3 Lessons Coke Has Learned Since Launching PlantBottle™
“We continue to advance what has been received as a transformational innovation in the materials space,” said Scott Vitters, general manager, PlantBottle Packaging Innovation Platform. “We believe the power of an idea is in its use and want to achieve global scale, and we know we can’t do that alone.”
PlantBottle packaging now accounts for 30 percent of the company’s packaging volume in North America and 7 percent globally, making Coke the world’s largest bioplastics end user.
Over the last five years, the company’s adoption of the technology has eliminated the equivalent of approximately 450,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. PlantBottle packaging also has resonated with consumers, helped boost sales of brands like Dasani and generated headlines and won sustainable and innovation awards, and captured the collective attention of the supplier, scientific/academic and investor community. Earlier this year, PlantBottle packaging was recognized by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry for helping to fuel the bio-based manufacturing boom during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Part of this buzz is because PlantBottle Technology is being used to produce more than plastic bottles. From day one, Coke decided to license it to non-competitive companies to expand its application and build a global supply chain for PlantBottle material.
In 2011, Coca-Cola took the first step in this collaborative innovation approach by licensing PlantBottle Technology to H.J. Heinz for use in its ketchup bottles. In 2013, Ford Motor Company announced plans to use the same renewable material found in PlantBottle packaging in the fabric interior of its Fusion Energi hybrid sedan. And earlier this year, the first reusable, fully recyclable plastic cup made with PlantBottle Technology rolled out in SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks across the U.S.
“Once we fully realized the power of PlantBottle Technology, we knew it had real-world, global applications well beyond our own products," said Vitters. "These collaborations demonstrate that this technology can be used across the entire polyester universe – in everything from the inside of a car, to carpet, to clothing – and with a lighter footprint on the planet.”
Coke is actively working with partners around the world to develop a supply chain for PlantBottle material, including teaming up with JBF Industries Ltd. to build a world-scale production facility in Brazil.
Additionally, the company has invested in three leading biotech companies – Virent, Gevo and Avantium – to speed the commercialization of a PET plastic bottle made entirely from plants. Recently, the company made an additional investment in Virent’s development and commercialization of its bio-based technology.
The PlantBottle packaging journey is still just beginning. Coke plans to convert all PET plastic bottles – which account for approximately 60 percent of its packaging globally – to PlantBottle packaging by 2020.
Here are three lessons Coke has learned during the first five years of its PlantBottle Technology journey:
1. PlantBottle Packaging Can Be Used as an Effective Marketing ToolThe environmental and long-term cost benefits of PlantBottle Technology have been clear since day one, but it took the team a few years to realize its potential to build emotional connections with consumers. PlantBottle packaging has proven to be a top differentiator for many Coke brands, particularly its water portfolio, led by Dasani in the U.S. “We’ve seen great momentum and recently introduced the technology across our water portfolio in key markets such as Russia, Great Britain and Italy,” Vitters said.
Now, the technology is rolling out across several tea and juice brands, including Simply, Minute Maid and Gold Peak in the U.S., plus Coca-Cola Life. “The next step is to learn how to use PlantBottle packaging to reinforce intrinsics like plant-based, natural and premium with these brands,” Vitters said.
When it comes to linking the technology with a brand, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all marketing approach. The PlantBottle packaging message must be tailored from brand to brand. A soon-to-launch campaign for Coca-Cola, for example, will leverage the proven connection between plants and personal happiness.
“With Coke and the other 20-plus brands in PlantBottle packaging, it’s not about slapping a logo on a pack,” Vitters said. “It’s about positioning PlantBottle packaging authentically and properly in a way that’s relevant to a specific brand’s voice to drive growth.”
2. Cost Improvement, Not Cost Parity, is What Matters Most.PlantBottle Technology has the potential to drive long-term cost advantages for Coke as the plant-based material supply chain develops. Vitters and his team continue to identify new bio-based technologies that are less expensive – and more stable – than volatile, fossil-based resources such as oil and natural gas.
“We’re seeing technologies move from R&D to commercial scale and becoming more real by the day,” Vitters said. “We are investing in and working on solutions that will allow us to both optimize the cost and improve the price predictability of our most important packing system.”
3. Support from the Environmental and Academic Community is Growing.Working together with environmental organizations and researchers, Coca-Cola has been careful to identify current and future plant sources that truly deliver improved sustainability performance and do not compete with food crops.
“There’s a very healthy scientific discussion taking place around uses for biomass that's increasingly prioritizing biomass use for products – like PlantBottle packaging – that can be used multiple times unlike bio-energy or fuel,” Vitters said. PlantBottle Technology uses natural sugars found in plants to make ingredients identical to fossil-based ingredients traditionally used in polyester fibers and resin for bottles.
Coke is focused on PlantBottle Technology’s use of responsibly sourced biomaterials that can be reused and recycled again and again. Work is also underway to develop new technologies to source sugars from plant waste such as barks, stems and peels, and Coke is partnering with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to create guiding principles for sourcing agricultural feedstocks.
Vitters also says the program’s progress can be attributed the fact that a “collaboratively matrixed” team – which includes R&D, Supply Chain, Marketing, Procurement and other functions – is stewarding the PlantBottle Technology platform, and because Coke has been willing to share the technology to drive scale.
“I think the results we’ve seen with PlantBottle Technology can be replicated,” he said. “Our work is built around a strong leadership commitment against a big bet and a compelling business case.”