Asahi had planned to launch Japan's first PET beer container as part of its strategy to promote the drink to younger consumers and enhance the quality of the product.
Beer is highly susceptible to oxidisation, which is considerable in PET bottles as they allow air inside them. However, Asahi came up with a silicon oxide membrane that turns the inside of the PET bottle into a vacuum.
The company also developed an opaque label for the bottle exterior that prevents light from hitting the contents and preventing deterioration caused by exposure to light..
However, a campaign led by Greenpeace Japan claimed that the introduction of plastic bottles would create huge waste disposal problems and would damage the environment because adequate recycling plans had not been put in place. The pressure group said that the Japanese beer industry should stick to existing glass bottles, for which a recycling system exists.
For their part, Asahi says the decision to cancel the roll-out of beer in plastic bottles is based on acceptance that a proper recycling system has not been yet been established in the country.
Nonetheless, the company said that it would continue its research into plastic bottles and their environmental impact.
"Although I'm not totally satisfied with Asahi's 'suspension pro tempore', I welcome the company's decision nonetheless," said Greenpeace activist Junichi Sato.
"This is a result of actions taken by citizens who are tired of irresponsible corporations that produce waste."
The Asahi withdrawal of its PET bottle plan is a symptom of the fact that Japan is far behind both Europe and the US in terms of PET recycling facilities. But if PET is to become a viable and fully recyclable material in the west, then lessons could be learned from Asahi's experience in Japan.
After all, there are currently more than 20 beer brands in Europe that have been launched in multi-layer PET. Over half of these are in AmGuard bottles developed by Amcor, including Karlsberg, Holsten and Tucher in Germany.
Indeed, Amcor has invested substantially to develop PET bottles for beer that can compete successfully with any other form of packaging in terms of both product and package performance. Several brewers have already responded to these initiatives.
"We have always paid close attention to the demands of our customers for convenient packaging. We are seeing increasing interest in our ability to provide our products in PET," said Andreas Rost, chief executive officer of Hamburg-based Holsten Breweries.
In order to prosper, it is vital therefore that adequate PET recycling is in place. PET bottle recycling market did increase in Europe last year, with the number of European PET bales offered to the recycling markets jumping from 449,000 tonnes in 2002, to 612,000 tonnes in 2003.
However, PET recycling processes in Europe differ from those in the United States and Japan. Virtually all European plants use wet grinding, making it very difficult to sort out those polymer films and labels that do not float in water.
In the United States and in Japan, most PET recycling plants are based on dry grinding processes, making it relatively easy to remove films by air separation.
But in the US, rates have been declining. A recent report from the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) shows a reduction in the PET plastic bottle recycling rate from 22.1 per cent in 2001 to 19.9 per cent in 2002.
This recycling rate is exactly half that the rate achieved in 1995 (39.7 per cent), and represents the seventh consecutive year of decline. In absolute terms, PET bottle recycling declined from 834 million pounds in 2001 to 797 million pounds in 2002.
"The impacts of PET wasting will only grow unless new collection systems or additional container deposit systems are adopted," warned CRI research director Jenny Gitlitz.