By Llewellyn Stephens FAIP*
There are a multitude of packaging options available for beverages in the local market. Compared with a global scale, the Australian market is small, plus has the challenge of significant transport distances. Producers also face a retail environment dominated by two major players, and where margins for commodities are low.
Each pack option has its own market, environmental and process benefits, but the industry also needs to consider the different needs a local milk bar, say, has to a major retailer.
Consumers assume that the beverage they buy is safely produced, in a pack format that is easy and convenient to use, and is hopefully packed in the most sustainable format available that meets branding requirements.
Strong brands, strong distribution and meeting consumer needs with product and pack innovation are the keys to sales success.
I’m sure many are looking forward to the next step of change in beverage packaging: What unique features will it offer the target market? And will the market support the new format over time?
Bulk or commercial packs
There are market constraints to pack sizes that can be considered for in-home use, but the option of low pack-weight per litre can make bulk packs an attractive environmental and cost option.
Stand-up two-litre pouches with taps have not impacted the traditional bag-in-box wine market and Lion’s recent successful foray into the home draught beer market with Tap King is a work in progress. The domestic adoption of coffee machines for in-home use should serve as an indication of how fast technological innovation moves and what was previously regarded as commercial equipment can change a market if the end product proves to satisfy a consumer need.
Beverage cans available in the Australian market are usually constructed of two pieces of aluminium, although there are small and diminishing volumes in three-piece steel cans.
Cans are recyclable and recycled. They are generally lightweight and extremely good barriers to gas and moisture. Cans are ideal for carbonated products, because even under the added stress of tunnel pasteurisation, they also offer considerable real estate for beverage marketers. Slimline cans and new smaller sizes have increased convenience and serve-size control to address obesity concerns. With the recent addition of ink embossing and shaped or embossed cans, this pack format continues to provide innovation.
Self-heating cans, while a fad, can still be found in some niche camping markets. Although we’re yet to see a self-cooling can in the local market because of the easy access to refrigeration.
Like cans, glass containers are also recyclable and recycled.
Glass provides a good gas and moisture barrier with the right closure selection. They are suitable for hot filling, carbonated pressures and tunnel pasteurisation. Weight reduction, product differentiation and premium products have been an industry focus for some years as a result of the adoption of rigid plastics. One recent innovation that hasn’t been widely adopted yet is OI’s internal neck spiral. That’s because while aesthetically different, it offers minimal consumer benefit.
The Australian market is well supplied by local manufacturers and imports. Glass is a significant player in the single-serve market for carbonated products and juice, where consumer demands, pricing and weight are not the main considerations. Switching from glass to PET can generate savings, but brand owners do need to be extremely wary of consumer reaction. The alternative is to adopt both formats — as Waiwera and Coke have done — while maintaining the iconic bottle image.
Paperboard – board/polyethylene
Polyethylene liquid paperboard is another material that can be recycled, and most of the pack weight is made from renewable resources. Heat-sealed, gable-topped cartons offer litres per pallet and transport efficiencies that cylindrical beverage containers find hard to match. While the material’s barrier properties aren’t high, when compared with bottles, ESL, cold chain compliance and cold fill aseptic options certainly make this a versatile pack format. The addition of screw caps for reseal, the large amount of printable space and highly automated filling equipment offer an insight into why the format is used so widely.
Unfortunately, the investment in equipment invariably locks in a pack footprint where the only option that can be varied is height.
Paperboard – polyethylene/board/foil/polyethylene
Foil-lined liquid paperboards offer a relatively low cost entry into the cold-fill, aseptic market. While the material can be recycled, it would need to be separated into its various components and this is not occurring in current Australian systems in any volume. A significant proportion of the material used is from renewable resources. Long shelf-life and transport benefits from square footprints give an indication of why our retailers continue to stock a range of large-pack-volume imported products in this format, especially in the juice category.
Plastics – flexibles
Flexible pouches are unlikely to be recycled in significant numbers in Australia because of the need for mixed materials to meet packaging requirements; however, the material weight is still low when compared with a bottle. This pack format continues to be offered in the local market but the drawback is when you squeeze a pouch (which is easy to do) a low-viscosity liquid can easily spill out.
The format is handy as a freezer brick for lunchboxes, and if we ever see a pouch with a spout and a valve in the local market, then it should solve the spillage issue.
The other option is to transfer the contents to a secondary container for consumption. Some liquids are more viscous (jellies, purees and yoghurts) and the recent Heinz single-serve soup concentrate in a heat-sealed tube is typical example of a pack designed to be used with a cup as the final container. It is also a step change for the soup market.
Plastic – rigids
Neck-support filling and capping and light-weight plastic PET bottles with nitrogen droplet dispensing to maintain bottle rigidity have become the norm for still products. Major global players have adopted bioplastics and “shortie” design necks and caps have made savings for those able to adopt the technology.
Recently however I have had discussions with several regular consumers who are beginning to complain about the spillage that occurs when consumers are confronted with ultra light bottles and shortie caps because the caps offer reduced grip area and the bottles collapse when squeezed. Extra strength may be required in the bottle’s grip area if light weighting is to be a consumer success and not just be regarded as “cheap”.
PET, HDPE and, to some degree, PVC bottle home recycling rates are good due to education — and in the case of PVC, significant industry support.
In-house stretch-blow moulding for PET bottles can offer further savings to end users, but it is a major investment in skills and equipment that requires significant throughput to justify — and a major technology shift can hamper market agility.
Rigid plastics have made significant inroads into carbonated soft drinks, but there are consumer barriers that need to be overcome before beer and wine can make the switch. HDPE bottles continue to dominate the milk market with in-house blow-moulding operations being the standard for large volume producers.
There are many very smart packaging technologists working in the beverage industry who are trying hard to make the next technological and consumer-appealing drink pack. All companies are looking for the pack differentiation that will generate instant brand recognition and, in combination with the contents, more sales, without having a significant impact on filling-line efficiency. What decoration, functionality, material, closure or design format that these innovations will use are yet to be determined, but the industry is waiting to see who will introduce the next successful step change.
This article was originally written by the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP) and was first published in PKN. (This is a slightly edited version.)
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About the author
*Llewellyn Stephens FAIP has worked in the Australian food industry for leading brand owners for 40 years in QA, technical, OH&S, manufacturing, procurement and packaging development roles. His working life has given him exposure to a variety of packaging formats and equipment, which he says makes him a generalist rather than a specialist in any one area. He has been heavily involved in the Australian Institute of Packaging since 2002 and was awarded the prestigious Founder’s Award in 2012 for his significant contribution to technology, design and innovation in the packaging industry.