Coke’s Plant Plastics: Not The Real Thing?

Plastic. Is. Everywhere. Though many people hate to admit it, plastic is an essential part of our day to day lives (although some people are pushing the no-plastics envelope). We hear the question “Paper or plastic?” every time we leave the grocery store. Small children clutch their favorite super hero toys in small palms, those very toys by and large made of that same material. Plastic lines the insides of cars. Its pieces are contorted into colorful lawn chairs. Plastic forks and knives (utensils once called “silverware”) are placed in to-go bags from restaurants all across the nation. Water in its most popular form comes in a plastic bottle. However, given the amount of plastic we manage to stuff into our daily lives, we are remarkably bad at using it more than once.

In an attempt to create a greener version of the wasteful plastic bottle, a number of major companies are teaming up to support the development of plastics that are plant-based. PET Plant Technology Collaborative is a coalition in support of further developing a plant-based version of the common plastic called PET. This vision of plant-based bottles is backed up by a group of Fortune 500 companies including the two main PET supporters Coca-Cola and Pepsi, along with Nike, Ford, Procter & Gamble and Heinz.

Coke and Pepsi have already boasted about creating the first-ever “100%” plant-based bottles. But as an industry spokesperson acknowledged, there really is no such thing: “Some bioplastics formulations use the same types of additives as petroleum or natural gas-based plastics.” In other words, bio-plastics currently can’t be made without chemical additives that give the plastics the characteristics required (eg, clarity, pliability, strength) to work in the marketplace. What chemicals are used in the so-called “100%” plant plastics? No one knows, since the companies making the plastics keep their plastic “recipes” as closely guarded trade secrets.

There are also other problems with the new PET bottles. Environmentalists are concerned that like most other plastics, the majority of PET plant plastics will not be recycled, and will create the same pollution problems as petroleum-based bottles. The founder of 5Gyres Marcus Eriksen is a scientist who studies plastic pollution of oceans, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. His take on bio-plastics: “They’re just using plants to make the same polymers you find in other plastics. It has zero effect on plastic pollution.”

In addition, environmentalists and even producers of PET worry that consumers will see “plant-based” and think “bio-degradable”, meaning consumers may be even less likely to recycle their plant-based bottles.

Despite the various concerns about PET, the main reason why the bottle hasn’t yet become widespread is one problem: limited supply. The idea of a more eco-friendly plastic (for use in more than just water bottles) has a large number of companies competing for PET and even recycled PET (called rPET).Due to the large demand and lacking supply, many companies end up “greenwashing”, i.e. rushing to find ways to label their products as “greener” even though their “green” strategies are often less effective and less eco-friendly than they claim to be. Many companies seem to be doing just that, having set aggressive goals for converting their plastic into PET over the next few years. The plastics industry is undergoing some major changes with the development of plant-based PET, with recycling and the use of eco-friendly products set as priorities for major companies (how much their practices back up their ideology, we do not know).

However this development should not render us any less responsible for our efforts at reducing our personal waste. Buying a plastic beverage bottle made of plant-based PET may be a better choice than buying a regular plastic beverage bottle, but when it comes down to it, we don’t need single-use bottles (ask your grandparents how they got along without them!). A re-usable water bottle made out of a durable plastic or metal can last its owner years. But if you do buy a plastic bottle, remember to recycle it!