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Green, but not Fair? Looking closer at Coca Cola’s PlantBottle

Have you seen Coca Cola’s PlantBottle? It’s “up to 30% made from plants” and is being hailed as a sustainable packaging revolution, winning awards from both industry and independent players. While bio-based plastics represent a genuine alternative to materials based on fossil-fuels, they’re by no means problem-free: like all crop-based products, they raise questions relating to land use, food competition and pay and working conditions. We’ve had a closer look at what Coca Cola says about its PlantBottles to try and get an idea of just how green and fair they really are.

What are we dealing with?

The PlantBottle is made from polyeurethane that is up to 30% based on first generation bioethanol derived from Brazilian sugarcane.

Does that mean it’s biodegradable?

Nope. Although one of its ingredients is biodegradable, the finished plastic is just regular PET plastic. Which means the PlantBottles will hang around for just as long as regular coke bottles – unless they’re recycled, of course. Just like all PET plastic, the PlantBottle can be reused through community or municipal recycling schemes.

So what’s the big advantage?

Well, the PlantBottle has a smaller carbon footprint than regular PET bottles. In general, bio-based plastics require less energy to produce than oil-based plastics. And although they release carbon when destroyed, this has less of an effect on global warming because that carbon dioxide was already floating around in the atmosphere while the plant was actually growing. To put it another way, the carbon released when you destroy a PlantBottle will be offset by the next crop of plants grown to make a new one.

Coca Cola says that it’s PlantBottle has saved the equivalent of 30,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide since it was launched. However, it would be great to see an actual carbon footprint for the PlantBottle, or detailed results of the Life Cycle Analysis.

So why is it only 30% plant-based?

All PET is 30% ethanol (actually, mono-ethylene glycol). And we can now make ethanol out of a whole range of plants – the ethanol for the PlantBottle comes from Brazillian sugarcane. The other 70% is a chemical called “purified terepthalic acid”, which, so far, we can’t get from biological sources. And that’s why a PET bottle can never be more than 30% “made from plants”.

But doesn’t growing sugarcane for the PlantBottle affect the food chain?

Coca Cola says that it consulted with NGOs and other experts to identify the most sustainable raw material for its PlantBottle – and that Brazilian sugarcane was the only one to meet all of its criteria. However, Coca Cola provides a marked lack of detail about how it minimizes the impact of its PlantBottle on Brazilian agriculture itself. It only provides general statements that avoid the nitty gritty of the food security question, e.g.,“While sugarcane production has increased in Brazil, there has been no drop in food production.”

As farmland is given over to growing industrial crops, analysts warn that less food is being produced, pushing up global prices and hitting poorest countries hardest. Coca Cola’s vagueness implies that its sourcing policy does not include specific measures to avoid contributing to another global food crisis.

So how does the PlantBottle affect local farmers in Brazil?
The charity Grain warns that poor farmers are being pushed off their land to make way for profitable biofuel plantations. Again, when it comes to addressing these issues, Coca Cola only provides the most general statements: “most sugarcane expansion [in Brazil] is on degraded pastures that do not increase competition for new land or displace other crops.”

This strengthens our suspicion that Coca Cola does not have a detailed sourcing policy that explicitly forbids these practices.

Is the PlantBottle Fairtrade?
Coca Cola provides no specific policies on labor conditions. There is certainly no Fairtrade or Utz certification on any of its PlantBottles. And it doesn’t even provide any general statements about how farmers or laborers are treated on the average Brazilian sugarcane plantation…

So in balance, is it good or bad?
Is a lower carbon footprint enough to earn the PlantBottle the thumbs up? You can’t turn a blind eye to a reduction of 30 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. And at least the company does acknowledge that it occupies a powerful position in the supply chain, which it can use to force improvements in ecological, environmental and fair farming practices. Perhaps the only party in the chain with more power is us. The PlantBottle is good, but not great. To make sure Coca Cola ups its game with the PlantBottle, it’s probably not a good idea to start raving about it.

Selfish in sustainability?

Coca Cola has filed a patent that will give them exclusive rights to make beverage bottles out of plant-based PET. Does that seem to fit with the selfless spirit of the search for sustainability? Tell us what you think?

The PlantBottle is based on first generation biofuels. Put simply, this means it uses the edible parts of the sugarcane crop. Coca Cola does say that it is “working to advance the development of cellulosic solutions that capture sugar from plant wastes and residuals.” This would count as second generation biofuel, and could theoretically have zero impact on the food chain. To what extent this will be possible is as yet unclear.

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