October 25, 2021  

The story behind the world’s first 100% recyclable paper bottle

Through its partnership with Pulpex, PepsiCo has embarked on an R&D and design quest that could change the face of packaging as we know it.

As he sat in a packaging brainstorming meeting in 2019, Ron Khan knew he had a potentially groundbreaking ambition: paper bottles for beverages. “Many years ago, we wanted to pursue this concept, but couldn’t find the right technology,” recalls Khan, PepsiCo Vice President of Packaging for Beverages. “I knew we needed to make this happen now.”

Two years later, Khan can hold a prototype (above, left) for the world’s first fully recyclable paper bottle in his hand. Thanks to a cutting-edge partnership and the vision of PepsiCo’s Packaging, R&D and Design teams, the development is poised to add an innovative new packaging solution for products throughout the world.

“This bottle offers so many rare opportunities,” Khan says. “It’s sustainably sourced, it’s recyclable, it’s natural — the advantages are huge.”

The key to taking leaps forward: a partnership with breakthrough packaging technology company Pulpex Limited. With Pulpex and a consortium of global consumer goods companies, PepsiCo is working to develop and scale the fully recyclable paper bottle.

"This bottle offers so many rare opportunities. It’s sustainably sourced, it’s recyclable, it’s natural — the advantages are huge." — Ron Khan, PepsiCo Vice President of Packaging for Beverages

Versions of the paper bottle concept have been attempted in the past, but they’ve all required some form of an inner plastic liner that would prevent them from being recycled via mainstream methods. “There's nothing on the market today like this,” Khan explains.

What makes the Pulpex version a game-changer is its base material: sustainable, renewable wood pulp. The mixture is blended, molded and dried to give it strength. Then, to prevent leaks and give an oxygen and moisture barrier, it’s treated with a thin, food-grade water-based coating that can go into the paper recycling stream. It’s topped off with a cap, which is also recyclable.

“This bottle is a real dream for us,” Khan says. “It adds one more sustainable option to PepsiCo’s portfolio.” Introducing more sustainable packaging, like the Pulpex bottle, is just one of the ways PepsiCo is realizing its  pep+ (PepsiCo Positive) transformation with sustainability at the center of its business to inspire positive change for the planet and people.

While Khan’s Packaging team sees the sustainable packaging’s revolutionary potential, the Design team is inspired by the unique canvas a paper bottle offers. Niklas Gustafsson, Design Director at PepsiCo Design and Innovation Studio, worked hand-in-hand with the Packaging team in the prototype process. His group started by asking questions: “You wonder, what are the limitations? What are the constraints? With every new technology, it’s a lot of trial and error,” Gustafsson explains.

The Design team decided to capitalize on its canvas. The material, which Gustafsson says feels a little like the texture of an egg carton, is a wide-open space for printing images and text. “Because it's paper, we wanted to use that to really have the material tell its own unique sustainability story and communicate that this is a material innovation.” 

The designs they are exploring are bold and direct. All of the branding and images will be printed directly on the bottle rather than requiring a label. One side bears a “recycle” imprint, which Gustafsson sees as a call to action. “I hope we can inspire people, when they see this bottle, that even small acts can create a big impact on the environment,” he says.

"I hope we can inspire people, when they see this bottle, that even small acts can create a big impact on the environment." — Niklas Gustafsson, Design Director at PepsiCo Design and Innovation Studio

Next up: a wide range of laboratory tests to evaluate safety, performance and recyclability before testing with consumers and on the bottling line to evaluate the prototype’s performance. This critical stage will yield important findings and require more design iterations to refine the bottle, all of which will take months.

But those insights have the potential to spark even more ideas to improve packaging. “We are solving problems that can have an impact on billions of people’s lives,” Gustafsson says. “We’re making that happen and making a huge step forward in sustainability.”

Adds Khan, “I've been in packaging for 30 years now and I've not seen something come onto the market that can really change the way we do packaging. This bottle has the potential to disrupt the industry.”