What has long seemed an impossibility is finally coming closer to realisation. The Coca‑Cola Company recently unveiled its first-ever beverage bottle made from 100% plant-based plastic, excluding the cap and label, made using technologies that are ready for commercial scale. A limited run of approximately 900 of the prototype bottles have been produced.
It has been 10 years since the company debuted its PlantBottle, then touted as the world’s first recyclable PET plastic bottle made with up to 30% plant-based material. That bottle looks, functions and recycles like traditional PET but has a lighter eco-footprint, due to its 30% content of monoethylene glycol (MEG) derived from sugarcane. At that time, the difficulty was to develop technology to produce plant-based terephthalic acid, the other ingredient making up 70% of PET material.
A few years after the initial introduction of the PlantBottle, Coca-Cola unveiled its first prototype for a 100% bio-based PlantBottle™ at the 2015 Milan Expo using lab-scale production methods to produce bPX.
Coca-Cola's new prototype plant-based bottle has been made using new technologies that are ready for commercial scaling.
The bottle is manufactured from plant-based paraxylene (bPX) - using a new process by Virent - which has been converted to plant-based terephthalic acid (bPTA). It is the first beverage packaging material resulting from bPX produced at demonstration scale, using sugar from corn. Other feedstocks may also be used.
Another breakthrough technology, which The Coca-Cola Company co-owns with Changchun Meihe Science & Technology, streamlines the bMEG production process and also allows for flexibility in feedstock, meaning more types of renewable materials can be used.
The process eliminates the intermediate step in which sugarcane or corn is converted into bioethanol and then to bioethylene glycol, instead allowing MEG to be produced directly from these sugar sources.
UPM, the technology’s first licensee, is currently building a full-scale commercial facility in Germany to convert certified, sustainably sourced hardwood feedstock taken from sawmill and other wood industry side-streams to bMEG.
“The inherent challenge with going through bioethanol is that you are competing with fuel,” said Dana Breed, Global R&D Director, Packaging and Sustainability, The Coca-Cola Company. “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 is to develop sustainable solutions for the entire industry,” she continued. “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.”
Since introducing PlantBottle, Coca-Cola has allowed non-competitive companies to use the technology and brand in their products—from Heinz Ketchup to the fabric interior in Ford Fusion hybrid cars. In 2018, the company opened up the PlantBottle IP more broadly to competitors in the beverage industry to scale up demand and drive down pricing.
The new prototype aligns with the company’s World Without Waste vision, in which it aims, among others, to make its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025 and to use 50% recycled material in its bottles and cans by 2030.
In Europe and Japan, Coca-Cola, with its bottling partners, aims to eliminate the use of oil-based virgin PET from plastic bottles altogether by 2030, using only recycled or renewable materials.
“We are taking significant steps to reduce use of ‘virgin’, oil-based plastic, as we work toward a circular economy and in support of a shared ambition of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Quan said. “We see plant-based plastics as playing a critical role in our overall PET mix in the future, supporting our objectives to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce our reliance on ‘virgin’ fossil fuels and boost collection of PET in support of a circular economy.”