Confusion Reigns Over Plant-Based Bottles, Which Is Exactly What Coke and Pepsi Want

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Plastic coke bottles lined up.

Kwangmoozaa / Getty Images

Amy Westervelt of Slate tries to get to the bottom of Coke and Pepsi's plant-based bottles, concluding that they "still damaged the environment." But she also caused some confusion and had a few mistakes, some of which have been corrected. She notes:

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo's plant-based bottles are still very much plastic.The companies have merely replaced the fossil fuels (petroleum and natural gas) traditionally used to make their plastic bottles with ethanol from renewable sources (plant waste in Pepsi's case and Brazilian sugar cane in Coke's).

Coke replaces up to 30% of its feedstock with ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane. There is no lifecycle analysis to prove that this is significantly better than conventional fossil fuels, but Amy assumes that it is, saying " The new bottles reduce the use of fossil fuels." We have noted that Brazilian sugar cane ethanol uses 1800 litres of water per tonne of cane, and Lester Brown has written:

For net energy yield, ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil is in a class all by itself, yielding over 8 units of energy for each unit invested in cane production and ethanol distillation. Once the sugary syrup is removed from the cane, the fibrous remainder, bagasse, is burned to provide the heat needed for distillation, eliminating the need for an additional external energy source. This helps explain why Brazil can produce cane-based ethanol for 60¢ per gallon.

Then it has to be shipped to wherever the PET plant is, and I assume that it is utilized as efficiently as fossil fuel feedstocks. (It isn't as efficient in your car). And no matter how you carve it up, we are using up an acre of Brazil to produce 662 gallons of ethanol to make a product that we don't need.

Plant-based PET vs PLA

A man putting plastic bottles in a bin.

Songsak rohprasit / Getty Images

Now Amy confuses everybody with:

The new bottles reduce the use of fossil fuels and improve recyclability. But there's a big difference between "recyclable" and "recycled." While all bioplastics are technically "recyclable," current recycling systems are not set up to recycle those that don't mimic existing plastics. The most common bioplastics include polylactic acid, which is made from corn starch, tapioca, or sugar cane. When these bioplastics arrive at a recycling center, they are separated out as waste.

Coke's plastic bottles are PET just like any other bottle. They are recyclable in the conventional waste stream, just like every other PET bottle; they have just changed the feedstock. Amy confuses the subject by bringing polylactic acid (PLA) into the article here. (She also brought phthalates and BPA into the article, but has corrected it since. She did not mention antimony, the catalyst that will leach out of any PET bottle over time.)

Issues With PLA

Soda in plastic bottles and packaging.

Amir Mukhtar / Getty Images

PLA, or polyactic acid, is a biodegradable plastic that is completely made from plants. But unfortunately it looks just like PET, and it is NOT separated out as waste. If it is mixed up in the recycling stream it will ruin the PET. Many municipalities have banned it because of this. It also doesn't biodegrade very well.

But like so many of these discussions, we are focusing on the minor issue of ethanol vs fossil fuel without looking at the bigger picture. Amy does look at promoting bottle bills to increase recycling, and the use of deposits, but never questions the basic assumption that people should drink water out of plastic bottles, and how we ended up in this place.

On its website, they write "At Coca-Cola, sustainable packaging innovation is in our DNA." Of course this is bullshit, for fifty years they have done everything possible to eliminate the most sustainable packaging, which is the refillable, returnable bottle.

And then there is the Pepsi executive quoted in Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania, saying in 2000: "when we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes."

The issue isn't what plastic the bottle is made of, the issue is the bottle itself, the fact that for most of us, buying botted water means that we are paying Coke and Pepsi for a product that is fresher, safer and better tasting out of the tap. We are letting Coke and Pepsi frame the discussion about feedstocks when it should be about them.