Soft Drink Giants Put New Life Into Their Containers

By Simone Sebastian, Houston Chronicle

Image source: Houston Chronicle

The decades-old duel between Coca-Cola and Pepsi has entered new territory. As the soda behemoths spar for world’s top soft drink, the battle isn’t just about what’s in their bottles. It’s about what’s in their plastic.

In 2009, the Coca-Cola Co. said the bottles in which it sells its Dasani water products would contain up to 30 percent sugar cane-based components. The bottles are made of a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

Coca-Cola touted the “PlantBottle” as the latest in eco-friendly food packaging.

Then PepsiCo dropped a bio-bottle bombshell in March, announcing PET containers that were 100 percent petroleum-free.

A wave of activity

The beverage industry is not alone in the race to make the greenest consumer product packaging. The trend has spread to ketchup bottles, shampoo containers, chip bags – even cellphone accessories.

“There’s a lot of pressure. Everyone’s always followed Pepsi and Coke,” said Ed Glatzer, director for commercial development for IHS, a global consulting firm. “Sustainability is the catch word.”

The most common forms of plastic packaging are crafted from natural gas and crude oil. Plastics account for about 4 percent of the world’s petroleum use, according to the PET Resin Association. The petro­chemical industry uses a chemical process to turn petroleum gases and liquids into solid plastics that offer a spectrum of thickness and durability, from bags to milk jugs.

Small percentage

So far, bioplastics have hardly encroached on that petroleum dependency. Less than 1 percent of plastics used nationally come from biological sources like sugar cane and corn, said Melissa Hockstad, vice president of science technology and regulatory affairs for theSociety of the Plastics Industry.

But researchers predict the market will skyrocket in the next several years because of technological advancements, new manufacturing plants and increased interest in bioplastic packaging.

‘Significant’ growth

Global demand for plant-based plastics could be 600,000 metric tons by 2013, a 26-fold jump in five years, according to a 2008 report by market research firm Freedonia Group.

“We’re seeing it from the big companies and we’re seeing the individual consumers have more interest in the products they are buying,” Hockstad said. “Bioplastics will grow at a significant pace.”

Coca-Cola’s plant-based Dasani container is marketed with a green recycling triangle and PlantBottle label. Heinz ketchup’s bio-container entices Earth-conscious buyers with a label reading, “Guess what my bottle is made of?”

But not all bioplastics are created the same. In 2010, PepsiCo subsidiary Frito-Lay temporarily pulled its corn-based SunChips bag, made of a bioplastic called polylactic acid, or PLA, after consumers complained that it made too much noise.

PLA biodegrades in certain environments, but most facilities that recycle petroleum-based plastics aren’t ready to handle it.

Bio-PET, on the other hand, is recyclable. But it doesn’t biodegrade, so its bottles can become long-lived litter.

Industry surprised

PepsiCo’s March announcement shook the plastics industry, because as far as most knew, the technology didn’t exist to produce 100 percent bio-PET bottles.

“That press release mystified many people,” said Marifaith Hackett, a specialty chemicals consultant for IHS.

The industry is well-versed in producing ethylene glycol, the chemical making up 30 percent of PET’s weight, from biological sources. Producing the other 70 percent, called terephthalic acid, from plants on a commercial scale has remained a mystery. But Pepsi says it has cracked the code.

“Working with a few partners around the globe, PepsiCo’s Advanced Research team determined the pathway to create both compounds, and thus PET, using 100 percent plant-based renewable sources,” including switch grass, pine bark and corn husks, a spokesman said.

Pepsi says it will pilot its petroleum-free bottle next year but hasn’t established a date for its full commercialization.

Plant-based PET is attractive to packagers because it is virtually identical to its petroleum version, with no unexpected properties or behaviors, said Jeff Wooster, sustainability leader for Dow Chemical.

Brazil investing

Dow has announced that it is building a massive plant in Brazil to produce ethanol from sugarcane, an early step in the creation of bioplastic. The plant will help address the biggest impediment to growth in the bioplastics industry – the pricey infrastructure it requires, Wooster said.

“You can’t just flip a switch and produce bio-based plastics the next day,” he said. “It requires a large capital investment.”

Much of that investment is being made in Brazil, which is on its way to becoming the largest producer of bioplastics, outpacing North America, Western Europe and Japan, according to the Freedonia Group.

Even with their booming growth, bioplastics won’t threaten the demand for their petroleum siblings any time soon, Wooster noted. In general, natural gas remains the most efficient, and often the cheapest, way to produce plastic.

“We don’t expect that to go away any time in the near future,” he said. “That’s good news for the natural gas and oil folks here in Texas.”

Article originated at Houston Chronicle.