Canadian Plastics

Sophisticated packaging

By Mark Stephen, associate editor   

New developments in PET bottles, heat-shrink labelling and stand-up pouches are allowing packagers to flex their creative muscles in devising distinctive brand designs to not only catch the consume...

New developments in PET bottles, heat-shrink labelling and stand-up pouches are allowing packagers to flex their creative muscles in devising distinctive brand designs to not only catch the consumer’s eye but extend product shelf life.

Fans of The Simpsons know the importance of being able to tell Marge’s twin sisters Patty and Selma apart.

The same principle holds true in the world of food and beverage packaging, where the key to increasing sales is in standing out from the competition.

And the stakes in this contest are high: Approximately 90 per cent of food in North America reaches consumers in some sort of package, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan, based in San Antonio, Tx.


“As the food and drink packaging market is extremely price-sensitive, packagers need to create product differentiation and promote client loyalty,” Dr. Lucia Castro Diaz, a Frost & Sullivan research analyst, said. “Plastics are emerging as a vital tool for packaging manufacturers in eliminating design constraints and promoting new packaging solutions, while also assisting food manufacturers in preserving their products longer.”


Industry analysts agree that when it comes to beverage containers, packaging stalwarts such as glass, metal and cardboard have all had their day.

Plastic containers represent the largest growth segment of the beverage container industry, currently making up 57 per cent of total gallons packaged per year in the U.S. — a figure that will continue its rise through to 2010, according to data released in March 2006 by The Freedonia Group, a research firm based in Cleveland, Ohio.

Advances in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) blow molding technology that are allowing for more creative design options and therefore more creative and distinctive product branding, is one of the primary drivers of plastics’ popularity.

Ribs or panels in PET bottles have traditionally been necessary to absorb the distortion that occurs when a capped hot-filled — between 182 and 192 Fahrenheit (F) — beverage cools to room temperature, making the bottles difficult to label.

“The [ribs] and panels created constraints that dramatically limited design options and therefore a brand owner’s ability to use the container creatively to market the product,” David Andison, vice-president, business strategies of Amcor PET Packaging, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., which has Canadian headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., said.

Recently Amcor, and other plastics packaging manufacturers such as Graham Packaging Co., in York, Pa., have successfully produced PET bottles with an inverted cone-shaped base to absorb the vacuum distortion, allowing the sidewalls to be molded smooth to achieve the aesthetics, performance and feel of glass.

And the design has caught on quickly with drink manufacturers. By October 2005, Tradewinds Tea in Cincinnati, Ohio, and organic water supplier Trinity Springs in Boise, Id., for example, were both using Amcor’s smooth-panelled PET bottle.

“The bottle is clean, clear and high quality and helps support [our product’s] ‘purity’ message. It adds value but it doesn’t distract,” Andy Mitchell, president of Trinity Springs, said. “It also allows us to use a clear label, which sets the expectation when a consumer sees it on the shelf.”


PET bottles are also appearing on shelves at local liquor stores.

In the past, PET lacked the necessary barrier properties to protect products from oxidizing and turning stale. Wine, for example, will develop a vinegary taste if it is exposed to oxygen for too long.

However, recent improvements in the effectiveness of PET-compatible oxygen scavengers — chemical agents that can stop oxygen from penetrating PET packaging for up to a year — have allowed vintners to take advantage of the easy colourability and design freedom PET offers.

Recently, for example, Okanagan Valley, B.C. wine-maker Okanagan Cellars, began selling its two-litre (L) Royal Red and Royal White wines in coloured barrier PET bottles.

“We were very cautious about using PET,” Scott Fraser, Okanagan Cellars’ vice-president of marketing, said. “[But] the results showed benefits for us, for our retail customers and for final customers.”

And while the company acknowledged that using barrier PET does reduce the products’ shelf life, it said the buzz the new packaging generated more than made up for it.

“The shorter shelf life is acceptable to us for our higher volume products that have a shorter turnaround time in the marketplace…[and] there have been no flavour or colour-related related complaints about any of the two-litre PET wine products,” Nora Shea, Okanagan Cellars’ technical specialist, said.


David Birkby, CEO and principal owner of Westbridge PET Containers in Calgary, Alta., believes that the time has finally arrived for PET wine bottles.

