Jun 29, 2011  |  Today's News

As if it isn't annoying enough to see ads about "HFCS Free" foods and beverages, you'll now see mention that renewable plastic bottles are made from Brazilian cane ethanol, rather than corn ethanol. And the kicker? It's because using sugar cane ethanol doesn't impact food supplies. Right. Because there isn't any cane sugar in food. Hey Heinz and Coke...here's your sign.

No worries. If you want a ketchup (or catsup) choice that doesn't exclude HFCS, you can support an Illinois company. While Hunts and Heinz have both stopped using HFCS, Brooks, from an Illinois town by St. Louis, continues to use HFCS and is really tasty.

Coke and Heinz Discuss Plant Bottle Collaboration

Heinz ketchup bottles with labels asking "Guess what my bottle is made of?" will begin to appear on local grocery shelves and restaurant tables in the next few weeks. The answer: 30 percent ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane, and the rest is traditional, petroleum-based plastic.

Downtown-based H.J. Heinz Co. said in February that it would start using Coca-Cola's plant-based bottle technology, introduced two years ago. So far, "It's been a remarkable partnership, one of the first in the industry to have two giants working together on this technology," Michael Okoroafor, Heinz's vice president for packaging research and development, said on Monday.

Okoroafor and Scott Vitters, general manager for Coca-Cola Co.'s PlantBottle packaging, talked about the deal between the food and beverage companies, and possibilities for more environmentally friendly containers as the first BioPlastek Forum began yesterday in New York City. Okoroafor gave the keynote address at the event, organized by Schotland Business Research of Skillman, N.J.

The best-selling size of the world's best-selling ketchup now is being packaged for U.S. sales only in the part-plant bottles. Bottling is done at a Heinz plant in Fremont, Ohio, about two hours from Pittsburgh, Okoroafor said in a telephone interview.

Ketchup in the PlantBottle will be introduced in the United Kingdom early next year. And the two companies are continuing work to improve the technology, while planning to move it to more product lines.

This year, Coca-Cola will produce 5 billion bottled beverages using the plant technology in more than 20 countries. By the end of this year, about 8 percent of the company's products will be in the special bottles, Vitters said, and Coca-Cola wants to get to 100 percent PlantBottle packaging by 2020.

"For us as well as for Heinz, this journey started with looking at how we drive continuous improvement ... how we reduce the carbon impact of the package, while still delivering on quality" with sturdy packaging, Vitters said.

The companies worried about how volatile oil prices would impact plastic bottle production in coming years. Still, for Heinz, "The actual driving force was to impact, in a positive sense, the planet," Okoroafor said.

Coca-Cola searched for a year for the right plant product to begin making its PlantBottles -- settling on sugar cane ethanol, in part, because using it would have minimal impact on food supplies, Vitters said.

Dasani water was the first product to come out in the new bottle, followed by Coke, Sprite and other drinks.

Heinz plans to make 120 million PlantBottles full of ketchup initially and expand the technology globally during the next decade. The company's packaging research and development team in Marshall worked with Coca-Cola on the new ketchup bottles.

Heinz isn't disclosing how much it is investing to license the technology from Coca-Cola, Okoroafor said. A separate manufacturer makes the bottles for Heinz.

Later, plant waste -- orange peels, stems or even unused potato pieces from production of Heinz's Ore-Ida fries, for example -- could be turned into packaging, Okoroafor and Vitters said. PlantBottles cost slightly more than traditional bottles to make, but as the supply chain grows they will become cheaper, they said.

"This is an investment we are putting in, for the future," Okoroafor said. Heinz won't increase its ketchup price to cover higher bottle costs.

Plant-based plastics aren't new, but look for more types of them to be used in packaging in coming years, said Gwynne Rogers of the National Marketing Institute based in Harleysville in Montgomery County.

NatureWorks LLC, now a division of Minneapolis-based Cargill, has been making bio-based plastics and resins for food packaging and other uses for about a decade. Frito Lay put its SunChips into biodegradable, plant-based bags but had to change the product early this year after consumers complained the bags crinkled too loudly.

"For a long time, we have seen packaging as being a top of mind, hot button issue for consumers," Rogers said. "We all see how packaging fills up our trash cans, and to some consumers, that seems unnecessary."

Still, many consumers are critical of plastics made from corn-based ethanol, figuring they're paying more for food due to higher corn demand. In an institute survey last year, "60 percent of U.S. adults said it's important for products to be packaged in materials made with renewable resources, which is in essence what the PlantBottle is," she said.

Also, 34 percent of the survey respondents said they'd pay 5 percent more for renewable packaging, she said.