New Green Bottles from Cola to Be 30 Percent Biomass-Based

Mumbai: The next time you take a swig from a Coca-Cola bottle, it may well be 'green' - not in color or content, but in composition. Coke will soon launch new bottles that are 30 percent biomass-based, said Asim Parekh, vice-president (technical), Coca-Cola India.

Instead of petroleum, Coke will use ethanol, a derivative of molasses, to make part of the PET bottle. Molasses is a byproduct generated in large amounts by sugar mills.

Industry sources said archrival Pepsi has similar plans for India, but the company remained tight-lipped. Last year, PepsiCo globally unveiled a 100 percent recyclable bottle made from bio-based raw materials like switch grass, corn husks etc. It hopes to start pilot production this year.

Like everything else, the two cola giants are fighting the green war too fiercely. Last December, Coke announced a tie-up with three US biotech firms to roll out 100 percent green bottles in a few years. Pepsi responded the same day, announcing tests to produce 2 lakh bottles that are fully plant-based. Now, the green cola wars are coming to India.

Coke has introduced over 2.5 billion green bottles with 30 percent bio-based content in 20 countries, including the US, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Sweden and Japan. Now India joins that list.

Company executives are ready to roll out the new bottle and are working round the clock to produce the labels to go with it.

So what makes a bottle green? "It's like a hybrid car," says Sameer Pathak, a senior manager with Coca-Cola. "You can drive it with petrol anyway, but if you add an electric component, it will be using cleaner energy and less traditional fossil fuels."

The 'plant bottles' still use plastic, but the company tries to reduce its carbon footprint by substituting bottles made entirely from petroleum-based products, with the more readily-available ethanol.

"Replacing totally or in part the petro-carbon of a product by bio-carbon reduces the carbon footprint of the product," says Ramani Narayan, professor with the department of chemical engineering and materials sciences at Michigan State University, and author of a recent report on the carbon footprint of bio-plastics.

Internationally, Coke estimates that its plant bottle has helped save equivalent emissions of more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide. The 'race' to introduce plant bottles is part of a larger trend among companies - particularly multinationals - to take issues like green and sustainability much more seriously.

"Companies like Coke and Pepsi are under tremendous pressure from stakeholders (consumers, investors, regulators) to adopt sustainable practices," says Shankar Venkateswaran, India head of global thinktank SustainAbility.

"As 'leader-companies', they are also expected to be proactive, rather than reactive, to their circumstances." Of course, sustainability also has to make business sense. "Companies like Coke or Pepsi, or Unilever and Procter & Gamble, have global sustainability agendas and goals," adds Venkateswaran.

"They will operationalize these only in places where they've got a whiff of success and amend them to suit the geographies they operate in." More importantly, they've probably worked it out that consumers in India - like others around the globe - will eventually want them to move to bio-based bottles.

So why not position themselves and grab the biggest market share while they can, he says.

The India story, for the cola companies, presents both an opportunity and a risk. "Following campaigns where they were slammed for their misuse of water resources, both companies are clearly concerned about being water-neutral or water-positive, at best," says Venkateswaran.

"Their products have also pushed them to invest in agricultural products, like potatoes (for chips) and mangoes (for juice)."

Now they're looking to make the best use of agricultural waste and a product like molasses (that would otherwise go straight to the waste management plant at the sugar mill) as a continuous and unending source for ethanol.

"A regular PET bottle has two components, MEG, which makes up 30 percent of the bottle, and PTA, which is the rest," says Parekh. "The MEG part of our plant bottles will be biobased."

For its bottles in India, Coke will source ethanol from Brazil, the world's largest producer of sugarcane. "But we are working towards localizing ethanol availability in India," he said. "Ethanol is easily available in India, and there are still not enough takers."

In its current supply chain, Coke will use ethanol that comes from Brazil and is converted into biobased MEG here by Indian Glycols. The mix then goes to Indonesia where it is combined with PTA to create granules of PET resin. These are then purchased by Coke, and passed on to local converters to create a substance called a 'pre-form'.

This pre-form is then sent to plants across the country to be blown into bottles. Given that the primary manufacture of the green bottle will take place in Indonesia, Coke does not have to invest in special hardware for its bottling plants in India. Only a few tweaks will make them ready to handle the new, biobased bottles.

The risk, however, is that India is a cost-sensitive market. Indian consumers, unlike those in the West, are still not at that point where they may be willing to pay more for an environmentally-friendly product. Parekh, however, declines comment on the cost implications, merely stating that there are many ways to keep the costs down by making the supply chain more efficient.

"For things green in nature, there are always cost challenges," he says. "But people work on that to turn it from being a cost challenge to becoming cost effective."

Adds Professor Narayan: "Plant-based bottles cost more. Currently, the government and people pay for it and so companies need to step up and make sustainability a core operational principle. As I understand it, Coca-Cola will not pass on the additional costs to the customer."

In the long run, using 100 percent biobased plant bottle and ensuring that these bottles are collected and recycled may provide cost benefits in terms of a stable and local supply as opposed to depending on oil.

"The bio-based bottle will be greatly viable in a country like ours, where there is so much agricultural refuse that is not getting utilized," adds Parekh. "Now someone else's waste is going to be use for us. It's a win-win for everyone."