“Will PET sweep the wine market? Not likely, but now that it is a proven success, several companies are taking the leap for selected product lines,” he said.

But consumers with a taste for something a little harder than a dry white wine may still find barrier PET bottles in other sections of their liquor store.

White Rock Distilleries, in Lewiston, Maine, for example, recently replaced glass bottles that were powder-coated blue with 1.75-L translucent blue PET bottles manufactured by Amcor PET Packaging for its Pinnacle Vodka.

The easy colourability of PET allowed White Rock to switch to a different, deeper shade of blue, Joe Werda, director of operations at White Rock, said.

The company was so pleased with the colour and appearance of Amcor’s PET bottle that it converted its 750 millilitre(mL)- and litre-sized bottles, which were still made with glass, to match.


Along with the development of rib-less PET bottles, new developments in heat-shrink labelling technology, which can provide eye-catching, high-quality — and even 3D — wraparound graphics to make bottles stand out on crowded store shelves are further helping PET bottles shatter the glass bottle market.

Films used in shrink sleeves are typically pre-printed, extruded, formed into tubes and then run through a heat tunnel and wrapped around the bottle. During cooling, the labels shrink between 50 and 80 per cent, forming a second skin around the bottle, which is particularly effective for branding oddly shaped bottles.

Flexible packagers are already winning plaudits for their heat shrink applications. Alcoa PET Packaging, in Richmond, Va., for example, recently received a Golden Cylinder Award for an eight-colour, reverse gravure modified PET shrink sleeve label it manufactured for Nestle’s 90 ounce (oz.) Hot Chocolate Syrup.


But despite beverage manufacturers’ satisfaction with PET bottles as an effective vessel for branding, many blow molders and industry analysts believe the future of the hot-fill bottle industry actually lies with clarified polypropylene (cPP).

CPP offers hot-fill capabilities of more than 210F, compared to 180F offered by PET, according to Ragan Garriot, blow molding marketing manager for Phillips Sumika Polypropylene Co., in Woodlands, Tx. This property, she said, can result in increased operational efficiencies for beverage makers, particularly for bottling high-temperature beverages such as tea.

And it’s advances in clarifying agents that have put cPP on a par with PET, Garriot added.

“[CPP] offers the first real opportunity for conversion from PET, while meeting consumer demand for clear quality containers,” Mihaela Penescu, development engineer for Consolidated Container Co., a manufacturer of plastic packaging based in Atlanta, Ga., said. “I definitely see us moving into new cPP food and beverage packaging.”

These improvements are bolstered by an increasing variety of production machinery tail
ored for manufacturing cPP bottles.

“The capability to build production scale cPP preform systems exists today and will accelerate in 2006 as cPP can now run at cycles approaching those of PET,” Mike Urquhart, of Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., in Bolton, Ont., said.


Regardless of which resin triumphs in the PET and cPP bottle battle, plastics are beginning to win the war against glass and other materials.

Stand-up pouches are making the most significant inroads into the food and beverage packaging industries, quickly taking a hold in applications like beverages, pre-seasoned rice and pasta side-dishes, frozen entres, snacks, candy and pet food, to name a few.

North American demand for stand-up pouches will rise annually by 15 per cent until at least 2008, according to The Freedonia Group — an assessment that tallies with other industry insiders’ observations.

“Stand-up pouches are definitely in the exponential growth mode as a result of their coming down in price and a lot of effective new packaging machinery,” Dr. Aaron L. Brody, president and CEO of Packaging/Brody Inc., a consulting firm for the food packaging industry in Duluth, Ga., said. “They are now the package of choice when packagers start a new packaging line.”

And his observations are echoed throughout the industry.

“We do a lot of stand-up pouches,” Stephen Emmerson, president and CEO of PolyCello, a manufacturer and converter of flexible packaging in Amherst, N.S., said. “Although we’ve been doing stand-up pouches for the past six or seven years, lately they have really caught on.”


Allowing vertical presentation of graphics and logos is perhaps the greatest advantage of the stand-up pouch versus the typical lay-down bag, Thomas Kouletiss, an engineer for packaging at Hershey Foods Corp., in Hershey, Pa., said.

