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!
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.
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.
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 that 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?