The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
April 6, 2011

The Truth About Pepsi’s New Plant-Based PET Plastic Bottle

Pepsi’s new soda bottle is different.

Last month, PepsiCo made a big announcement: it had developed the world’s first entirely plant-based PET beverage bottle. And although the new bottle is made from plants, it’s actually less like those corn-based compostable bottles you may have heard about and more like regular, ordinary PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, the kind of plastic nearly all single-use beverage bottles are made from.

I’ll explain all about the new bottle, why it’s interesting, and what I see are its pros and cons. But first, I need to tell you about how I went a little nutty on Twitter the night after the story was published. See, normally I’d have taken the story in stride, looked into the bottle on my own time, and decided if it was worth writing about. But that night, I started seeing all these excited tweets about PepsiCo’s new “plastic-free” bottle.

Plastic-free? I thought.  No way. Just because the bottle’s made from plants doesn’t mean it’s plastic-free. What were these people talking about? My intrepid truth-seeking self kicked into action.

Turns out there were a couple of media outlets that had gotten the story wrong. The Christian Science Monitor screamed, “Pepsi Bottles: No More Plastic,” while Green Biz announced, “Pepsi Ups Ante on Plant-Based Bottles with 100% Non-Plastic Bottle.”

As far as I knew, these headlines were incorrect, and it was my job to let the Twitterverse know it. Hey everyone, listen up!

@PlasticfreeBeth: The Twittersphere is full of tweets saying @Pepsico’s new bottle is plastic-free. Wrong. It’s petroleum-free. But still PET plastic. (16 Mar via web)

PlasticfreeBeth tweets about Pepsi bottle

And then, after a good night’s sleep (Oh who am I kidding? The last time I had a good night’s sleep was in 1975 after a day at the beach with my grandparents), I wondered if maybe I was the one who was wrong. So I emailed Denise Lefebvre, Sr. Director of Advanced Research at PepsiCo, to get the full scoop.

Chemically Identical

It turns out that just as I thought, PepsiCo’s new plant-based plastic is chemically just the same as petroleum-based plastic.

PET is made up of two components – ethylene, which accounts for 30% of the weight of PET, and terephthalate, which accounts for the other 70%. Historically, both of these compounds were created using petroleum. With PepsiCo’s technological breakthrough, we are now able to create both compounds, and thus PET, using 100 percent plant-based, renewable sources. The plant-based PET bottle is chemically identical to petroleum-based PET bottles.

To call this new PET anything other than plastic is to misunderstand PepsiCo’s achievement, which is pretty amazing from a purely scientific point of view.

Made from Renewable Sources

Unlike either petroleum-based plastic or compostable corn or sugar-based plastics made from food crops, PepsiCo’s new plant-based PET is made from switch grass, pine bark and corn husks. In the future, the company plans to include orange peels, potato peels, oat hulls and other agricultural byproducts from its foods business. I’ve ranted about the problems with using industrial corn to make plastic when I reviewed PepsiCo’s compostable chip bag. But the materials used to make the new PET bottles avoid those problems.

Fully Recyclable… but are they Recycled?

Unlike compostable plastics, which contaminate the recycling stream, PepsiCo’s plant-based PET is fully recyclable along with petroleum-based PET because it’s chemically identical. But does that mean it will actually be recycled? According to the Container Recycling Institute, only about 1/3 of the PET bottles in the United States make it into the recycling stream. The remaining 2 million tons of plastic are wasted each year. Interestingly, states with bottle deposit programs have higher recycling rates. The 11 states with bottle bills have a 44% recycling rate for PET plastic bottles, while the 39 states without bottle bills recycle only 14% of their plastic bottles.

I asked PepsiCo if the company supports bottle deposit legislation, and I received the expected answer. No. According to Lefebvre:

Deposits do get beverage containers back into the recycling system. However, deposits are also costly to the bottling system, a logistical challenge for retail customers and inconvenient for consumers to collect. It also requires beverage distributors to act like waste haulers…. PepsiCo strongly supports curbside collection for beverage containers – from an environmental and financial perspective, it makes good sense to have all recyclables picked up at one time from one single place so that they can be processed efficiently.