“This allows for a ‘billboard effect’ on the shelf that draws the consumer to the product in the marketplace,” he explained.

Additionally, stand-up pouches are typically made from multi-layered laminated films and custom-blended barrier films, minimizing or even eliminating moisture or vapour loss, resulting in a longer shelf life without refrigeration compared to rigid packaging.

Stand-up pouches also have a relatively small base — or gusset — allowing grocers to cram more of them onto their shelves, and this benefits the brand because store owners are more likely to give these products a better placement.

“A lot of companies are taking product out of a box and putting it into a stand-up pouch [because] it allows them to move from the bottom shelf on aisle four to the middle shelf on aisle two,” PolyCello’s Emmerson noted.


Securing a better shelf position isn’t the only advantage of stand-up pouches over rigid packages. They can also be molded with extra features such as handles, zippers, spouts and transparent windows, which the food vendors hope will attract customers.

“Convenience is king in many consumer products,” Colin Jones, vice-president of sales and market development at Global Closure Systems in Paris, France, said. “By making a product easy to use, consumer product companies have a differentiator to attract consumers.”

For example, Ampac Flexibles — a division of Ampac Packaging LLC — has developed a clear, microwaveable stand-up pouch for sauce manufacturer McCormick & Co., in Sparks, Md., with ‘cool grip’ seals on both sides of the pouch, which allows consumers to remove it from the oven without burning their fingers.

“The pouch [also] has a clear bottom so the consumer can see the contents… [plus] the artwork on the pouch portrays an upscale image,” Stefanie Woodhouse, a product manager at McCormick & Co., noted.

And the stand-up pouch isn’t just for food anymore. In September 2005, energy drink manufacturer Gleukos Inc., in Portland, Ore., started serving its lemon- and punch-flavoured sports beverages to thirsty athletes and people on-the-go in a 16-oz., flexible stand-up pouch with a spout. The black and silver pouch, with neon coloured accents to match the beverage flavour, was co-produced by Ampac Flexibles and global closing manufacturer Seaquist Closures.

“Packaging for the competition in this category is big and bulky,” Mike Jensen, founder of Gleukos Inc., said. “We feel that graphics are everything…[and] we wanted a slender-looking, lightweight alternative. The ability of the package to showcase what is in the pouch is an important element.”


Despite the growing popularity of stand-up pouches, many industry analysts pinpoint an ironic weakness of the product: “The pouches don’t always stand up very well,” Packaging/Brody’s Dr. Brody noted.

And managing sagging stand-up pouches on store shelves remains a nagging problem for the flexible packaging industry. “Incorporating ribs and panels is a way to increase stand-up strength and enhance shelf display and I expect to see more of that eventually,” Dr. Brody added.

But whatever kinks remain to be worked out, the recent advancements in blow molding and flexible packaging technology have led the food and beverage industries to embrace plastics as an ally in the battle for brand recognition, and in the quest to bring the dominance of metal, glass and cardboard packaging largely to an end.

The plastics genie is definitely out of the PET — or cPP — bottle.


A few short years ago, plastic beer bottles seemed poised to become the packaging of choice for North American brewers, and blow molders were bubbling over with enthusiasm.

Then the dream promptly went flat.

Adding a CO2 barrier — or oxygen scavenger, which is necessary to keep the beer fresh — into PET beer bottles was simply too expensive. Another stumbling block was the prohibitive investment costs for breweries to convert to wide-scale barrier PET bottle production.

After the beer bubble burst, many brewers adopted a wait-and-see attitude about plastics, while the blow molders worked to trim the costs of producing barrier PET. “The concept from a plastics perspective now is the incorporation of the scavenger directly into the plastic material, so that it in effect blocks or intercepts the oxygen from moving,” Dr. Aaron Brody, president and CEO of Packaging/Brody Inc., said.

So far, adoption of PET beer bottles has largely been confined to low-volume microbreweries and special venues like sports arenas. But there are signs that the brewers may be warming to plastics again. York, Pa.-based Graham Packaging Co., for example, was recently awarded Miller Brewing Company’s 2005 Supplier of the Year Award for its 28-mL PET beer bottle.

Now that’s something everyone in the plastics industry can drink to.


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