Coke is steadily building its packaging supply chain for the future. That, in a nutshell—or perhaps it’s better to say in a cornhusk (more on that later)—is the strategy behind the work it continues to do on its PlantBottle. In fact, it’s hard to be any clearer than Scott Vitters, general manager of Coke’s PlantBottle packaging platform, when he says: “We’ve been around for over a hundred years, we plan to be around for another hundred years.”
It’s understandable why Vitters would speak in such existential tones when tying in Coke’s PlantBottle initiative to the company’s very future. After all, he, along with his dedicated team, has lived and breathed the project since Coke first announced it at the United Nations 2009 Climate Change Conference (see sidebar).
Well, that’s one reason. But to Vitters, it’s very much a matter of planning for that day sometime in the future—no one can say exactly when—when the petroleum that is part of everyday PET today runs dry. When it does, Coke hopes to be ready with a 100 percent plant-based replacement.Existentials aside, money and profits are quite important for any business as well. And don’t think Coke hasn’t factored that little detail into the equation. “We believe renewables offer us a better opportunity to in the future have a more stable cost of packaging material,” Vitters says.
The reality is that, so far, PlantBottle has only been an investment; the company has not seen any savings from the project—yet. This “on-cost,” as Vitters puts it, is the result of the enormous resources that go into building out a supply chain for the PlantBottle around the world, things like sourcing the materials and getting factories up and running to convert that biomass into the bottles.
So where does Coke stand today in its progress toward a 100 percent, commercially viable, recyclable PlantBottle? The ones on the market today, used for such brands as Dasani, include 30 percent plant material. And Vitters says Coke remains on track to roll out its 100 percent PlantBottle sometime in the next few years.
In the meantime, in the second quarter of 2013, it crossed the milestone of around 15 billion PlantBottles in the market, and also saw its formal launch in China and Hong Kong. That brings the total number of countries where PlantBottle is currently in use to 25 and so far Coke has converted between 7 and 8 percent of its total resin to the plant material. It is striving now to reach its 10 percent goal in the short-term, on the way to its longer-term target of 100 percent PlantBottle usage by the year 2020.
These milestones will be dramatic developments for the world’s largest beverage company, 60 percent of whose global volume across categories is in PET.
The first materials used for the PlantBottles were Brazilian sugar cane and sugar cane waste material. Since then, that has been expanded to include sugar cane waste material in India. Work is currently being done to follow these with rice waste from India, and corn waste—cornhusks—from the U.S. and China.
Coke also announced in July that it will work with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to assess the environmental and social performance of plant-based materials for potential use in its PlantBottle packaging. And, it pledged with the WWF to reach a 75 percent recovery rate of bottles and cans in developed markets.
Susan Collins, President of the Container Recycling Institute, says the latest trends show a “slight uptick” in recycling in the U.S. “The silver bullet that we have in our toolbox is container deposits,” she says. “That’s the one program that dramatically increases recycling rates for beverage containers. And we always see the recycling rates in deposit states are at least twice, usually three times as high as the recycling rates in non-deposit states.”
In fact, she says beverage companies risk sacrificing all the good work they have done, like lightweighting packages, because of opposition to container deposit laws. “Overall I think their opposition to container deposit laws really dominates their record on environmental performance with respect to beverage packaging,” she says. “The work that they’ve done to lightweight containers is certainly admirable but when you couple that with the increased sales, we certainly aren’t seeing any reduction in the amount of packaging that’s wasted every year. We’re actually seeing that increase. So, despite the best efforts of individuals to recycle, it’s not keeping pace with how much waste is being produced and so the overall environmental effect is still negative and growing more negative.”
More lightweighting would be helpful, she says. “There’s certainly a lot of containers out there that are made thicker than they need to be in order to appeal to consumers. It’s not what’s needed to deliver the product.”