Coke, Ford Join Forces to Juice Supply of Plant-Based Plastic

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Amy Westervelt

Three words explain why the 100 percent bioplastic bottle isn’t ubiquitous yet: Supply, supply, supply.

Coca-ColaPepsi and several other Fortune 500 companies are working to address that. The beverage makers earlier this month announced they’re teaming up with Nike, Ford, Procter & Gamble and Heinz to accelerate the development of 100-percent plant-based PET via a new initiative called the PET Plant Technology Collaborative.

“There’s limited supply and we’re all competing for it,” said Michael Washburn, director of sustainability for Nestle Waters North America. “Not just in the beverage industry, but also the carpet industry, technology companies like HP, food companies, and so on, and because of that we have to pay a premium for rPET. That dynamic needs to change for us to increase our use of it.”

It’s not just plant-based PET that’s in short supply, but recycled PET as well, said Washburn, who noted the limited supply of recycled PET (rPET) is keeping recycled content low in U.S. beverage bottles.

And with the beverage companies’ ambitious goals — Coke and Pepsi are each aiming to convert as many of their bottles to plant-based plastics in the next five years as possible — collaboration, rather than cutthroat competition, made sense.

“We’re all end-users of PET and we’ve all been looking at bioplastics, so we’ve been working together informally for about a year, and thought it would be a good idea to work together in a more formal way,” said Angela Harris, biomaterials research engineer in the plastics research group at Ford Motor Company’s Research and Innovation Center. “We’re all in different industries so we’re not competing with each other, and we have the same goals—we want to use this material, so we want to develop more of a supply base.”

Instead of bioplastic companies coming to each company individually, Harris explained, they can come to all five together. “Then we can talk about the different technologies amongst ourselves and figure out what would work best.”

In the case of plant-based PET, the Collaborative is focusing primarily on building up supply, although each company is independently working on end-of-life initiatives for their particular products (bottles for Coca-Cola, clothing for Nike, carpet and fabric for Ford, packaging for P&G and Heinz).

Nestle, which isn’t part of the coalition, is working along similar lines. It has backed extended producer responsibility legislation in several states. The idea is that if the company can get back and recycle more of its bottles, it can secure a lower-cost supply of rPET.

By replacing the fossil fuel inputs of traditional PET with plant-based feedstocks (the Collaborative will be evaluating various options), the hope is to build supply of a cleaner, more efficient plastic. Purchasing plant-based PET, rather than some other form of bioplastic, ensures the material the companies in the collaborative use is the most recyclable plastic.

However, environmentalists have pointed out that once the plants have been turned into PET, the resulting material comes with the same impacts that petroleum-based plastics do.

“They’re just using plants to make the same polymers you find in other plastics. It has zero effect on plastic pollution,” said Marcus Eriksen, a marine expert who co-founded the nonprofit 5 Gyres a few years ago to study ocean plasticization in areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

And recycling rates for existing PET streams are still relatively low, despite the demand for recycled PET. Manufacturers typically put the recycling rate for PET at 27 percent, while recycling advocates suggest it’s more like 21 percent. There is also a concern that consumers might read “plant-based” as “biodegradable” and neglect to recycle this new generation of plant-based PET.

“As a recycler, I’m much happier with the bioresins that we’re able to recycle, but I don’t want it to turn into something where people think because they’re buying a plant bottle, they can be wasteful,” said Gerry Fishbeck, vice president of the United Resource Recovery Corp., a large recycling company that has had partnerships with Coca-Cola.

Nonetheless, the Collaborative’s efforts to increase the supply of plant-based PET could have a positive net impact on the sustainability of various materials.

“It shows some of the traditional PET manufacturers, who have maybe been hesitant to change, that we’re serious about wanting more plant-based PET, and it shows the smaller companies that we’re interested in new technology and that there is a market for this stuff,” said Harris of the Ford plastics research group.

“We’ll also be evaluating different feedstocks, looking both at the chemistry used to turn them into PET and the efficiency of those processes and of various crops that might be used,” she continued. That should help the burgeoning bioplastics industry to avoid going too far down the wrong path with any particularly unsustainable feedstock.

Meanwhile, because the companies are in different industries and not competing with each other Harris says they’re able to share ideas openly, not just about bioplastics, but about sustainability goals and strategies in general, which could bring additional benefits to the companies involved, and their respective industries.

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