Consumer giants such as Coca-Cola, Ford Motor, and Danone have been experimenting with biobased plastics for several years. Now the early results are in: Bioplastics aren’t much of a selling point, and most consumers are unwilling to pay more for them, leaving brand owners to question the value of the emerging technology.
That was the frank message these companies delivered to bioplastics manufacturers at the BioPlastek Forum, a conference held late last month in San Francisco. Although consumer products firms reported that bioplastics often align with their corporate sustainability goals, they lamented that the public isn’t more receptive to a new technology that promises environmental benefits over petrochemical plastics.
Organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm has gotten mixed results from its bioplastics initiatives, according to Wood Turner, the firm’s vice president of sustainability innovation. Stonyfield serves as a green packaging laboratory of sorts for its parent, the French food giant Danone.
In 2010, Stonyfield switched from polystyrene to polylactic acid (PLA) to make its multipack yogurt containers. A year later, it started bottling smoothies in polyethylene derived from sugarcane. Both initiatives scored high points environmentally. PLA cut the global warming potential of the yogurt packaging by 48%. Renewable polyethylene drove a 65% warming potential reduction for the smoothie bottles.
For PLA, these benefits came at no additional cost. And PLA actually improved performance characteristics such as strength and lid adherence, Turner added. With sugarcane-derived polyethylene, in contrast, the firm bore a higher cost that it didn’t pass along to customers.
Customers love the PLA cups. Stonyfield switched from polystyrene largely because of fears that styrene, a suspected carcinogen, might migrate into food. “We have had an outpouring of incredible support for that decision,” Turner said.
As for the polyethylene bottles, Stonyfield has received no consumer feedback that the switch prompted smoothie purchases. “As a result, it has made us wonder whether the strategy makes sense,” Turner said.
Brand owners, even environmentally progressive ones, need confidence they can get a return on their green investments before they can make the decision to move forward, Turner concluded. “When we have cost-neutral choices with plant-based materials, it makes it quite easy,” he said. “When we do pay more to have those kinds of materials, it makes it much more complicated.”
Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle program at Coca-Cola, agreed. “The challenge that I see starting to emerge is whether you can take that environmental benefit and offset what tends to be out there as a cost,” he said.
Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle is undoubtedly the most high-profile initiative in bioplastics today. The bottle is like any other, except that the ethylene glycol used to make the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) polymer is derived from sugarcane, not from a fossil fuel. The PlantBottle debuted with Coca-Cola’s Dasani water in 2009, and the company aims to deploy the bottle in all of its products by 2020.
Coca-Cola’s experience is that consumers aren’t likely to pay more for the privilege of using bioplastics in consumer staples such as soda. “If you are looking across mainstream brands with environmental positioning in terms of being a true driver for top-line growth, I think that is still a tough sell,” Vitters told the audience.
But Coca-Cola enjoys a lift when the PlantBottle aligns with its brand messaging. For example, the bottle underscores a “natural” theme for its Dasani brand. Dasani saw its share of the beverage market grow last year. “Within a category that is flat, I can tell you we have driven top-line growth,” he boasted.
Still, Coca-Cola wants the PlantBottle to be more than a marketing gimmick. Its desire is to build economies of scale to drive down costs and make the PlantBottle competitive with conventional PET bottles. Otherwise, Vitters said, “I’m not sure that value proposition would have been sufficient enough for us to make that investment.”
Ford Motor has been using recycled and biobased materials to improve the environmental profile of the parts of the average car—15% by weight and largely plastic—that aren’t normally recycled, according to Carrie Majeske, Ford’s manager of product sustainability.
Ford has been using soy-based polyols to make polyurethane seat cushions since 2007. And it molded the storage bin of the Ford Flex from a wheat-straw-based composite. Success is mixed. The company has been stepping up use of the polyols and now incorporates them into all of its North American cars. The wheat straw composite, on the other hand, proved too costly for further development, Majeske noted.
Ford’s efforts come despite its finding that “environmental friendliness” ranks low among customers’ reasons to buy cars. In a survey, this factor placed 34th for buyers of the Ford Focus and 54th for the F-150 pickup truck. Consumers place more value on attributes such as handling and gas mileage.
Majeske sees environmental friendliness as a tiebreaker for consumers who are looking to buy new vehicles. In other words, if two cars are the same in every other respect, a customer might opt for the one that contains a little biopolymer or recycled plastic. This appeal, she added, may grow as a younger generation walks into the showroom. “Do sustainable materials sell cars?” she asked. “Not directly, but there is a brand image and a value that is important.”