The biggest packaging news of last week was undoubtedly the announcement from Coca-Cola that it would be trialing its first-ever paper bottle prototype. To learn more about the solution and consider what it means for the company's wider sustainability strategy, we spoke with Stijn Fransen, R&D packaging innovation manager at The Coca-Cola Company in Europe.

First things first – could you give our readers some background on the paper bottle, and introduce the upcoming trial?

Coca-Cola is partnering with Paboco to develop a paper bottle that is 100% recyclable, made using sustainably sourced wood with a bio-based material barrier suitable for liquid goods such as carbonated and still drinks. The current prototype consists of a paper shell with a recyclable plastic lining and cap, and the recyclable plastic lining is made from 100% rPET.

This bottle is a first-generation prototype that enables us to test this package type in the market.  Our goal with the prototype is to test the performance of the paper packaging, as well as how consumers respond to it. Ultimately our aim is to remove the plastic lining and to produce a bottle that’s 100% recyclable as paper. As part of our progress to that destination, we need to test and learn.  Therefore, the announced trial is a milestone for us in our quest to develop a paper bottle and see its real-life performance as we go.

The trial is scheduled to take place in the summer of this year and will involve The Coca-Cola Company’s plant-based AdeZ drink being offered to 2,000 consumers in Hungary. We’re working through a partnership with - one of Hungary’s fastest growing online grocery retailers.

Let’s put the news into context – how does this announcement fit into Coca-Cola’s wider sustainability program?

This news connects to our wider purpose statement - to make great tasting drinks, done in a sustainable way. Within our sustainability commitments, the announcement connects well with our World Without Waste commitments - a set of clear goals to eliminate packaging waste and to ensure a sustainable, circular economy for all the packaging materials we use. For example, as part of our global World Without Waste vision, we aim to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030. 

The strategy isn’t about collection alone. As part of our World Without Waste strategy, we are also focused on partnering and collaborating with others to help develop and scale promising new technologies and packaging solutions that have the potential to support our goals. The work with Paboco on a paper bottle that can be recycled as paper fits well into that.

What technical challenges have been overcome in the creation of the new bottle?

With new projects like these, there are many elements that need to come together. As we’re working on a whole new packaging concept and not just one specific element, the challenge is also to keep progressing without letting one development slow down other parts of the work. We try to learn as we go, which is exciting and challenging at times.

This first prototype has a molded outer paper shell which is already a huge technical achievement. Unlike common molded paper products this paper shell is much thinner and substantially stronger with a smooth surface allowing for direct printing decoration.

And importantly, these shells are produced on a Paboco industrial platform which has potential for further scaling. This is already an important part of the puzzle towards our goal and enables us to further work with it and test.  

One of the topics that is on our priority list is to remove the current plastic lining inside and the plastic closure so that this package can be recycled as paper. Our partner Paboco is already experimenting with alternatives to help achieve this. The challenges of our joint goal also come with opportunities by working on a solution through collaboration, which is nice and encouraging.

On that subject - Coca-Cola's ultimate goal is to release a bottle that doesn't use a plastic lining. What are your thoughts on how Coca-Cola can make this a possibility, and is there a timeline in place?

This is a new technology and working in partnership with Paboco, we’re putting the people, resources, and R&D focus on making paper bottles a reality.  The announced market trial is an important milestone for us as it will help us learn and to keep moving forward towards our goal for a bottle that is fully recyclable as paper.

At the same time, we are working with Paboco to find an alternative to the plastic liner which will allow us to remove it. If and when we succeed depends on several elements, but we’re committed and confident that we will get there.

In terms of end of life, could you give us some more information on how the new bottle can be recycled?

This current prototype is technically recyclable, which means we need to take it apart to recycle the paper, the cap, and the inner lining separately. As mentioned, our aim is to remove the plastic liner and cap so that the bottle can be recycled like paper. However, as we are trialling this first prototype, we will make sure to collect our bottles back. The collected bottles will be used to further investigate technologies and processes for this new type of packaging.

Looking ahead, what does the future hold for Coca-Cola’s foray into paper-based bottles? Are there any plans to pivot entirely to the use of paper bottles?

We believe in having a diversified range of sustainable packaging that suits a range of consumer needs, whether they are on-the-go, at home, or in a bar or restaurant. We believe that paper bottles can potentially be a new, sustainable addition to our packaging options, alongside PET, glass, aluminum, and refillables. We’re investing across the breadth of our packaging portfolio to achieve circularity for all materials we use, with zero waste. 

Since the announcement last week, what are some of your first learnings or responses based on it?

Well, it’s been a positive experience for us with much-welcomed interaction. The questions we got during our online event were mainly directed at the recyclability of the bottle, how we were going to collect the bottles back, the next steps with removing the plastic liner, as well as some technical questions about the materials. All very valid questions that we have in scope. It’s good to listen to what people care about. This also gives us confidence knowing we’ve covered those topics in our priority workstreams with Paboco.

It was also good to learn how people respond when they hear about the news and insights of the innovations that we are working on, even when these innovations are not perfect nor ready for scale-up yet. As explained during the event, this is a different approach we’re taking as a company and for me as an R&D packaging engineer.

Normally, we won’t show things that are still “under construction” so to speak. In this case, we are showing something to the world even before we’re going to make a real-life test. But I am convinced that this approach helps to invite others to come forward with ideas and solutions that will help us all progress faster. And that’s good news!