It was always going to be a question of when, not if Coca-Cola (Atlanta, GA) would successfully produce and launch a 100% plant-based PET bottle packaging. And when it finally happened last week, it was big news. Admittedly, Coca-Cola deserves this moment in the sun. After all, as the biggest player in the PET industry, the company has done more, much more than anyone else to advance the development of a sustainable renewably sourced PET Bottle. Coca-Cola has truly, and in no small way, put its money where its mouth is.
The company that helped make the current 100% plant-based bottle possible was one of the companies with which Coca-Cola partnered in 2011 to accelerate the development of its PlantBottle technology. Coca-Cola had already produced a PET bottle based on up to 30% renewably sourced raw materials. PET is produced from MEG (monoethylene glycol) and terephthalic acid (PTA). MEG, for which a biobased drop-in based on ethanol from sugar cane has long been available, accounts for 30%; the remaining 70% is PTA, for which there was no bio replacement available. Hence in 2011, Coca-Cola entered into agreements with Virent (Madison, WI), Gevo (Englewood, CO) and Avantium (Amsterdam, Netherlands), all “industry leaders in developing plant-based alternatives to materials traditionally made from fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources,” according to Coca-Cola. Virent and Gevo were both working on the development of renewable paraxylene, the ingredient needed to make PTA; Avantium had developed a brand new bio-polyester known as PEF with the potential to replace PET altogether.
The paraxylene that was used in the 100% biosourced PET bottle currently being showcased by The Coca-Cola Company at Milan World Expo 2015 came from Virent. The BioFormPX was produced at Virent’s Madison, WI, demonstration plant—the plant in which The Coca-Cola Company had made an additional investment to support an expansion of Virent’s demonstration plant capability in 2014. The extra funds were needed in order to help scale-up the separation and purification steps of the production process and produce larger quantities of BioFormPX.
Meanwhile, Virent has progressed its PX technology to commercial readiness and improved the process economics. The production of paraxylene at the Madison, Wisconsin laboratory, has reached a capacity of 10 tons per year, which will allow Virent to serve the needs of multiple collaborators for product validation and market demonstrations. Aromatic 100, benzene and toluene are also available at smaller capacities for similar purposes. These aromatic chemicals are all key building blocks for a wide range of materials and markets including food and beverage packaging, textiles, automobiles, detergents, construction materials, and paints and coatings.
The two other partners, Gevo and Avantium have also made good progress: Gevo has partnered with, among others, polyester-film producer Toray (Tokyo, Japan) to develop renewable paraxylene from isobutanol, which has been converted into biobased PET film. And according to the latest news, Avantium has proven its technology at pilot scale, and is searching for a suitable site for a commercial-scale facility.
For years now, 100% biosourced polyester bottles have been dancing on the horizon. The first ones to arrive—way ahead of commercialization—are made of bio-PET—what this may or may not mean for the future of the Coca-Cola PEF bottle is pure conjecture.
Nonetheless, Coca-Cola’s stated target is to have 100% of the PET plastic it uses in bottles contain fully biobased PlantBottle material—PEF? PET?—by 2020. And given this company’s track record, it’s my guess that we will definitely see those bottles on the shelves by then.