Packaging: Walking the green line
August 15, 2008
Eco may be chic these days, but according to industry experts, consumers are doing more talking than acting, leaving beverage companies and packaging suppliers to find the balance between more environmentally friendly containers and the quality perception consumers have come to expect.
“It’s an exciting time to be doing beverage packaging design because there are so many challenges,” says Stuart Leslie, president of 4sight Inc., based in New York City. “You have the industry, which is really driving toward sustainability. You have the consumer, whose vocabulary is limited to ‘environmental’ or ‘recyclable.’ And then you have the consumer’s habits and patterns, which haven’t changed. They want convenience. They want things that really work for them. They really aren’t willing to compromise any of that right now to help the environment. So the great challenge is how you bring all of these together.”
Beverage companies are reducing the amount of material in their packaging, introducing new materials, and re-evaluating the entire supply chain to reduce the impact of packaging on the environment and reduce costs at the same time.
Material reduction is the area that can have the greatest impact, Leslie says, pointing out that it not only results in less packaging overall, but reduces emissions from transportation and saves costs, particularly given the rising price of fuel and PET resin. The right design can accomplish those goals and still give consumers a perception of quality, he adds. “You really can drive cost out of the package, so the manufacturer is happy. If you give the consumer a design that excites and delights them, then they’re happy.”
4sight was one of the firms that worked with Pepsi-Cola on its recently released 500-ml. non-carbonated beverage bottle, which reduced the amount of plastic in the bottle by 20 percent, the label size by 10 percent and the amount of multipack shrinkwrap film by 5 percent.
The packaging design firm incorporated flowing lines around the bottle that added rigidity while communicating a natural feeling to the package, which is being used for Lipton Iced Tea, Tropicana juice drinks and Aquafina flavored waters.
“In the olden days, we would just make a bunch of concentric rings that would go up and down the bottle and it would be very utilitarian but it would be functional,” Leslie says. “Now, instead of those artificial rings, we have natural rings that communicate the brand and still give you the structural integrity that’s required to keep it lightweight.”
While lightweighting is the biggest bottle trend, the United States has a ways to go before it will likely see the type of bottles found in Europe, Leslie says.
“In Europe, we can do a lot of really lightweight bottles because Europeans are very comfortable with making some sacrifices to rigidity in order to help the environment,” he says. “We do pouches, things that in America, people really don’t accept … In Europe they’re much more accommodating to that because they understand the impact it has on the environment. That’s the interesting juggle we have right now. We have to make sure we design these in such a way that they don’t get flimsy.”
Switching to an entirely new material also can result in a lighter weight package, as Ball Corp. found when it created a new PET bottle for Artisan Wine Co.’s Painted Turtle brand. The Broomfield, Colo.-based company designed a 750-ml. bottle, which at 54 grams, weighs about one-tenth as much as the previous bottle. The new bottle also incorporated SIG’s Plasmax ultra-thin internal silicon oxide barrier coating to protect the wine from oxygen. The barrier resists cracking and delamination, and does not degrade over time, the company says.
“Another great benefit of that barrier compared to some other types of barriers is that it’s completely and easily removable in the recycling process, so it doesn’t contaminate the recycling stream,” says company spokesperson Jennifer Hoover. Recycling is an important consideration when using barrier technology, she adds. The Plasmax barrier washes off the bottle during the normal recycling wash cycle, while other barriers can be separated when the PET is ground up. A barrier that is blended with PET is not removable.
The Wine Group, San Francisco, also changed the packaging last year for the Alamen and Inglenook brands it acquired from Constellation Brands. The company already used bag-in-box packaging for its Franzia brand, and has promoted the technology for its quality as well as environmental benefits.
“The introduction of oxygen into the package is detrimental to the shelf life of wine,” explains Brian Voss, chief operating officer at the Wine Group. “When you open a glass bottle, there is no mechanism to limit the exposure to oxygen. Conversely, with bag-in-box technology, as you dispense the wine from the cap, the bag collapses on itself, no oxygen is allowed to enter into the bag ... So you avoid exposure of the wine to additional oxygen, and therefore keep the wine fresh throughout the six weeks in the package.”
In addition, the company estimates that the packaging change will result in 11 million fewer pounds of packaging and a 60 percent reduction in the brands’ carbon footprint. Bag-in-box packaging also is gaining ground in higher-priced wines such as the Wine Group’s Boho Vineyards, Corbett Canyon and Fish Eye brands. In addition, the company produces bag-in-box packaging for Whole Foods’ 365 brand.
“Over the last couple years, with the growing sensitivity to environmental issues, we obviously took a hard look at all of our packaging and understood just how beneficial the bag-in-box format was from a waste and carbon footprint perspective,” Voss says. “Principally because it costs less energy to create the package, but more importantly, it takes way less energy, fuel and resources, and subsequently creates much less of a carbon footprint to transport the packages because the product-to-package ratio is so much higher.”
