A European consumer-protection official recently called Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle claims greenwashing. The soda giant’s response? Sustainability is complicated.
Henrik Oe, the consumer ombudsman in Denmark, last month issued a report that criticized Coke for allegedly not following up on life-cycle assessment (LCA) promises in regards to the company’s PlantBottle, a packaging innovation the company rolled out in 2009 and which it has touted as having a carbon footprint lower than that of petroleum-based PET.
The ombudsman’s report says that because LCA information is not available to the public or regulators, the company is making environmental-related claims that aren’t substantiated.
In an interview with Plastics Recycling Update this week, PlantBottle leaders at Coke defended the company’s actions, saying that a single LCA isn’t necessarily the most effective way to judge a product’s environmental standing. “An LCA is a very powerful and important tool, but you have to be careful how you use it,” said Scott Vitters, Coke’s general manager of PlantBottle packaging innovation. “An LCA has some limitations, particularly when you start looking at the biospace. If you’re interested in biodiversity or land use or social issues, those are not measures traditionally captured by an LCA.” It’s to avoid misrepresentation and oversimplification that Coke has not made its LCA figures more publicly known, Vitters added.
The PlantBottle product uses plant-based material instead of petroleum to create monoethylene glycol, a key ingredient in PET plastic. The resulting bottles, which the company is increasingly relying on in markets around the world, are designed to be recycled alongside traditional PET material.
The company has leaned heavily on the carbon-footprint-reduction attributes of PlantBottle as it has publicized the product, and assessing those claims is likely to become an increasingly important issue as the innovation proliferates. (Coke says it wants all its bottles to be PlantBottles by 2020.)
Vitters himself noted that LCAs are well suited to capture that carbon-footprint metric. He said the company has worked with London-based Imperial College to develop three LCAs since 2008, when the product was still in development, and that the most recent one is set to be peer reviewed by academics in several parts of the world.
In interviews in recent years, Vitters has in several cases stated that the PlantBottle product has a lifetime carbon footprint that is around 12-19 percent lower than the lifetime footprint of traditional PET bottles.
Vitters told Plastics Recycling Update those statistics were based on the first LCA the company and Imperial College conducted and that they came before the company’s PlantBottle manufacturing supply chain had developed to where it is today (the packaging is now used in 26 markets).
When asked for more recent carbon footprint numbers, Coke representatives said the latest LCA showed the PlantBottle’s carbon improvements to be slightly less impressive than in past years: It now demonstrates a carbon footprint that is 7.5-11 percent lower than PET.
Vitters said he doesn’t necessarily view those numbers as a regression. “The bottom line is it has consistently been an improvement over [petroleum-based] PET,” the executive said. “The fact remains that data will evolve and change. We continue to learn together in the space. It’s an evolving discipline.”