I hate when bottling companies tout community recycling, because it just sounds to me like they are trying to push off the responsibility for their waste onto the taxpayers, and relying on community recycling gives bottle manufacturers no incentive to design with life-cycle in mind.  But hold up!  Because PepsiCo actually has created its own kind of take-back program, for which the company deserves credit.

Recognizing that one of the biggest drawbacks to community recycling are beverages consumed away from home, and therefore away from those curbside recycling bins,  PepsiCo has come up with its own take-back recycling scheme: The Dream Machine.  Dream Machines are automated collection bins located in public spaces where people can deposit their empty bottles in exchange for points that they can redeem for travel, food, events, and shopping.

Recycling vs. Composting

Make no mistake: PepsiCo’s new bottle is NOT biodegradable. It will not compost. If littered, it will pollute our oceans and harm wildlife. It behaves no differently from petroleum-based plastic in that regard. So I asked Lefebvre if PepsiCo were still working on a compostable bottle and if not, why not? She answered that PepsiCo believes recycling PET is a better solution than composting because…

there is large-scale infrastructure in place to support recycling them (curbside recycling, industry-funded programs like the Dream Machine program, bottle redemptions, etc). However, there is no similar infrastructure in place for composting bottles on a large scale, so it’s likely more would end up as pollutants. Additionally, PET bottles (especially those created with plant-based sources) have a lower carbon footprint than compostable bottles – PET bottles can be recycled and the resin can be used over and over again to make new bottles. However, if we compost bottles, we have to create a new resin from virgin materials each time we want to create a new bottle.

Say what? PET bottles can be recycled into new bottles? It was my understanding that plastic bottles are not recycled into new bottles but downcycled into products like carpet or polar fleece. PepsiCo’s Jennifer Ryan answered that question for me, explaining that right now, the company is using 10 percent recycled PET (rPET) in its carbonated soft drink containers, on average, and that they’d like to use more but right now there isn’t enough supply.

So, through programs like the Dream Machine, we can bring more bottles back into the recycling stream and access the materials for use as new bottles. PepsiCo’s Naked Juice brand was also the first beverage distributed nationally to transition to using 100 percent rPET in all of it’s containers with the launch of the reNEWabottle.

Toxicity Issues

One of my biggest concerns with plastic is toxicity. Plastics contain chemical additives that can leach out of them. And companies are not required to disclose those additives or the “recipes” for their plastics for proprietary reasons. Therefore, the public has no way of knowing if a plastic food container is safe because we don’t know what’s in it. A recent study of BPA-free plastic containers found that the majority of them still leach hormone-disrupting chemicals. So I asked PepsiCo some questions about the chemicals in the new plant-based plastic bottle.

First, knowing that antimony is sometimes used as a catalyst to make PET and that it has been found to leach out of plastic bottles, I asked if that chemical were used to make the new plant-based PET bottles. The answer was no.

Then I asked what other chemicals are in the plastic that are not part of the polymer itself. The answer:

Our approach to creating the plant-based PET is proprietary information, so at this time, we are not able to provide additional details.

I totally get why companies don’t want to give away trade secrets.  However, there’s no way for consumers to know what chemicals could leach out if we don’t know what chemicals are in a plastic product in the first place.

The Bottom Line

As far as disposable bottles go, PepsiCo’s plant-based PET is a better alternative than petroleum-based PET because it comes from a renewable source. And PepsiCo is taking steps to recover and reuse its waste materials. But are those steps enough to get me to drink PepsiCo products? No. Those products still require materials and energy to manufacture, ship, and recycle; the bottles when littered will add to our plastic pollution problem; and I’m not comfortable with eating or drinking anything packaged in plastic.

