What’s standing in the way of a circular food packaging economy?

Sustainable packaging has become a virtual business arm of the food and beverage industry. Since early 2020, major CPGs have made more than two dozen announcements on new types of packaging, set goals and forged partnerships to reduce their waste footprint, according to a review by Food Dive.

“They’re not waiting for regulatory direction or legislative mandates, but they’re actually getting out in front and trying to meet what the consumers need in terms of packaging, but also what’s needed to help create a circular economy in a variety of states within the country,” according to John Hewitt, vice president of packaging sustainability for the Consumer Brands Association. “So it’s an extremely exciting time.”

The term “circular economy” has been floated by stakeholders who wish to see plastic packaging be part of a cyclical value chain where all materials are reused, recycled or composted, and kept out of landfills and the environment. Manufacturers are taking different routes to meet this goal.

Some companies aim to eliminate their use of virgin plastic and make 100% of their packaging out of recycled plastic, paper or other more sustainable materials. Others have embraced refillable containers. And some see promise in biodegradable and compostable packaging. 

Still, significant logistical issues remain to achieving a circular packaging economy, such as securing a better nationwide recycling system for plastics and having enough recycled material to meet demand. There’s also an education piece: Many consumers are confused about how to dispose of sustainable packaging in a way that ensures it gets reused. Industry critics and CPGs both agree clearer policy would streamline this process, but environmental groups still say the burden lies on food and beverage manufacturers to take the lead.

Coca-Cola’s planted-based plastic bottle promo.



Coca-Cola’s recycled plastic push

About 98% of the world’s single-use food and beverage packaging is made from virgin plastic. Many manufacturers, from Keurig Dr Pepper to Mondelēz, have embraced goals to replace virgin plastic in packaging with recycled material.

Coca-Cola has been one of the more active players here. The soda giant, which has a goal of making 100% of its packaging recyclable, globally, by 2025, also aims to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030. 

One main path the company is taking to reach its goal is increasing its use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) plastic. In February, the company announced it would begin using 100% rPET for its bottles. Coca-Cola planned to introduce the packaging in the first half of 2021 in some U.S. states for brands including Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Sprite and Dasani, in a new 13.2-ounce bottle size and 20-ounce bottles. This is after already transitioning some of its brands to 30% rPET last year.

According to Bimal Lakhotia, the group director of packaging and equipment research, development and innovation for Coca-Cola North America, the company plans to roll out the 100% rPET bottles more broadly across the country in the near future.

Lakhotia said that while rPET technology is a good step, it must be implemented on a product by product basis. Coca-Cola decided to prove the packaging first on its carbonated soft drinks, since this would be the most demanding application, he said.

“Carbonated beverages … is a very tough package to have rPET. So all our energy and efforts were primarily focused on carbonated beverages,” Lakhotia said. “If we are successful with carbonated drinks, translating all we’ve learned to other products becomes relatively easy.”

As rPET technology is relatively new to the industry, some experts are not sure how or when it can be properly scaled as not enough PET plastic is getting collected to meet the demand. In an email to Food Dive, Coca-Cola spokesperson Bailey Rogers said that recycling infrastructure in the U.S. lags behind other countries, which has restricted the amount of rPET available to turn into packaging.