PepsiCo Inc. unveiled a new bottle Tuesday made entirely of plant material that it says bests the technology of competitor Coca-Cola and reduces bottles' carbon footprint.
The bottle is made from switch grass, pine bark, corn husks and other materials. Ultimately, Pepsi plans to also use orange peels, oat hulls, potato scraps and other leftovers from its food business.
The new bottle looks, feels and protects the drink inside exactly the same as its current bottles, said Rocco Papalia, senior vice president of advanced research at PepsiCo.
"It's a beautiful thing to behold," he said. "It's indistinguishable."
PepsiCo says it is the world's first bottle of a common type of plastic called PET made entirely of plant materials. Coca-Cola Co. currently produces a bottle using 30 percent plant-based materials and recently estimated it would be several years before it has a 100 percent plant bottle that's commercially viable.
"We've cracked the code," Papalia said.
PepsiCo announced the discovery Tuesday and said it plans to test the product in 2012 in a few hundred thousand bottles. Once the company is sure it can successfully produce the bottle at that scale, it will begin converting all its products over.
That could mean a switch of billions of bottles sold each year. Of Pepsi's 19 biggest brands, those that generate more than $1 billion in revenue, 11 are beverage brands that use PET.
Scientists said the technology is important innovation in packaging.
"This is the beginning of the end of petroleum-based plastics," said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its waste management project. "When you have a company of this size making a commitment to a plant-based plastic, the market is going to respond."
Coca-Cola said it welcomed other advances in packaging, but noted that it has scaled up use of its own plant-based bottle since introducing it in 2009. It also says it has demonstrated a 100 percent plant bottle in the lab and is still working to ensure it is commercially viable.
There are other plant-based plastics available or in development, but Herskowitz said these are not environmentally preferred because they typically use plants grown solely for that purpose rather than using the estimated 2 billion tons of agricultural waste produced each year. And these alternative plastics cannot be recycled.
PET plastic is a go-to material for packaging because it's lightweight and shatter-resistant, its safety is well-researched and it doesn't affect flavors. It is not biodegradable or compostable but it is recyclable.
A completely plant-based PET could change the industry standard for plastic packaging. PET is used in beverage bottles, food pouches, coatings and other common products.
Traditional PET plastic is made using fossil fuels, including petroleum, a limited resource that's rising in price. By using plant material instead, companies reduce their environmental impact.
Pepsi, based in Purchase, N.Y., said it has had dozens of people working on the process for years. While PepsiCo wouldn't specify the cost to research and design the new bottle, Papalia said it is in the millions of dollars.