Coca-Cola invests in biotech

The Coca-Cola Company has announced multi-million dollar partnership agreements with three biotechnology companies—Virent, Gevo, and Avantium—to accelerate development of the first commercial solutions for next-generation PlantBottle™ packaging made 100% from plant-based materials.

This effort to commercialize a plastic bottle made entirely from plants builds on the company’s introduction and rollout in 2009 of its first-generation PlantBottle package, a recyclable PET beverage bottle made partially from plants. The Coca-Cola Company says that since its introduction, the company has distributed more than 10 billion PlantBottle packages in 20 countries worldwide.

The agreements with Virent, Gevo, and Avantium—all of which are involved in developing plant-based alternatives to materials traditionally made from fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources—were signed following an in-depth two-year analysis of different technologies by The Coca-Cola Company’s R&D team and technical advisory board.

“While the technology to make bio-based materials in a lab has been available for years, we believe Virent, Gevo, and Avantium are companies that possess technologies that have high potential for creating them on a global commercial scale within the next few years,” said Rick Frazier, vice president, Commercial Product Supply, The Coca-Cola Company, at a live press conference in New York City this morning. “This is a significant R&D investment in packaging innovation and is the next step toward our vision of creating all of our plastic packaging from responsibly sourced plant-based materials.”

Frazier added that agreements with these three companies will help The Coca-Cola Company support its long-term commitments through sustainable practices in sourcing and packaging supply. While Virent, Gevo, and Avantium will each follow their own route to make bio-based materials, all materials will be developed in line with company and industry recycling requirements.

“Virent’s long-term agreements with The Coca-Cola Company are pioneering milestones in the commercialization of our technology to produce plant-based materials,” said Virent CEO Lee Edwards. “Our patented technology features catalytic chemistry to convert plant-based sugars into a full range of products identical to those made from petroleum, including bio-based paraxylene—a key component needed to deliver 100-percent plant-based PET packaging.” PET made from Virent’s bio-based paraxylene is said to feature the same quality and recyclability as materials used today, while being made from a range of renewable materials. The company is targeting early 2015 for the opening of its first full-scale commercial plant.

In Gevo’s case, the company is converting existing ethanol plants into biorefineries to make renewable building-block products for the chemical and fuel industries. The company plans to convert renewable raw materials into isobutanol and renewable hydrocarbons that can be directly integrated on a “drop in” basis into existing chemical and fuel products to deliver environmental and economic benefits.

Presenting after Edwards, Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo, said, “We are extremely gratified to have won the confidence of The Coca-Cola Company and are excited to support Coca-Cola’s sustainable packaging goals with this agreement to develop and commercialize technology to produce paraxylene from bio-based isobutanol. New technologies need champions. The Coca-Cola Company is in a unique position to drive and influence change in the global packaging supply chain with this development.”

Tom van Aken, CEO of Amsterdam-based Avantium, said, “Avantium is very proud to partner with The Coca-Cola Company to demonstrate that our patented ‘YXY’ technology produces bio-based PEF [polyethylene furan dicarboxylic acid] bottles with exceptional functional properties at a competitive price. YXY is a very exciting solution for today’s packaging challenges, using plant-based materials as feedstock to enable the manufacture of more sustainable packaging materials, such as PEF bottles. We have produced PEF bottles with promising barrier and thermal properties and look forward to our work with Coca-Cola to further develop and commercialize PEF bottles. Our production process fits with existing supply and manufacturing chains, and we are targeting commercial production in the next few years.”

A 100% plant-based PlantBottle package will comprise two components: MEG (mono-ethylene glycol), which makes up 30% of the PET, and PTA (purified terephthalic acid), which makes up the other 70%. The first-generation PlantBottle is made from plant-based MEG. In this next step, PTA will be replaced with plant-based materials, too.