It's an environmental as well as a marketing achievement: using 100% agricultural waste to make a top-quality plastic bottle that can then be placed back in the existing recycling system.
"It's closing the loop," said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's the beginning of the end for petroleum-based plastic bottles."
PepsiCo announced Tuesday that it had "cracked the code," inventing what it calls the world's first plastic bottle made entirely from plant-based, fully renewable resources.
Down to the molecular level, it's a clone of today's plastic bottles, made with the resin polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The biggest difference is that manufacturing this bottle requires the use of no petroleum. Instead it is made from such renewable materials as switch grass, pine bark and corn husks. In the future, the company expects to use other materials, such as orange peels, potato peels, oat hulls and other agricultural byproducts from its own food businesses, which include product lines under the brands Frito-Lay, Tropicana and Quaker.
PepsiCo's "green" bottle is an acceleration of an environmental arms race to help not only Mother Earth but also the corporate bottom line.
Coca-Cola Co. nearly two years ago introduced the "PlantBottle." It is made of 30% plant material, specifically sugar-cane waste. H.J. Heinz Co., the ketchup maker, said last month it too would use the renewable bottle from Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola did not return a call for comment.
But PepsiCo's bottle will be 100% made from plant waste.
"It could be a game changer for them," said Carol Phillips, a University of Notre Dame marketing professor and president of market research firm Brand Amplitude. "In the cola wars, every little bit means something. It's a game of perception. It can tip the balance, at least for a while."
The environmentally friendly bottle can be a marketing edge, depending on how Pepsi exploits it, Phillips said. That's especially true among so-called millennials or Generation Y, a primary target for soft-drink companies. "I think it's big for the millennials," she said. "Everybody would love a way to be green, especially if it doesn't cost them any more."
The new bottle will be as sturdy and clear as current bottles, being the chemical equal to the current PET plastic bottles, said Denise Lefebvre, senior director of advanced research at PepsiCo.
The breakthrough was finding the correct fermentation process using plant material, Lefebvre said. In making PET, the polyethylene makes up about 30% of the total by weight. That's the part already commercialized — the 30% renewable that Coca-Cola bottles already use. What PepsiCo discovered was how to make the second part of PET, the terephthalate, out of plant waste. That's the remaining 70%, she said.
"We've been the one to crack the code on that," Lefebvre said. Combining the technologies allows for a bottle made entirely from plants. "This space is emerging so much that we've been able to develop and piece together various technologies to make this."