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The History of Plastic: Why Won’t Big Beverage Brands Ditch the Plastic Bottles?

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 07/16/2020 | 10 Minute Read

This is the fourth and final part of our series, The History of Plastic. You can find the first chapter on the invention of throwaway living here and the second part on McDonald's role in the single-use plastic crisis here, and the third installment on the theft of the recycling symbol here.

Walk into your nearest quickie mart, and you’ll see a wall of refrigerators packed with cold refreshments. No doubt, you’ll see a few rows dedicated to Pepsi and Coca-Cola, not to mention all of the drinks PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company produce (Dasani, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Gatorade, and oh so many more). Many of these will come packaged in a plastic bottle.

We don’t want to overwhelm you with all the sad and sobering facts about plastic pollution on our planet, but we do need to talk about our plastic problem. Specifically, plastic bottles, but also the dilemma some of the largest beverage manufacturers in the world continue to create for us.

With everything we know about the issues plastic makes for the environment, why do these big companies continue to use the material? Do they want to cut costs, or are there deeper issues at play? And ultimately, what solutions do we have to try and undo the damage plastic has already dealt to the world?

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The Life of a Plastic Bottle

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, although the material didn’t go mainstream until the mid-1900s. During World War II, plastic helped produce everything from bazooka barrels to aircraft parts. After the war, it offered manufacturers an affordable way to produce everything from toys to containers to furniture. People liked plastic—they embraced the thrill of throwaway living and didn’t put any thought into how long these items would stick around on Mother Earth.

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The material commonly used in plastic that comes in contact with food or beverages, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is light yet durable. PET pellets get melted at a temperature of about 500 degrees Fahrenheit and put into bottle molds, cooled to keep their shape, and voilà, you’ve got yourself a lightweight, sturdy bottle. 

The problem is plastic doesn’t just disappear into thin air once we’ve finished up that bottle of soda. Although technically you can put it in the recycling bin, an overwhelming majority of plastic waste—an estimated 91%, to be exact—never gets recycled. In some cases, it gets burned and pollutes the air, or often it ends up in landfills or our oceans. There, it will sit and take at least 400 years to break down (if not longer), meaning that every piece of plastic ever created still exists today. Plus, as it disintegrates into our environment, it continues to cause harm. You can find plastic fibers in tap water all around the world, and sorry to break it to you, but there’s also plastic in your bodily waste.

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The Biggest Plastic Bottle Offenders

PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company were recognized as two of the top three plastic polluters in the world (Nestle joins them as well). This discovery came from examining over 187,000 pieces of trash collected from 239 beach clean-ups in 42 countries. The worst culprit was Coca-Cola, with Coke-branded items found in all but two of the countries audited, with over 11,000 pieces coming from the brand—and that’s just what was clearly identifiable. Although, that’s expected when Coca-Cola admits to producing 3 million tons of plastic each year.

What makes these results even more frustrating is that this is the second year in a row that the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo were named the world’s worst plastic waste offenders. These brands have made lofty sustainability commitments and goals—Coca-Cola, for example, wants to “collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030,” and PepsiCo hopes to reduce 35% virgin plastic use in their beverage portfolio by 2025. Those goals are a necessary step in the right direction, but the concern is justified; they are still the frontrunners of plastic pollution rather than the revolution.

Using less virgin plastic, of course, means PepsiCo will continue to use plastic. Coca-Cola’s promise to recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells doesn’t mean they’ll stop packaging in plastic entirely. No matter how much people complain or the legal repercussions these big beverage brands face, they have a death grip on this material and won’t go down without a fight.

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Why Do We Use Plastic, Anyway?

Before plastic, they bottled soft drinks and other to-go beverages in glass, steel, and, eventually, aluminum. Then, along came plastic—the miracle material. 

Early versions of the plastic bottle weren’t usable as they leached high amounts of chemicals into the product, or they did a poor job of containing carbonated drinks. But in 1973, those worries went away when Du Pont scientist Nathaniel Wyeth patented the first PET bottle.

The push for plastic was calculated. During the 50s, in fact, the editor of Modern Plastics, Inc., Lloyd Stouffer, declared “the future of plastics is in the trash can.” He knew if they could encourage people to throw away plastic, there would always be a demand for the products. The plastic could never be good enough to keep so consumers would continue throwing it away. All the companies had to do was keep producing it so they could continue making a profit.

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From the brands’ perspectives, cost plays a big part in why they continue to rely on plastic, too—but the price difference isn’t what you’d expect. The base cost today to produce a glass bottle or a plastic bottle is surprisingly similar, with a glass one costing just $0.01 more. Where plastic really starts to save money is when the product needs to travel from the manufacturing plant to another destination. Glass weighs more, so it requires more energy and carbon emissions to transport, and this translates into a higher cost which brands would inevitably pass onto consumers.

Hate it as much as you might, plastic is durable. Glass bottles can break, and aluminum cans can get dented, but a plastic bottle can withstand being dropped or tossed around. This means companies worry less about losing product throughout the manufacturing and shipping process. Consumers benefit from the sturdiness of plastic, too. In the event a plastic bottle does break, for example, you don’t have to worry about shards of glass cutting you during clean-up.