Still, PepsiCo and other bottling companies are not going away, so I appreciate any steps they take to mitigate their ecological impact. If I were a Pepsi addict (which is improbable in the first place because I like the taste of Coke 300x better) — I would be heartened by the company’s actions towards sustainability. But the steps I’d like to see the company take are bolder. Perhaps PepsiCo could partner with a company like Soda Stream to sell its flavors and let consumers use their own tap water to make soda at home. That would significantly cut down on plastic packaging waste, transportation impacts, and the privatization of water.  Or how about creating beverage stations like EcoWell which let you fill up your own reusable bottle with the flavored beverage of your choice while on the go?

Just a few ideas.  They’re free.  Pepsi, are you listening?

31 comments
mercedesgal63
mercedesgal63

I got rid of all my plastic containers two weeks ago!! I had a garbage bag full of it. I tried to look for milk in a glass bottle but Whole foods had only whole milk. Trying to do the best I can, slowly transitioning to living plastic free, it would take a while though.

mercedesgal63
mercedesgal63

Glass! It's so depressing shopping for groceries as everything, milk, cheese, yogurt is packaged in plastic! urgh! We need to get rid of plastics forever specially when it comes to food.

Greg
Greg

Pepsi really needs to get away from aluminum and plastic and go back to glass! Glass will hold carbonation and flavor longer there is no flavor that is going to go from the glass to the product like plastic. Glass is better for the world than plastic and aluminum and glass won't poison you like aluminum will!

Frank L
Frank L

PET is made from ethylene glycol and terephthalate, not ethylene and terephthalate. Just thought you should know!

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Tim, that's interesting. What is the additive in your plastic? Do you disclose your ingredients to the public?

Tim Dunn
Tim Dunn

"Second, isn’t a bit terrifying, the idea of taking nature’s own nourishing compost and locking it into synthetic molecules that nothing on earth knows how to decay?" I know how to make it decay, and it's not exotic, expensive, or toxic. See http://earthnurture.com

Celia Kiewit
Celia Kiewit

Sadly, regardless of bottle bills and CRV, Waste Management has been telling me for years that "all PET bottles are bailed and shipped to China". I want a plastic-free life, or darn near, and made in the USA!

Celia Kiewit
Celia Kiewit

I wonder if Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, actually drinks that crap, out of a plastic bottle. She recently referred to their products as "glorious"! Still no such thing as a biodegradable plastic bottle. Susan Freinkel's book validates everything I've been saying and knowing in my gut for the past 10 years. Great book!

Reenie R
Reenie R

Thank you so much for digging into this! Super investigative reporting. I wonder if the plant based ingredients are genetically modified plants?

Susan Collins
Susan Collins

Beth: Thank you very much for your investigation on Pepsi's new bottle technology! Very interesting Q&A! We here at the Container Recycling Institute are also asking questions about the actual environmental impacts of this new technology, though we understand that, since this is a pilot project, not full scale operational technology, Pepsi does not yet have the data to calculate environmental impacts. That said, I'm not sure that anyone can say that this bottle will definitely be more beneficial for the environment, without knowing the amount of energy and other inputs that are needed to make the PET from food waste. Also, I'd like to respond to Pepsi's statement in support of curbside recycling for beverage containers. It must be pointed out that about 50% of beverage containers are generated outside of single-family homes, which are the target of curbside recycling. The other half of beverage containers are generated in bars, restaurants, offices, on-the-go, parks, apartment buildings, etc., and are therefore out-of-reach of typical curbside recycling. Furthermore, curbside recycling is generally paid for by taxpayers and ratepayers, whereas the beverage companies themselves generally pay for recycling in container deposit programs. Again, Beth, thanks for a great post! Susan Collins, Executive Director Container Recycling Institute

Harold Johnson
Harold Johnson

I still wonder how plant-based plastic is a step in the right direction though. I mean, it doesn't cut down fossil fuel production. Ethylene gas is a useless by-product of oil drilling. It burns too hot to be used in natural gas. If not used as plastic, it's just flared off. Nobody drills for ethylene, so getting ethylene from non-fossil fuels doesn't reduce fossil fuel use, does it? Second, isn't a bit terrifying, the idea of taking nature's own nourishing compost and locking it into synthetic molecules that nothing on earth knows how to decay? All that organic "waste" is actually the kind of nutrients & nourishment that will raise crops for the next generation. It seems like folly to turn it into plastic. And a rather terrible vision, that even if we somehow wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, Big Plastic can keep on churning out billions of tons of stuff each year. Business as usual.

