Will Plants Be the Answer to Our Plastic Obsession?

Is it plastic technology or just consuming less plastic that’s the answer? It’s up to us.

It’s a very simple equation: Plastic=bad. This is why we stick our fold-up totes in a purse to go to the grocery store, and why we fill up our water bottles at the fountain instead of buying another from the vending machine. But as hard as we try, it’s difficult to eliminate plastic entirely. For example: Despite my best efforts, at this very moment my house shelters one bottle of Heinz ketchup in the fridge and a bottle of Nyquil in the medicine cabinet.

As it exists today, plastic is lightweight, versatile, convenient and affordable – qualities that not all packaging materials possess (we’re looking at you, glass and paper). The solution is to find a sustainable alternative for traditional PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, which is made from fossil fuels.

The Coca-Cola Company thinks they’ve found it. They’ve implemented a new plant-based PET into their bottling line, which they’re reporting has a lower environmental impact than traditional PET. That’s why four other companies – Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Ford and Heinz, – have teamed up with Coca-Cola under the umbrella of the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), to fund research and accelerate the use of plant-based plastics.

According to Katherine Schermerhorn, a spokesperson for Coca-Cola, plant PET is currently made from a number of different sources, including sugarcane, sugar beets, corn and cassava. The PTC is currently developing criteria to ensure that plant PET will be made solely from non-food competing sources, and will be produced sustainably.

Most of their future projects are still confidential at this point. According to Ed Sawicki, the associate director at Proctor and Gamble, the PTC will be looking at work at universities, research labs and other academic institutions in addition to the member company labs.

But the work done so far looks promising. Schermerhorn estimates that Coca-Cola’s use of plant PET packaging has, over the past two years, helped save more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. In 2009, Coca-Cola produced nearly 10 billion bottles using plant PET, and has a standing goal to use the material in all their PET plastic bottles by 2020. Heinz is currently licensing the technology from Coke for use in their plastic ketchup bottles in the United States and Canada.

It seems oddly incongruous to hold up several multinational corporations for laudable business practices. The phrase “sustainable packaging” seems to be an oxymoron. Moreover, it’s hard to picture a staid product like a 2-liter bottle of Coke as of-the-moment and eco-friendly.

But the ubiquity of these products is the very reason why it’s important for these companies to take a step in the right direction. Bringing reusable bags to the grocery store won’t stop everyone in the world from buying the occasional bottle of condiments (even when it’s so easy to make).

But we’ll all breathe easier knowing that even so, the air is still a little bit cleaner…right?

Image: Steven Depalo