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Coca-Cola debuts 100% plant-based bottle as companies go eco-friendly

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(Read caption) Coca-Cola unveiled a bottle made entirely of plant-based materials at the Expo Milan 2015. The new Coke bottle is another sign of the company's growing shift toward more environmentally friendly forms.

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Coca-Cola debuted an updated version of its PlantBottle, its first bottle made from 100 percent plant materials at the Expo Milan 2015 on Wednesday.

The Atlanta-based beverage giant did not specify when the 100 percent plant-based bottles would be available to consumers. However, the company said it wants its current version of its PlantBottle, made of 30 percent plant-based materials, to be used in all of its products by 2020.

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“Our vision was to maximize game-changing technology, using responsibly sourced plant-based materials to create the globe’s first fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made entirely from renewable materials,” Nancy Quan, the company’s global research and development officer, said in a press release.

Since the 2009 launch, Coca-Cola has distributed more than 35 billion bottles in nearly 40 countries using its current version of PlantBottle packaging, according to the release. The company estimates that the packaging helped save the equivalent annual emissions of more than 315,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

In 2011, Coca-Cola licensed the technology for making PlantBottles to H.J. Heinz to use in its ketchup bottles. In 2013, Ford Motor Company said it plans to use the same material found in PlantBottle packaging in the fabric interior in certain test models of the Fusion Energi hybrid sedan.

Coca-Cola says the new bottles will be the world's first entirely plant-based PET bottles. PET, known as polyethylene terephthalate, is a plastic resin and the most common type of polyester, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR). It was discovered and patented in England in 1941, but it was not until the late 1990s when more companies and manufacturers started to make and use PET containers for products. NAPCOR says PET is appealing for both consumers and manufacturers for its low weight, strength, and recyclability, and its use in packaging materials, like bottles, has ticked up over the past few years.

However, PET has its drawbacks. It can be an expensive packaging material to produce, according to a 2004 report from the Recycling Operators of New Zealand. RONZ also found that “PET acts as a gas ‘sieve,’ slowly allowing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. This means the shelf life of beverages can be limited by the reduction, over time, in carbonation and oxygen degradation of flavours.” In other words, the carbonation in soda could go flat faster. 

In terms of recycling, quality and quantity of supplies are also still major concerns. For reclaimers – professional recycling centers – PET packaging can be harder to clean than other plastics, Reclaimers still reported high levels of contamination in PET containers in 2013, according to NAPCOR’s 2014 report on recycling activity for PET containers. That complication can mean less PET materials are actually reused. In fact, only 22.6 percent of recycled PET containers in the US went on to be used in other products.  

NAPCOR also reported that domestic collection of PET containers in the US is growing, but it is not enough to meet current and potential demand from reclaimers. That's led them to import PET from places like Canada, Mexico, and Latin America.

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While PET recycling has a long way to go, Coca-Cola's latest move highlights a long withstanding trend: the importance of businesses being more envronmentally conscious. In 2009, after researching 30 large corporations, the Harvard Business Review found that sustainability was a reliably good investment, yielded returns throughout a business's operations through producing better products and lowering costs, whether it was responding to consumers' concerns on a business's impact on the environment or allowing employees to work from home to reduce fuel emissions and travel times. 

"Indeed, the quest for sustainability is already starting to transform the competitive landscape, which will force companies to change the way they think about products, technologies, processes, and business models," HBR reported.