Amber
Amber

Thanks so much for the detailed analysis! I don't think it's enough to get me to drink Pepsi products, either, but I'm glad to see that they're taking steps to mitigate their impact.

Mary Hastings
Mary Hastings

Thanks for the great info, especially for contacting Pepsi and asking very direct questions. I just wanted to vent about an ad running now in Canada which has a very positive message about drinking water instead of soda - until the end of the ad when an image of a bottle of water is suddenly on-screen. Then, they lost me. The ad's message is great, but inferring that you need to get your water branded and bottled in plastic is so wrong. Thanks again for digging into the facts about these new PET bottles, I will be sharing this.

PureMothers
PureMothers

Sleuth Beth is at it again. Great post! I'm just glad I don't like soda. Would rather have a piece of cake for the amount of sugar in a Pepsi!

Beth Partin
Beth Partin

This makes me wonder about the hard black "biodegradable" bottle we got from Toyota when we bought our Prius. It has "biodegradable" printed right on it, so I assume if I take it to a commercial composting business and toss it in, it would EVENTUALLY biodegrade. But is that really true?

Miriam Wilcox-Barsalou
Miriam Wilcox-Barsalou

First off I would like to agree that I get furious when I see people claiming the new bottles are biodegradable or "not plastic". They are not. First of all, most high property biodegradable plastics (as in moisture resistant and capable of storing liquids for long periods of time) require industrial scale composting. So if littered they provide the same disadvantages as traditional plastics in our environments and oceans. Most americans can't even get their products to a recycling bin, how will they sort out the biodegradables? Another point about bio-based plastics is that moving away from petroleum sources is a fantastic idea. We may discredit plastics in some everyday packaging solutions, but in some medical applications they are absolutely essential. Developping bio based materials with high level properties will be essential to the health care population. But overall I must applaud the investigation against greenwashing. I hate carbonated breverages myself, so I'm not concerned as to how to reduce my impact in that sense.

Fonda LaShay
Fonda LaShay

We have had these types of machines in Norway for many years- and the system of taking back the bottles has been in place since 1902. But we get direct cash back. Every bottle you buy has a stamp on it for what it is worth when returned, this is called PANT and is general 1 or 2.50 Kroners (Norwegian Currency). All stores have the return machine, grocery store that is. Here is how it works, short video (sorry it is abit cheesy, the only good one i can find): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lfk-hiaJ3iQ We have lots of funny commercials to help remind people to take there bottles and cans in for pant, last I read we were over a 90% return rate. Here is a funny commercial that has been on tv: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuorO8VOCxc&feature=related

Katie M
Katie M

wow, thank you beth for such a thorough investigation! the answer to the bottle deposit question really made me sad. because although it is somewhat of a pain for retailers to worry about it, just like any other program, once it is in place and there is a system it becomes habit. i am very proud to live in a state the has one of the highest bottle deposit amounts (10cents on all carbonated beverages). not every community has curbside or even a recycling program, but every store that sells drinks must take back the bottles, creating less littler and a bigger incentive to return them to the store.

Mortira
Mortira

I have to admit, I was one of those crazy, giddy Tweeters. I thought it was great news at the time, and a step in the right direction, but I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Thanks so much for dropping the shoe! I love that a big company like Pepsi - that will make money no matter what - spent so much on researching alternatives to petroleum bottles. I don't like that what they came up with will still be causing pollution millions of years from now. So I guess it's propaganda 1: Earth 0, as usual.

