”

But bioplastic does not, as I had thought at first, mean biodegradable. “Depending on the type of polymer used to make it, discarded bioplastic must either be sent to a landfill, recycled like many (but not all) petroleum-based plastics, or sent to an industrial compost site,” says an expert. Industrial composting is necessary to heat the bioplastic to a high enough temperature that allows microbes to break it down; it doesn’t do this on its own.

So clearly, increased use of bioplastics in bottles is only part of a much bigger issue about plastics. “Preventing the vast majority of plastic from entering the ocean requires reducing plastic use, finding substitutes for plastics, improving recycling practices, expanding waste collection, and ensuring that disposal facilities prevent plastic leakage as a transitional measure,” says Breaking the Plastic Wave, a report by the Pew Trusts.

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