To overcome consumer resistance to bag-in-box packaging, the Wine Group last year aired television advertising for Fish Eye that explained some of the quality benefits, and it created the Better Wines, Better World Web site at betterwinesbetterworld.com, which explains both the freshness aspect and the environmental attributes.
Another new material being considered by beverage companies is PLA biodegradable polymers, which are sourced from plant-based materials rather than petroleum. Seal-It, a Farmingdale, N.Y.-based division of Printpack Inc., has created shrink labels from Earthfirst PLA film.
“PLA is a compostable, environmentally friendly film that has all the specifications and characteristics of traditional films, in that it prints well, shrinks extremely well and has excellent machineability,” says Barbara Drillings, marketing communication manager at Seal-It.
She adds that using a combination shrink label with tamper-evidence can eliminate the need for two labels, providing a source reduction, as well as a plant-based material.
Weighing the benefits
For a company that is trying to reduce its environmental impact, the choice of packaging can be daunting. Nearly all beverage packages are recyclable â€” glass and aluminum infinitely so, allowing them to be turned from one beverage container into another. Recycled PET also is being blended with virgin resin to create new beverage packaging, and can be used in numerous other non-package applications.
The issues of carbon footprint and fuel savings also factor into the most eco-friendly choices. Most industry experts agree the best type of packaging varies by the type of product and the individual company’s supply chain concerns.
“When you think about the most sustainable or the most eco-friendly, to us, I don’t think there is a universal meaning to that term,” Ball Corp.’s Hoover says. “There’s no one type of package that can really make that claim because there are so many considerations that go into it.”
A full lifecycle analysis is the most quantitative method to determine the environmental impact of a package, although it can be an expensive undertaking. A lifecycle assessment measures all the inputs such as energy and materials, through all phases of production, including raw material extraction, production and distribution, as well as the outputs to the environment such as greenhouse gas emissions and end-of-life scenarios.
Hoover suggests companies can similarly optimize their packaging by examining the product and what it needs to accomplish, as well as how it works throughout the company’s production cycle, transportation and retail system. In addition, she says using recyclable materials that have a consistent and stable end market is important for supporting the recycling programs that are in place.
The United States has a less-than-impressive recycling rate â€” 45.1 percent of beer and soft drink cans were recycled in 2006, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thirty-one percent of HDPE milk and water bottles, 30.9 percent of plastic soft drink bottles, and 25.3 percent of glass containers were recycled. On the secondary packaging side, 51.6 percent of paper and paperboard packaging were recycled.
Using recycled content saves natural resources and results in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. Packaging companies such as Ball Corp.are increasing the amount of recycled content in their products, and beverage companies can assist by using materials that are easily recycled and by promoting the recyclability of their packaging to consumers. Pepsi-Cola, for example, rolled out the “Have we met before?” campaign this year to encourage recycling of its aluminum cans.
“Aluminum actually supports recycling programs in a lot of places because of its value,” Hoover says. “It pays for everything else that goes through the stream, which is great because it boosts recycling of all materials.”
Simplicity in packaging is both a design aesthetic and an environmental concern that many packaging suppliers cite as an industry trend.
Seal-It’s Drillings says her company’s design process includes educating customers on the various aspects of each film’s benefits, and adds, “We will also work with our customers to optimize their labels so that they aren’t ‘over-engineered.’”
John Perkins, vice president of global market business development at MWV, Glen Allen, Va., says his company has encouraged packaging designers to add a fourth R â€” “Rethink” â€” to the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra. That type of holistic thinking makes sustainability part of the “essence of how you create new products,” he says, and can result in structural benefits that exceed traditional packaging, as well as environmental benefits.
Like 4sight’s Leslie, Perkins says research conducted by MWV’s Center for Packaging Innovation shows a limited vocabulary among consumers when it comes to sustainability, and a desire to maintain a premium image from a package. But he adds, “When you’re able to make certain environmental or recycling claims about the package, the purchase intent went up significantly, so we think for the brand owners within beverage, the ability to tell the environmental story to the consumer is a tremendous opportunity.”
In terms of “rethinking” packaging, Perkins says MWV has launched high-count multipacks for glass bottles that use its Coated Natural Kraft (CNK) paperboard as a replacement for corrugate, which not only reduced material but exceed the strength aspects of corrugate and resulted in a better billboarding effect. It also has rolled out new handle designs and an ice pack design that makes use of CNK’s wet-strength benefits.
In addition, the company created the FlexiTech package for drink pouches, incorporating an I-Beam design that allowed it to replace corrugate with CNK paperboard. In addition to material savings, the new package allowed the company to add an improved handle as well as a dispense-pack feature so the multipack can be stored in the refrigerator, resulting in a package that was preferred over more traditional offerings.
The blend of environmental benefits with consumer-preferred packaging is what will drive sustainability going forward, say packaging experts. “A lot of people are getting so excited about being more environmentally friendly and sustainable,” 4sight Inc.’s Leslie says. “You have to create that emotional connection where a person wants to pick up your product and drink it ... all the other things that we’re building into it to make a product more sustainable all have to support that, but they can’t interfere with that.” BI