[Editor's Note: Marc Gunther's podcast interview with Coca-Cola's Scott Vitters is available on GreenBiz Radio.]

Since joining the Coca-Cola Company in 1997, Scott Vitters has gone to work most days with one question on his mind:

“How do we get to our vision of a 100 percent renewable, 100 percent recyclable bottle?”

It’s a simple question, with anything but a simple answer -- getting to a renewable, zero-waste bottle requires technology breakthroughs, favorable economics that will drive recycling, changes in human behavior and supporting policy from governments around the country, if not around the world.

This winter, though, Coca-Cola is taking a meaningful step toward its goal with the introduction of what it calls a PlantBottle -- a bottle made of PET plastic, 30 percent of which is sourced from Brazilian sugar cane and molasses.

That puts Coke on the road to 100 percent renewable.

PET, meanwhile, is 100 percent recyclable -- although actual recycling rates are far lower.

It’s a start.

“It’s incredibly exciting for us to be able to see a route forward to zero waste,” says Vitters, who is head of global sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola.

Scott and I met in Coca-Cola’s Washington office, where we enjoyed turkey sandwiches and Coke beverages. (Diet Coke for me, Honest Tea organic mango green tea for him.) Scott is 36 and a self-styled environmental geek, though he’s not an engineer. He’s got a degree is in political science from Franklin & Marshall, which should come in handy because his job is largely about mustering support for the company’s efforts to remake packaging. Most Coke products, remember, are made by independent bottlers, while recycling systems are run mostly by private companies and shaped by a mishmash of state and local government rules. So his work is mostly about persuading people to change.

While other beverage companies have labored for years to lower the environmental impact of their packages -- my friend Ben Packard has toiled for a decade or so to come up with a recyclable paper cup for Starbucks -- Coca-Cola has done more than most. The company light-weighted its bottles, built the world’s largest  bottle-to-bottle PET recycling plant in South Carolina with bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises, and invested in RecycleBank, an innovative startup that rewards consumers who recycle more of their household trash.

Producing a renewable, recyclable bottle is hard because you have to consider the entire lifetime of the product -- where it comes from and where it goes, as well as its cost and performance. Right now, most PET bottles come from petrochemicals and more than 60 percent end up in landfills, a literal waste.

Some people want to get away from PET. Packaging made from a material called PLA (and marketed under the trade name Ingeo) comes from plants and it can be composted. But PLA bottles don’t hold carbonation and they can’t be blended easily into the existing plastic recycling stream.

So Coca-Cola has been trying to green PET.

PET “works for sparkling and still beverages,” Vitters says. “It’s extremely efficient. And we’ve built a whole infrastructure for PET over the years.”

The company’s scientists have figured out how to make monoethylene glycol, which makes up 30 percent of PET, from sugar cane and other plants. Now they are trying to find economical ways to make terephthalic acid, which makes up the other 70 percent of PET, from plant material as well.

“We see the potential of a carbon neutral bottle,” Vitters says.

Of course, it’s a long way from here to there. Right now, Coca-Cola uses raw materials from Brazil to make bottles that first be introduced in Denmark (for the Copenhagen climate talks), Vancouver (for the 2010 Winter Olympics) and select U.S. markets including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can see the marketing gurus at work. Future launches are expected in Brazil, Japan and Mexico.

“We don’t have an optimized supply chain today,” Vitters admits, “but we wanted to get moving.”

Eventually, Coca-Cola would like to use nonfood, plant-based waste, such as wood chips or wheat stalks, to produce recyclable PET bottles.

That leaves the other end of the lifecycle -- disposing of bottles. Until the company, its consumers and recyclers can find ways to get more bottles into the recycling stream and keep them out of the trash, a carbon-neutral package will remain a dream. Changing the makeup of the bottles may prove easier than getting Americans to throw less stuff away. I say Americans because in poor countries, glass and plastic bottle recycling rates are much higher for what should be obvious reasons.

My takeaway: Coca-Cola’s packaging work is impressive. As the world’s largest beverage company, Coke has impact. Others will follow.

My wish: That Coca-Cola, which delivers nearly 1.6 billion servings a day, will make what’s inside its bottle healthier and more sustainable, too.

Here’s a video from Coca-Cola about the PlantBottle. I did a podcast with Vitters that's been posted at GreenBiz.com.

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther
maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com.

Images courtesy of the
Coca-Cola Company.