Secondary packaging is pulling double duty these days, providing safe, sturdy transportation for beverage multipacks while also meeting the ever-increasing call for sustainability.

“The thing that I’m noticing is that people seem to be pretty conscientious about reducing the amount of secondary packaging,” says Amie Thomas, marketing manager at PakTech, Eugene, Ore. “It seems that maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you’d buy a product that would be wrapped and overwrapped, and there was a big billboarding effect ... I feel like people aren’t doing that as much because they see it as being wasteful.”

Whether they specialize in shrinkwrap, paperboard or plastic beverage carriers, secondary packaging companies are working to reduce the amount of material in their products and make them more economical to transport, all the while maintaining the visual appeal and marketing benefits that entice consumers to pull products off the shelves.

Lightweight design

Improved sustainability in secondary packaging can be achieved through the right material mix, design, and even the choice of primary packaging, says Franck Vidal, marketing manager at Graphic Packaging, Marietta, Ga. The company specializes in paperboard packaging, which Vidal says, is unique in that it is a renewable resource. In addition, Graphic Packaging has worked to reduce the weight of its carriers both by structural design and paperboard enchancements, making them less expensive to transport without losing strength.

Previous versions of paperboard carriers were made from a mix of hardwood and pine, Vidal explains. The company changed to pine only, which has longer fibers than hardwood, resulting in a stronger paperboard product.

“We actually have stronger paper now than we had before, which allows the manufacturing facility to use a lower caliper,” he says. “For example, if they were using a 21-point board before, now with the mechanical properties we can use 20-point or 18-point for some applications. We can ‘down-caliper’ because we changed the process in our paper mills.”

In addition, Graphic Packaging has designed new handles and shapes that both improve strength and use less paper. The company expects to have a number of new handle designs on the market within the next several months.

The choice of primary packaging, of course, influences the choice of secondary packaging, and Vidal says the trend toward 16- and 24-ounce cans in soft drinks, energy drinks and beer, have the company designing an increasing number of carriers for those sizes. Even with more traditional 12-ounce cans, he says, the shape of the primary package can carry through to the amount of material used in the secondary package. Changing to a slim-can design, for example, can allow a reduction in the amount of paperboard used in a multipack carrier. Using a no-flap design on the secondary package, which allows bottles and cans to show through on one side, maintains the strength of a full carton but reduces the amount of paperboard.

The billboard effect

While beverage companies are more interested in eco-friendly packaging, they still want packaging with shelf appeal, Vidal says. High-gloss UV finishes remain popular, as do metallic finishes and other special effects. Graphic Packaging has a number of new packaging options on the way that are designed with both visual appeal and functionality in mind, including new paperboard carriers that fit over the top of cans and bottles, much like current plastic carriers do. Vidal says the carriers reduce the packaging footprint while maintaining space for product billboarding.

That mix of shelf appeal and functionality is true for other secondary packaging materials as well, says Jon Viens, national accounts manager at Polypack, Pinellas Park, Fla. Beverage companies are looking for ways to save money and become more environmentally friendly, but don’t want to lose the marketing ability secondary packaging has developed, he says.

“By and large, they are looking for innovation in packaging that will meet some of those ends and as well give them a great platform on which to do the marketing of their product,” he says.

To boost its functionality, Polypack has developed a new handle design for shrinkwrap packaging that makes it easier to carry large containers of product. The handle is placed inside the package, where it stays until the consumer reaches through and releases it, ensuring that the handle does not tear off during stacking or shipping. Polypack has tested the handles on pack sizes as large as 30-packs of canned beer and 32-packs of bottled water.

“If you’re accustomed to buying trays of water, most people pick it up by the ends of the package — what they call the bullseyes,” Viens says. “We’ve introduced a machine that will incorporate a handle into the beverage pack so that the consumer can pierce his or her fingers directly through the top handle.”

The company also has developed a new nested-pack design that eliminates the need for multipack trays, yet maintains the stability of the package.

“Beverage bottles by nature want to nest during processing,” he says, pointing out that most packaging operations force the bottles not to nest but to line up instead. “What we do with the nested pack is we actually let them nest. In fact, we tell them where and how to nest to make a funky geometric pattern that fits the same shelf space, but also because of the unique shape, gives a new base on which to create new graphics.”

