Lessons Learned from Creating Coke's PlantBottle

Lessons Learned from Creating Coke's PlantBottle

Coca-Cola bottles - CC license by Flickr user Dmitry Valberg

At Coca-Cola, our packaging innovation teams are constantly working on ways to advance packaging technologies that meet consumer needs while also enhancing environmental, business and social performance. Last year, we introduced a new, redesigned PET plastic bottle made partially from plants, and we expect to have some 2.5 billion PlantBottles in the marketplace this year. Also, we plan to double our use of PlantBottle packaging in 2011. We're excited about the innovation and we're getting lots of positive feedback from customers and consumers.

Our PlantBottle packaging is made by converting natural sugars found in plants into a key ingredient for making PET plastic. For those who want the technical specifics, we've innovated a way to develop plant-based MEG, a key component in PET plastic. PlantBottle is up to 30 percent plant-based because MEG is 30 percent of the total composition of PET plastic by weight. We still have more work to do to crack the code on a plant-based TA, which is the other 70 percent of PET plastic, but we know it is feasible.

Today we are using sugar cane juice and molasses to create our PlantBottle packaging, and we're working to advance the development of next generation technologies capable of extracting sugar from plant wastes like stems, barks and fruit peels.  

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.

PlantBottle is fully recyclable in existing community recycling programs (as confirmed by the Plastics Forming Enterprises and Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers) and the material can be used back into new bottles or to create furniture, clothing or the wide variety of other products made from recycled PET today.  

PlantBottle has the same performance as other PET bottles. That means there's no difference in shelf life, weight, chemical composition or appearance. While most plant-based plastics are capable of maintaining quality for a limited array of beverage types, our PlantBottle can be used with carbonated soft drinks, juices and waters. That makes it an efficient, effective and environmentally friendly package option for our business.

I've learned a lot in the process of working on our PlantBottle project team. Here are a few things that I think are most important for anyone working to advance similar innovations in a business setting:

Innovation takes time and patience, and requires the time and commitment of a team of people inside and outside the company. We've been working to advance a recyclable, plant-based package that is capable of holding any of our beverages for many years. Our core project team inside Coke includes scientists, engineers, marketers, lawyers, public affairs professionals and supply chain experts. We also work with world class packaging experts outside our company to push our thinking and evolve our innovations, including scientists, engineers, academics, lawyers and environmental experts like World Wildlife Fund, to keep our innovation process in-line with our sustainability goals. 

Life cycle analysis is critical to assessing the impacts and benefits of new innovations. In 1969 Coca-Cola was one of the first major companies to perform life cycle analysis on its products and operations. This life cycle focus continues today with PlantBottle.  

It's ok to celebrate the successes along the way, even if you have more you want to do. We're aiming for a package that is 100 percent recyclable and 100 percent plant-based, but we know that is going to take time and a lot more R+D investment.  Meanwhile, the achievement of a plant-based MEG is a real step forward. We're celebrating today's up-to-30-percent PlantBottle packaging, but we're determined to get to 100 percent.

Stick to your core values. We are focused on producing and using packaging materials that are recyclable in today's recycling infrastructure — an infrastructure we are heavily invested in. And we think it is most effective for our business to use packaging materials that are effective across the array of products we produce. We kept these core convictions top of mind and gave the R+D process time to accomplish them.

Steer clear of greenwashing. Many companies are trying to capitalize on the growing consumer interest and demand for products and businesses who act responsibly. We all need to be clear about or goals and progress to date, and not be afraid to be transparent throughout our journey toward constant improvement.

Don't underestimate the time and investment required in transforming a supply chain. An innovation like PlantBottle requires major supply chain engagement to bring scope, scale and cost efficiency in to the process. Unfortunately this process does not happen overnight. We routinely get asked why we don't use PlantBottle for all of our PET packaging. The simple answer is we are still working to transform our supply chain to enable more use. We expect to have about 10 percent of our PET packaging with PlantBottle material by the end of next year. That is the result of massive focus and engagement with our supply chain.

We're continuing to work on transforming our supply chain to accommodate more production and use of PlantBottle packaging — this is our immediate priority.  We're also working to identify plant-based wastes for our next generation PlantBottle. At the same time, we're working inside and outside our company to identify a solution to plant-based TA (the other 70 percent of PET).  Our ultimate goal is a carbon-neutral, 100 percent renewable and recyclable Bottle of the Future. 

Today, the PlantBottle is available in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan and Brazil. Soon, it will hit Chile and then expand more broadly to areas in Europe, Africa and Asia. We're excited about the potential of plant-based PET plastics and we're investing heavily in their future.

Scott Vitters is the global director of sustainable packaging for The Coca-Cola Company.

Coca-Cola bottles - CC license by Flickr user Dmitry Valberg