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38: Biodegradable bottles

Problem:

Humans produce almost 20,000 plastic bottles every second, according to a report by The Guardian, while a study by Oceana.org  finds that as many as 34 billion plastic bottles per year end up in the ocean.

Solution:

Biodegradable plastics made of corn and other plants.


In 1989, Pat Gruber working for commodity grain processor Cargill Inc., set out to turn corn into plastic. Gruber ascertained that if he fermented corn sugar with the right lactic bacteria and distilled it, this might be a route to a commercially viable biodegradable plastic.

By 1994, Gruber had progressed to a test factory to learn how to adjust the process to change the performance of the polymer for different applications.

That was enough to persuade Dow Chemical Co. to collaborate as a partner.

In December 1997, two years and one month after Cargill Dow was officially established, work began on building a US$3 million plant in Blair, Nebraska to produce NatureWorks PLA (poly lactic acid) polymer.

The plant was up and running by early 2002, with the capacity to produce an annual 154,000 tons (140,000 tonnes) of NatureWorks PLA made from 40,000 bushels of locally grown corn per day.

Gruber’s polymer was soon being used for making items such as bottles. In 2002, a manufacturing facility in Blair, Nebraska began operations.

It is the world’s first and largest PLA facility and it supplies NatureWorks’ Ingeo biopolymer. The Blair facility increased its Ingeo nameplate capacity and in 2013 NatureWorks sold 1 billion lb (454,000 kg) of Ingeo. www.natureworksllc.com

In 2009 Coca-Cola invested millions of dollars in creating its PlantBottle™, which uses PET plastic that is combined with up to 30 % of plant-based material made from sugar cane juice and/or molasses.

The company sought verification from third-parties such as Imperial College, London, where a biologist performed a life-cycle analysis of the bottle and reported that the packaging reduced the CO₂ impact by 12% to 19%.

A Michigan State University professor also confirmed PlantBottle’s green benefits. Coca-Cola has since distributed more than 15 billion of the breakthrough bottles in 25 countries, including parts of the U.S., Canada, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, Sweden Denmark and Chile. This saved 347,000 tons (315,000 tonnes) of CO₂ between 2009 and 2015.

In 2011, Coca-Cola took the first step in this collaborative innovation approach by licensing PlantBottle technology to H.J. Heinz for use in its ketchup bottles.

More than 200 million 20 oz (500 gm) packages, which feature “talking labels” asking “Guess what my bottle is made of?” reached store shelves and foodservice counters in the U.S. and Canada.

The next generation of plant-based PET packaging – or PlantBottle 2.0 – began in December 2011, when Coca-Cola invested in three leading biotech companies, Virent, Gevo and Avantium, to speed the commercialization of a PET plastic bottle made entirely from plants.

That year the company did launch a 100% plant-based bottle using a different drop-in plastic. It introduced a single-use bottle made from 100% bio-based high-density polyethylene for its Odwalla juice. The material was sourced from Brazil-based chemicals and plastics company Braskem.

In June 2012, Coca-Cola also teamed up with Ford, Heinz, Nike and Procter & Gamble to form the Plant PET Technology Collaborative.

Together, these brands have been working together to pursue a 100% renewable polyester plastic solution made entirely from plants for use in everything from clothing and footwear, to automotive fabric and packaging.

Coke is partnering with The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to create guiding principles for sourcing agricultural feedstocks used in PlantBottle packaging.

In 2015, at the Expo Milano World’s Fair, Coca-Cola showcased the world’s first demonstration-scale PET plastic bottle made entirely from plant-based materials. The bottles used BioFormPX paraxylene produced by Coca-Cola partner Virent.

By 2018 PlantBottle technology had been used in more than 60 billion packages worldwide, although Coca-Cola was accused of “greenwashing” by a Danish local environmental group called Forests of the World who claimed that the company’s marketing of PlantBottle was exaggerated and misleading.

In July 2019 the Company committed to reducing the carbon footprint of “the drink in your hand” by 25% by 2020, compared to 2010 levels.

This includes the first-ever goal targeting for the entire Coca-Cola end-to-end value chain, cutting CO₂ across its manufacturing processes, packaging formats, delivery fleet, refrigeration equipment and ingredient sourcing.

Coca-Cola has calculated that this will directly and indirectly prevent the release of 220 million tons (20 million tonnes) of CO₂ into the atmosphere.

Tomorrow’s solution: Shrilk

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