Not only does the system save in materials, but it creates a multipack that can be used for promotional purposes. For example, the company has come up configurations that allow bottles to nest in the shape of a football or soccer ball. In general, the nested packs also allow an additional bottle in the same amount of space, meaning a 24-pack could now become a 25-pack, using the same shelf space.

Lighter pallets

Much of the innovation at PakTech also will allow beverage companies to eliminate the use of trays in the packaging process. Thomas says her company is working with clients on an injection-molded nesting and stacking handle that fits over the top of a six-pack, and not only provides a carrier for consumers, but results in a stronger pallet of product for shipping. As the six-packs are stacked on pallets, the handles “grab” the bottom of the cans above them so they nest in place.

“Having our handles would replace the need for the tray and the shrinkwrap,” Thomas says, adding that the technology has the potential to reduce the weight of a pallet by 60 pounds.

“It’s a cost benefit for everybody, especially with the shipping cost these days,” she says. The company is reviewing other handles in its lineup to determine whether they, too, might offer such savings.

In addition to the benefits the handles offer beverage manufacturers, they also are recyclable for consumers, Thomas points out. “I get weekly emails regarding recyclability of our product,” Thomas says. “We’re proud to say ours are No. 2 [HDPE] — throw them in the recycle bin. I’m sure a lot more consumers are becoming more thoughtful about the recyclability of their packaging, which is great.”

Retail regulations

Roberts PolyPro, Charlotte, N.C., also is touting the sustainability of its plastic handles. Many of its customers are evaluating their secondary packaging in an effort to comply with Wal-Mart’s sustainability push, says Chris Turner, Roberts PolyPro’s national sales manager, multipack products.

“For the last [several] years, everything has pretty much been about convenience products,” Turner says. “Now we’re kind of seeing a push the other way.

“A lot of the bottlers right now are becoming more educated in what is actually sustainable from Point A all the way through their pipeline system,” he adds. Roberts PolyPro HDPE handles are sheet-extruded and die-stamped, which Turner says uses a minimum amount of plastic, requiring less space for storage and reducing shipping weights. In addition, he says, “We’re investigating some of the additives that are out there right now that will enable our products to be fully compostable in landfills.”

The company incorporates sustainability into its own practices as well, he adds, with a closed loop system that turns all scrap right back into product. Roberts PolyPro offers systems for small as well as large companies. Its carrier application machinery ranges from manual applicators for small operations, to intermittent-motion applicators for medium-sized manufacturers, to continuous-motion applicators for larger companies.

New option for beer

Protecting product integrity is one of the most important functions of secondary packaging, and not one that can be overlooked, even in the search for sustainability. Hi-Cone, Itaska, Ill., showcased its new BrandPak carriers at this spring’s Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, giving brewers a new option for multipack carriers that saves on materials, yet also protects the product from light damage and provides billboarding space on the package.

The BrandPak system uses a top-lift handle, glass bottle ring carrier with a wraparound stretch band. The stretch band offers protection from light, space for marketing messages, and is waterproof, so products can be chilled on ice without worry that the package will fall apart. BrandPak can be used with six-packs of bottled beer or multipack cans in four- to 12-can configurations.

In addition to the new packaging, the company highlighted application machinery that ensures small brewers as well as large can take advantage of the new option. For smaller brewers who are upgrading from manual operations or for low-speed filling lines, Hi-Cone and ITW sister company United Silicone developed the RingMaster carrier application machine for BrandPak. The RingMaster assembles the package in a two-step process that applies the ring carriers to glass bottles and then a wraparound band is stretched onto the multipack. The low-speed applicator will produce 10 bottle six-packs or 15 can six-packs per minute.

George McClory, marketing manager North America at ITW Hi-Cone, calls the system a new approach that keeps material usage, branding and cost in mind. He adds that simplicity has become a theme in beverage packaging, whether it relates to material use or simply aesthetics.

“Consider the elegance of the primary container and the effort that went into providing unique profiles and graphics; why cover them up?” he says. “Consider what the consumer really appreciates in terms of handling and convenience when buying their brand of choice. It’s my guess that sustainability and minimum packaging will be with us for the years to come.”