Coca-Cola to commercialize next-generation biomaterials

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/yagistudio
Pic:getty/yagistudio

Related tags: The coca-cola company, Bio-based plastics

The Coca-Cola Company, Changchun Meihe Science & Technology and UPM have announced the first planned commercialization of new tech to create plant-based monoethylene glycol (bMEG): which can replace traditional oil-based MEG in PET bottles.

The tech will allow the companies to efficiently convert second-generation biomass to the plant-based bMEG: a process that is not only more efficient than current bMEG production but also uses feedstock that is not a source of food. 

Ultimately, the scaled-up production of bMEG can reduce dependence on virgin oil-based packaging.

Furthermore, Coca-Cola has pledged to offer commercial quantities of the biochemical to anyone in the industry, including its competitors.

Efficient process

Co-owned and co-developed by Coca-Cola and Chinese science and tech development company Changchun Meihe, the technology is now being scaled to commercial quantities by the Finnish forest-based bioeconomy company UPM.

The technology to produce bMEG takes a sugar source and removes the step of creating ethanol as part of the conversion process to produce plant-based MEG. This means the process is simpler than incumbent processes and provides flexibility in feedstock choice. 

“The next-generation technology marks a significant step forward toward commercializing a process that is not only more efficient than current bMEG technologies but is based on feedstock that cannot be used as source of food: hardwood taken from sawmill side-streams and forest thinnings as part of sustainable forest management,” ​say the partners.

Production to start in 2023

Coca-Cola says the new tech marks ‘the most significant advancement’ in the commercial viability of bioplastics since it introduced the first-generation technology in its PlantBottle packaging in 2009.

While new technologies were first validated at demonstration scale in 2017,  this is the first time it is being taken into large-scale production.

UPM is currently constructing a full-scale biorefinery: which will produce plant-based monoethylene glycol (bMEG), plant-based monopropylene glycol (bMPG), as well as lignin-based Renewable Functional Fillers (RFF) made from 100% certified hardwood taken from sawmill and other wood industry side-streams.

The biorefinery will ramp up production in 2023 with a total annual capacity of 220,000 tonnes.  The products will have a significantly improved CO2 footprint and can be integrated in existing material recovery and recycling streams while meeting product performance requirements, according to the companies.  

UPM and Coca-Cola have announced that they will offer commercial quantities of these biochemicals to anyone in the industry, including Coca-Cola’s direct competitors.

“The commercialization of this technology marks a significant milestone not only in the evolution of renewable glycol production but also more widely in the development of fossil fuel-free PET plastic,”​ says Coca-Cola.

“MEG is one of two molecules necessary to create PET, the other being terephthalic acid (PTA). Investments in the scaling of plant-based, renewable materials like bMEG support Coca-Cola’s ambition and work to reduce the use of virgin oil-based plastics in its packaging, alongside investments to increase the use of recycled content.”

Reducing virgin plastic 

Coca-Cola has set out its vision to be net zero carbon by 2050, and to use 3 million tons less of virgin plastic from oil-based sources by 2025.

One of its goals is to increase the use of recycled PET (rPET): through a combination of new recycling technologies and encouraging consumers to recycle. Improvements in packaging design and new delivery systems are other ways to reach the goal. But it also wants to create new technologies that offer a plant-based alternative to virgin material: noting that well-designed technologies that can be successfully scaled up will play a key role in achieving its goals.

“The viability of this next-generation biomaterial is a significant technological breakthrough in our ongoing efforts to reduce our use of virgin oil-based plastics, by increasing our use of recycled and renewable alternatives. It can not only help us achieve our commitments to carbon emission reduction but can also enable the entire industry to shift to a more circular economy,”​ said Nancy Quan, Chief Technical and Innovation Officer at The Coca-Cola Company. “It takes years of work to bring a technology from the lab to the market, reflecting our keen focus on developing and delivering sustainable packaging solutions that can bring tangible environmental benefits, once scaled, to the communities we serve.”​ 

Daniela Zahariea, Director of Technical, Innovation and Supply Chain at Coca-Cola Europe, added: “In Europe, as we work towards our goal to collect a bottle or can for every one that we sell we are also working closely in parallel with our bottlers to drive down and eliminate the use of oil-based virgin PET from our plastic bottles. We will accelerate delivery of this ambition by increasing the use of recycled content and, as we move forward, also replacing some new ‘virgin’ material that is required with renewable, bio-based sources. That is why we are investing and driving innovation to boost the supply of feedstock from renewable sources, in addition to our focus on sources derived from enhanced recycling technologies.”

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