PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, as manufacturers of many of the world’s most popular soft drinks, have been fierce competitors for decades. It’s only natural that this rivalry would extend to establishing their eco-credentials with customers and investors.

“Coca-Cola is a commercial pioneer in the field, introducing the PlantBottle way back in 2009.”

Both companies have ploughed significant resources into developing and launching environmentally friendly bottles, and this investment looks set to continue as each company tries to prove its superior approach to tackling waste and improving renewability.

These industry titans, aware of consumers’ growing attention to sustainability issues in the products they choose, are now introducing their latest generation of environmentally friendly bottles.

These new packaging concepts are designed to improve environmental performance, minimising or eliminating the need for petroleum and incorporating more renewable materials.

Eco-friendly bottles: the rivals

The problem that companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have been trying to solve dates back to the 1970s when polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was widely introduced to the marketplace.

Although PET facilitates large-scale commercial recycling, the reliance on petroleum and other fossil fuels for the PET manufacturing process means an energy-intensive and unsustainable element remains. With the launch of their new plastic bottles, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are looking to perfect the PET formula with the introduction of sustainable, renewable plant materials.

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Coca-Cola is certainly a commercial pioneer in the field, introducing the PlantBottle, a recyclable PET bottle made from 30% renewable plant-based material, way back in 2009. Studies indicate the new bottle would reduce carbon emissions by 25% compared to traditional petroleum-based PET.

“PlantBottle packaging is the result of many years of research and investment in packaging design and technology and the specific formulation, using bioethanol from sugarcane, came from our polymer scientist team working out of our global HQ in Atlanta,” said Coca-Cola Great Britain’s citizenship manager Liz Lowe on PlantBottle’s background.

Since PlantBottle’s initial launch in the Danish market in May 2009 (judiciously timed to coincide with the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen), Lowe notes the packaging has “been rolling out worldwide ever since – now we’re at around 7 billion packs in 20 or so markets and still growing.”

Coca-Cola is also working on both widening its sources for renewable plant-based materials and researching a way to eliminate the remaining 70% component of petroleum-reliant material. The company hopes, through research with its partners, to expand the PlantBottle’s plant-based sources from sugarcane to also include the likes of stems, fruit peels and bark in the next two to three years.

As for knocking down that all-important 70%, Lowe seems cautiously optimistic. “We’re working with our research partners to be able to manufacture plant-based purified terephthalic acid (PTA), which accounts for the other 70% of PET by weight in a commercially sustainable way,” she said.

“This can be demonstrated in a lab right now – but the real test is to make it commercially viable and ready to supply a global market – and that’s going to take some time to get right.”

PepsiCo’s green bottling revolution

Coca-Cola might have drawn first blood on the green bottling battlefield, but earlier this year PepsiCo unveiled its own contribution to the field of eco-friendly PET bottles – the world’s first PET plastic bottle made entirely from renewable, plant-based materials.

Part of the company’s Performance with Purpose initiative, to improve environmental sustainability across the board, the new green bottle is planned for pilot production in 2012, with full commercialisation to follow, according to PepsiCo’s vice president of advanced research Denise Lefebvre.

“Reliance on petroleum and fossil fuels for PET manufacturing processes mean energy-intensive and unsustainable elements remain.”

The key to a fully plant-based bottle for PepsiCo was working out a new method of creating both the compounds needed to manufacture PET, as Lefebvre explained.

“PET is made up of two components – ethylene, which accounts for 30% of the weight of PET, and terephthalate, which accounts for the other 70%. Historically, both of these compounds were created using petroleum. With PepsiCo’s latest scientific breakthrough, we are now able to create both compounds, and thus PET, using 100% plant-based, renewable sources. Ethylene can be made from ethanol, and the process for doing that is widely known and practiced. The process of transforming biomass into terephthalate is much more complicated and that is what PepsiCo’s Advanced Research team was able to ‘crack the code’ on.”

A particularly intriguing aspect of PepsiCo’s new bottle design is that the company can use its vast resources as both a beverage and a food producer to source the bio-materials it needs for the bottle from the waste produced in its own operations (including switch grass, pine bark and corn husks), giving it complete control over its sourcing.

This is a reflection, said Lefebvre, of the company’s wider ‘Power of One’ strategy to have different product lines feed into one another, offering a closed loop sourcing system that helps the company’s many divisions to benefit each other environmentally.

“As one of the world’s largest food and beverage businesses, PepsiCo is in a unique position to ultimately source agricultural byproducts from our foods business to manufacture a more environmentally-preferable bottle for our beverages business,” Lefebvre notes. “This offers a sustainable business model.”

Rival companies, shared experiences

So Coca-Cola snags the award for early innovation, getting their eco-friendly bottles out to millions of consumers in more than 20 markets before many companies have even made their first steps. Meanwhile, PepsiCo is gaining plaudits for going a step further than its rival, working out the complex chemistry behind the manufacture of 100% plant-based bottles while sourcing materials from its own agricultural waste.

Despite the companies’ different strategies, their attitudes and approaches when it comes to eco-packaging have a surprising amount in common. Both companies, for example, are surprisingly hesitant to set down concrete numbers or even estimates of emissions and energy savings from implementing their new bottles. Lowe and Lefebvre both state that their respective companies are carrying out life cycle studies to work out the exact benefits.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo also share a common stance that improving environmental performance shouldn’t come at the expense of the customer’s experience with their products and packaging. Both companies are aware that the average consumer’s purchasing choices are increasingly influenced by environmental considerations, but will draw a line when it comes to quality and price.

“Consumers will not switch to a more sustainable product unless it is equally as good or better than the current one, and equally priced,” said Lowe. “PlantBottle satisfies these criteria – it looks and feels exactly the same as a ‘traditional’ plastic bottle and recycles in exactly the same way.”

“PepsiCo’s 100% plant-based bottle is still a PET bottle,” said Lefebvre. “We essentially just figured out a way to use plant-based materials to create PET. Since the bottle is still PET, it will look, feel and protect the product inside in exactly the same way that traditional bottles do.”

“PepsiCo shows a promising willingness to share its 100% plant-based breakthrough with others in the industry.”

Both companies also display a determination to not rest on their laurels and maintain the green momentum they’ve gathered with the development of these new products. Lowe confirmed that Coca-Cola plans to use the PlantBottle for all its PET plastic bottles worldwide by 2020, as well as boosting their bottles from 30% to 100% plant-based.

PepsiCo, for its part, shows a promising willingness to share its 100% plant-based breakthrough with others in the industry and the wider world. “While we do not have any plans currently in place to license this technology, what we developed has positive implications for the environment so we are certainly open to considering an open platform,” said Lefebvre.

So in the world of multinational soft drink manufacturers, the environmental battle lines have been drawn up and the opening salvos have been fired.

Competition over sales numbers and brand recognition is one thing, but for the first time the rivalry between the world’s largest beverage producers has the potential to effect genuine environmental improvements worldwide. If this fierce rivalry continues to prompt the high level of investment into environmental responsibility that we’ve seen so far, long may the battle continue.