Plastic also does an excellent job of preserving food and drink. Around 50% of food waste happens in households and 20% during processing, but plastic can help keep these items edible for longer by slowing the growth of bacteria. Now you might expect a PET bottle to last longest before the expiration date, but a plastic beverage bottle’s shelf life is less than what you’d have with a glass or aluminum bottle of the same size. However, better processing techniques and barrier enhancements combined with faster turnover (i.e., more people buying them) make plastic a solid choice for many brands.

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This is where the consumer comes in. A beverage in a plastic container offers a certain level of convenience for the person who purchases it. You can seal it right up as opposed to an aluminum can you’ve opened and must consume in one sitting, and it weighs less so you can tote it around with ease. Plastic use has become so ingrained in our daily lives, that switching to anything else feels like a massive change.

Consumers have become more eco-conscious in recent years, questioning our reliance on plastics. Nearly 70% of surveyed consumers in the US and Canada prefer eco-friendly and sustainable brands, and luckily they’re not all talk—people are putting their dollar to work by buying more of these goods.

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But not everyone has the luxury of paying the premium for all that is green. Parts of the US and the world exist where clean drinking water is not present, making bottled water a necessity that must remain convenient and affordable. So unless we have another option that can checkmark the same boxes plastic does—durable, convenient, and can preserve food and drink—big brands won’t budge from their all-time favorite material. No wonder Coca-Cola’s senior vice president Beatriz Perez said in early 2020 the company has no plans to stop its use of plastic.

If brands can’t imagine selling without plastic, then why not up the ante on the recycling discussions. That was, after all, another big selling point when it came onto the scene in the mid-1900s. We already know that not much of it ends up at the recycling plant, but perhaps we could consider more widespread bottle bills or container deposit laws that incentivize returning bottles to hopefully increase the recycling rate. Sounds like a feasible solution, right?

As it turns out, Coca-Cola and other soda companies have fought them since these regulations put some of the responsibility and cost on the brands. Even just in 2019, audio from a meeting of recycling leaders—many of which are backed by Coca-Cola—show the influence the brand has and how they continue to use that to undermine bottle bills. Representatives at the meeting expressed their concern over having their funding jeopardized were they to support a bottle bill in Georgia.

Instead, The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo would rather work towards producing 100% recyclable packaging and call it a day—even if, in the end, that packaging never actually gets recycled. So basically, they don’t feel like the end of life of their packaging is part of their concern.

Plastic Alternatives

Something which keeps companies from switching to a different material is, well, what would they switch to? Whatever other options they consider have to compete against plastic in terms of durability, food and drink preservation, and yes, cost.

One promising option is something edible and biodegradable, like Notpla, which gets made from seaweed. Runners in the London Marathon received Notpla instead of the 200,000 plastic water bottles that usually get handed out. While innovative, they do lack convenience that consumers are so used to—you can’t reseal them, and they’re not as easy to take to-go.

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The Coca-Cola Company, along with other brands like Carlsberg and L’Oréal, have just backed a venture aimed at developing a plant-based biodegradable bottle by 2023. Whereas a standard plastic takes centuries to decompose, this would disintegrate within a few years if left outside. The plant-based polymer lining the inside of the cardboard bottle is recyclable—although we know the success rates of recycling—but if composted, it will rot within a year.

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In the meantime, though, perhaps the next step doesn’t involve some mystery material yet to be discovered. Why not instead rely on something we already know like glass or aluminum? Glass gets dismissed pretty quickly because of its added weight—more carbon emissions—but aluminum certainly has a shot. Ever & Ever has all the convenience of a regular plastic water bottle (it’s even resealable), and aluminum has the advantage of being infinitely recyclable. It also gets recycled at a much higher rate than plastic, and nearly 75% of all the aluminum ever produced still exists in some form today.

With aluminum, though, we’re facing a bit of a catch-22—unless the cans produced come from recycled aluminum, companies are instead mining for bauxite, which is not a renewable resource. Bauxite mining poses health risks and hazards to those doing the work. And of course, there are the environmental impacts of cutting down trees, bulldozing an area to mine, and the carbon emissions required to turn bauxite into aluminum or to melt down recycled aluminum for its next use.

No Easy Solution

The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo aren’t oblivious to the issues plastic poses, and each has made a sustainability pledge. And lest we forget, sustainability reaches farther than just what material is used, but also how companies treat employees, how many resources go into their production, and the reduction of food waste; this conversation encompasses more than just a simple, yet oh-so-destructive material.

Still, their efforts seem to be the bare minimum possible to appease the masses while still keeping plastic within their reach. Of course, we love that PepsiCo wants to increase the recycled content in their plastics by 2025, and Coca-Cola will collect and recycle a bottle for every one they sell. But they’re still using plastic.

The conversation surrounding plastic is more complicated than someone telling you to stop using it, though. For people in food deserts or those without clean drinking water, plastic saves their lives. From the brand’s perspective, the logistical nightmare of switching to a different material entirely has to be more than worth it, and plastic does what it does so darn well that big beverage brands will hesitate to use something else unless it’s flawless. Plastic is a tough material to beat, considering how affordable, lightweight, and effective it is, and we’ve relied on it for long enough that it’s become the gold standard of ease and convenience. 

But even if an alternative material—known or new—has flaws, that doesn’t mean we should discount it entirely. Right now, we don’t need perfect—we need something that isn’t going to stick around on the planet for the next 400+ years. We need influential companies to embrace using something other than plastic because they can start the domino effect for other brands and businesses to follow suit. Those brands need to innovate and push beyond what’s familiar because they can not only influence how we consume the products we use but also impact our world.