Green Chemicals: Analysts question economic viability of bio-PET

25 April 2011 00:00  [Source: ICB]

PepsiCo plans to use food by-products for its bio-PET bottles
Analysts question economics of bio-PET bottles being developed by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo

US major food and beverage firms Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are looking to develop the world's first fully renewable-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles for their beverage products.

But industry analysts are questioning the economic sustainability of these bottles compared to petroleum-based PET.

Coca-Cola is already using bio-PET bottles, starting in 2009, under the brand PlantBottle for branded drinks including Coke, Sprite, Fresca, iLOHAS, Sokenbicha and Dasani water.

The PlantBottle contains 30% sugarcane-based monoethylene glycol (MEG), and the rest is made from petroleum-based purified terephthalic acid (PTA).

In February, US food conglomerate H.J. Heinz said it was partnering with Coca-Cola for the use of PlantBottle packaging in all of Heinz's 20-ounce ketchup bottles starting in June this year.

According to Coca-Cola, more than 2.5bn PlantBottle packages were available across nine countries in 2010, and this is expected to more than double, across 15 countries, this year.

"It's our goal to make traditional plastic bottles a thing of the past and ensure that every beverage we produce is available in 100% plant-based, fully recyclable packaging," said Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle packaging platform at the Coca-Cola Company, in a statement. "Several approaches to a PET package made entirely from plants have been successfully demonstrated in laboratory testing. We're working to advance this breakthrough to ensure it is commercially viable."

PlantBottle launched in 2009
Meanwhile, PepsiCo announced in March its plans to develop the world's first PET recyclable plastic bottle made entirely from plant materials such as switchgrass, pine bark and corn husks. PepsiCo expects to expand renewable sources for the PET bottle to materials such as orange peels, potato peels, oat hulls and other agricultural by-products from its food businesses.

The green PET bottle will be identical to existing petroleum-based PET beverage containers, said PepsiCo.

The company said it has identified methods to create a molecular structure identical to petroleum-based PET, using combined biological and chemical processes.

Pilot production of the new bottle is expected in 2012, and PepsiCo intends to move directly to full-scale commercialization upon successful completion of the pilot plant.

"In contrast to the field of biofuels, where the government is the biggest driver, corporations are now playing in driving the biobased materials and chemicals industry going forward," noted Andrew Soare, research associate at US market research provider Lux Research.

"Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are competing with one another to be the biobased bottle leader accelerating products to market, and are spending money to get these projects to a point where they are at cost parity with existing bottles," he added.

Many industry analysts are wondering whether bio-PET bottles could really be economically competitive against traditional feedstock, given that bio-based ethylene glycol (EG) is already estimated to be 30-40% more expensive than petroleum-based materials.

Coca-Cola said its MEG is currently derived from Brazilian sugar ethanol, but did not disclose the name of its sugarcane-based MEG supplier.

"Coca-Cola does say that its EG comes from sugarcane in Brazil, but I do not know a Brazilian company that is actually producing EG," said Jim Lunt, managing director of US consulting firm Jim Lunt & Associates. "I believe 20,000 short tons/year of biobased EG is used today, which equates to around 33,000 short tons/year of PET."

Lunt noted the possibility of MEG producer India Glycols as a possible bio-MEG supplier for Coca-Cola. "India Glycols does convert sugarcane ethanol to EG. Apparently India Glycols has the capacity to manufacture 150,000 tonnes/year of bio-MEG from molasses and bio-ethanol."

Speculation also abounds on the feasibility of PepsiCo's claimed use of inexpensive biomass feedstock. Nobody yet knows how PepsiCo's process works, though a contributing analyst from US research firm Gerson Lehman Group (GLG) noted in a March 21 statement: "The challenge for introducing 100% bio-PET is cost. Can one make these feedstocks - PTA and EG - cost-competitive with fossil-fuel-based feedstocks? At this time, the answer still appears to be no, but more technical information is needed on the PepsiCo process to better understand its economic viability."

Regarding purified terephthalic acid, no companies as of yet have been known to commercially produce bio-based PTA.

Several intended development projects have been announced, such as from US renewable chemical firms Gevo, Draths, and Anellotech.

Gevo announced its interest in working with companies to convert its bio-isobutanol to paraxylene and then to PTA, said Lunt: "Other companies are also working in this area to convert bio-derived isobutanol, n-butanol or isobutylene to PTA."

Draths is currently working to convert glucose via trans, trans-muconate to PTA, noted Lunt, while Anellotech claims to have the technology to convert biomass into BTX (benzene, toluene, xylene) mixtures. "In spite of all of these activities, none of these technologies to my knowledge are close to being commercial. In addition, the ability to use such different types of biomass claimed in the PepsiCo press release would seem to be speculative at this point," he added.

By: Doris de Guzman
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