Erin@canadianfamilycompact
Erin@canadianfamilycompact

At least it's a step in the right direction... I don't buy plastic bottles...but my parents and inlaws do. They even bring their own drinks when they come over! Perhaps I shall buy these at least so they don't bring over petroleum plastic and we could have something to offer them.

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

Ha! Apparently I was channeling French supermarkets in my dreams! I really much prefer the idea of being French to that of being a crazy wino... thanks for helping me to retain some small semblance of dignity!

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

BTW - This has nothing to do with anything, but I had the most bizarre dream last night about refilling wine bottles. I walked into a restaurant with two empty bottles. I handed them over the counter to the bar tender who filled one with red and the other with white. I then sat down at a table with a bunch of strangers and proceeded to guzzle both bottles, wondering if perhaps I was drinking too much. I have no idea what it means, except that reusable glass always seems like the best approach to me!

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

Great post! Your thorough research always blows my mind. Here's what I can't stop thinking... counterintuitive though it is.... Is it really step in the right direction to make plastic from renewable resources? I know that sounds totally "un-eco" of me, because renewable is always supposed to be better. But one of the few things I was always able to take solice in regarding plastic, was that at least peope would have to stop making plastic when the oil ran out. But now that they can use plant matter to make plastic, there's no end in sight... they'll be making plastic forever... and it will never go away. I dunno, somehow that thought depresses me.

Benne' Rockett
Benne' Rockett

and now, a message from Nancy Regan: "Just say no to PLASTIC". I haven't read the comments so forgive me if I mention something that has already been covered. Ahhhh - plastic and trade secrets - WTF? How is plastic a trade secret? What is really discouraging is the fact that Pepsi is not being held accountable for the inaccuracies that are being said about their product...no one is being accountable. It's like the world is full of lemmings. Since I began the challenge in Jan. 2011, I've been posting all the information onto my FB page. First of all, most people don't read. Secondly, if they were, they certainly wouldn't be suggesting recycling as a solution. Thirdly, Beth, you are the bravest person I know. Let's adopt a feminist slogan: The personal is political. I'm a National Wildlife Federation member. They are worried about environmental funding cuts. It's the same issue - protect corporations. We are a nation that is dumbing down the public. Give us recycling containers. Take away funding for public radio. Create budgets that take out all creative pursuits in schools. Build cities in such a way that children and their parents are afraid of nature. Holy smack we are in trouble.

greg
greg

Beth, 60 minutes should devote a show to you! g

Becca
Becca

Thanks for the thorough research on these bottles! I was feeling uneasy reading the headlines as well, and I am really grateful that you took the time to understand the story behind the headlines. I just read another article about using chicken feathers to make plastics (http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-04-chicken-feathers-biodegradable-plastic.html), which claim biodegradability. This technology is not available on the commercial scale, of course, but the article claims that 3 billion pounds of chicken feathers end up in landfills in the US each year. Personally, I would not want to use plastic made from chicken feathers (or from fossil fuels). Using waste to create useful things is a great idea. However, I don't know if its such a great idea if those things are just used for a few minutes and thrown away again.

Kathryn
Kathryn

Your investigative efforts are most appreciated! Thank you.

Dmarie
Dmarie

though I don't drink soft drinks, I think both of your ideas are pure gold! And I'm with you 100% in hoping the companies are listening!!

Anna@GreenTalk
Anna@GreenTalk

It blew my mind too when I was seeing those headlines. Doesn't anyone bother to find out the truth any more? Green has almost become national enquir'ous with everyone looking for the sensation not necessarily what is truly being said. It is kind of like CBS' EcoAds. Everyone including GreenBiz touted the EcoAd but no one seemed to care that it might mislead the public. Although I commend Pepsi for forward thinking in using renewable materials, plastic is still plastic with healthy concerns and lack of recycling issues. I like your refill ideas so much better.

Tiffany
Tiffany

As always Beth, a wonderful investigation into the issue. Awesome!

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Tim, that's the big problem with all of these plastic additive schemes.  No one will disclose the ingredients so consumers can't make informed decisions.  I don't promote anything if I don't know what's in it.

Trackbacks

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