In case you’ve never thought about it much – and, with so much else going on in the world, who would? – plastic used in bottles for soda and ketchup is made using fossil fuels. As in petroleum. Known as PET plastic, this material has been in use for decades. And it’s recyclable. So why bother tinkering with something people have grown used to using, and re-using?
Well, for one thing, all of those PET bottles add up yearly to a few oilfields’ worth of petroleum. Even though the bottles themselves can be re-purposed, the oil it took to make them can’t be replaced. And the energy that it took to recover and refine that oil makes for an embarrassingly large carbon footprint.
So, the good folks at Coca-Cola decided to do something. Their solution? Find a different source for one of the petroleum products used to make PET. From, of all things, plants.
Saving the Earth, one bottle at a time
Turns out that roughly 30% of PET comes from petroleum-based glycol – a substance that can also be had from sugarcane ethanol from Brazil. By substituting the sugarcane glycol, Coke claims that its new PlantBottle products contain up to 30% plant material. Coke stresses the “up to” part because, as production ramps up or down, some mixing of resins occurs, which can vary the exact amount of plant material in each bottle.
According to Coke’s web site about PlantBottle, the greenified containers provide the following benefits:
- The use of PlantBottle packaging in 2010 alone reduced almost 30,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide – which translates into an impact of roughly 60,000 barrels of oil not used
- It has the same performance as other PET bottles, with no difference in shelf life, weight, chemical composition or appearance
- PlantBottle is fully recyclable in programs that already exist; the substance can be turned back into new bottles or used for several other products that include recycled PET
Things have gone so well that the H.J. Heinz Company entered into a strategic alliance with Coke to use PlantBottle tech for the food conglomerate’s ketchup bottles – a move that Heinz said was:
The biggest change to its iconic ketchup bottles since [the company] first introduced plastic in 1983
All that recycles is not bio-pure
As might be expected, not everyone is completely sold on PlantBottle, though the idea behind it – saving resources and reducing carbon output – seems to have universal approval.
According to an article at GreenBiz.com, it’s important to remember that recycled plastic – even the kind made with plant-based material – can, for now, only be recycled into other man-made products. There’s no chance, yet, for the plant-based material to return to nature and re-join the biological cycle. GreenBiz says that, even if PET were entirely plant-based – not possible today because of various chemicals and polymers currently used – that it would still be an “inherently non-biodegradable material”.
At the same time, though, GreenBiz seems encouraged by the product’s presence, calling it a “step in the right direction”. And Coke and Heinz aren’t the only companies using the product.
Sugarcane.org reports that Ecover, a green cleaning brand, is poised to increase the plant-based component of all of its packaging from 30% to 100%. For the last year-and-a-half, AT&T has been using a 30% plant-based plastic in packaging for its wireless accessories. Johnson & Johnson launched a new sunscreen product packaged in 60% green plastic. And two years ago, Pantene announced that it would use sugarcane-based plastic in its shampoo and conditioner bottles.
All that’s needed, it seems, is to keep on innovating, and to keep on using. And re-using. Somebody, somewhere, someday will likely create a completely biodegradable version of PlantBottle, or at least one that uses less or even no fossil fuels.
One of these centuries, there might even be an edible version – a possible development that really ought to make the food marketers salivate.