Choosing a packaging format can be one of the most important decisions a beverage-maker will make, notes Ron Skotleski, director of marketing at Crown Beverage Packaging North America, a division of Crown Holdings Inc., Philadelphia. “It is the consumer’s first interaction with a product and, as a result, it creates the initial perception of the brand,” he says. “Functionality, ease of use, sustainability, product protection, pack-out, fill rate and the packaging’s effectiveness are just a few of the areas a beverage brand should consider when selecting a format.”

Fortunately for beverage-makers, a variety of packaging materials, including aluminum, glass and plastic, offer different versions of these benefits. Beverage-makers just have to decide what option makes the most sense for their product and brand identity.

The right look

To uphold a brand’s identity, beverage-makers will want to choose a packaging material that offers them a look and feel that matches their brands.

For example, if a brand wants to portray a classic look, particularly for a beer product, it could turn to aluminum cans. The packaging style is celebrating its 80th anniversary in the beer market, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) and the Beer Institute, both of Washington, D.C.

“The invention of the beer can revolutionized the beer industry,” the companies said in a statement. “Canned beer made it possible to transport more beer at a single time and to distribute beer [farther] away from a brewery.” Today, cans account for 54 percent of beer packaging, the companies added.

However, cans are not just a nostalgic style of packaging meant for beer. The can has been evolving over the years to keep up with the times, Crown’s Skotleski says. “I think any time that a material or packaging format has been around for as long as cans have, it is always important to make sure that consumers continue to perceive the format as being current and relevant to their needs and their tastes,” he says. “Beverage brands always want to be modern and current with their consumers.” To accommodate the modern consumer, Crown focuses on sleek can sizes to give the packaging a more cutting-edge feel, he says.

In addition, beverage categories that are not as commonly packaged in cans, like water or wine, can use the packaging material to differentiate from other products on the market, points out Jay Billings, vice president of innovation, global metal beverage and North American marketing for Ball Corp., Broomfield, Colo.

In spite of these features, the aluminum can sometimes has the image of a packaging format for sub-premium brands, Billings admits. “That outdated view was put to bed with the success of craft beer in cans, but there may be a few people who still believe that,” he says. “As some of the best beer in the world continues to choose cans … that misperception will officially be a thing of the past.”

Right now, though, beverage-makers might turn to glass when they’re looking to exude a more premium appeal. “Glass conveys quality in a way that is unmatched by other types of packaging,” says Raul Paredes, director of new product development at Owens-Illinois (O-I) North America, Perrysburg, Ohio. “Consumers associate glass packaging with quality products.”

Euromonitor International’s June 2014 report “Glass Packaging in the US” notes that glass beverage packaging witnessed a notable uptake in 2014 because of increased interest in wine and premium spirits, both of which are primarily packaged in glass. Similarly, within the carbonates category, consumers increasingly are showing interest in higher-end or alternative soda brands, which also tend to be packaged in glass, the Chicago-based market research firm notes. As these trends continue, Euromonitor expects the packaging format will grow by 4 percent.

In addition, glass also can contribute a level of purity because it is made from pure, natural, non-toxic ingredients, adds Ryan McCarthy, regional communications specialist for O-I.

Plastic bottles also add a level of purity because their clarity allows consumers to see the quality of the product inside. “[Plastic bottles’] transparency and clarity are [their] key assets,” says Vincent Le Guen, vice president of packaging for Sidel, Hünenberg, Switzerland. “Customers naturally want to be able to see and fully appreciate the bottle’s contents and to determine its quality.”

Think green

Beyond having the right look, brands more often are expected to add a sustainability image to their brand packaging. “In a 2014 survey by Forum for the Future, 62 percent of consumers said they would feel negatively toward brands that don’t use sustainable packaging,” says Eric Anderson, director of evercan at Novelis Inc., Atlanta.

However, the challenge to creating even more sustainable packaging is ensuring there is enough recycled material to work with, Anderson says. For example, within the plastic bottle industry, packaging companies can only create bottles with partial recycled PET (rPET) content because consumers are only recycling plastic bottles at a rate of about 30 percent, says John Maddox, president of SBA-CCI Inc., Jacksonville, Fla. However, the recycling rate of plastic water bottles is closer to 36 percent, notes Ron Puvak, director of marketing and new business development at Plastic Technologies Inc., Holland, Ohio.

RPET, which shows no significant difference in chemical composition from PET, has been found to have better re-heating characteristics than virgin PET and requires two-thirds less energy to make than virgin PET, Sidel’s Le Guen explains. However, as rPET is repeatedly exposed to the heat of the recycling process, it becomes increasingly discolored, setting a limit for how many times the plastic can be reused, he notes. In addition, traditional methods of recycling PET make it difficult to separate contaminants from the plastic efficiently, thereby reducing the amount of available rPET, he notes. Therefore, more quantities of rPET are needed in general to create more rPET bottles and to replace the bottles that are wearing out, he says.

To overcome these recycled material limitations for all packaging types, the packaging industry as a whole needs to invest more effort in educating Americans about recycling, Novelis’ Anderson says.

Aluminum cans have a 67 percent recycling rate, which is the highest rate among all beverage containers in the United States, according to CMI President Robert Budway.  Plus, aluminum cans can be repeatedly recycled without loss of strength or quality, which keeps aluminum in permanent use and out of landfills, he says. After recycling, the material can be returned to the shelf in can form in as few as 60 days, he adds. In line with this, most aluminum cans contain 70 percent recycled content, compared with glass bottles, which contain about 23 percent, and plastic bottles, which contain about 3 percent, says Matt Meenan, director of communications for The Aluminum Association, Arlington, Va.

To use even more recycled content, Novelis offers the evercan sheet, which is made of at least 90 percent recycled aluminum, Novelis’ Anderson says. “This is important because high-recycled content means evercan uses just a fraction of the energy needed to make a can from new aluminum, cutting greenhouse gases,” he explains. The evercan material also is certified by Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Services to create a new level of trust in the recycled content in the packaging and provide a unique branding platform for the brand owner, he says.

Like cans, glass bottles also can be repeatedly recycled to create new glass bottles without any loss in quality, according to O-I’s McCarthy. This means that the material does not need to be downcycled into another product that eventually ends up in a landfill, he points out.

Beyond being 100 percent recyclable, plastic bottles’ lightweight features also help to promote sustainability. “As a lightweight material, PET already provides significant environmental advantages in terms of lower transportation costs and reduced fuel emissions compared with many other packaging materials,” Sidel’s Le Guen explains.

First line of defense

Of course, these sustainability benefits only go so far if the packaging cannot protect the product.

Aluminum cans are known for their ability to keep out air and light, which could degrade the beverage product, better than alternative options, according to The Aluminum Association’s Meenan. Because of this, cans tend to offer a longer shelf life than other packaging options, he says.

In addition, contrary to a common belief, aluminum does not impact the taste of the beverage, because can manufacturers add a sealant to the cans that provides a barrier between the beverage and the aluminum, creating a protective package for the quality and taste of the beverage inside, Novelis’ Anderson says.

Glass, specifically colored glass, also offers some barrier properties. “Color in glass always has been an added value to the container, since it brings a whole new spectrum of options that are aesthetic but also functional,” explains Efrain Karchmer, director of marketing at Vitro Packaging LLC, Plano, Texas. “For example, black glass conceals the product, and amber protects it against [ultraviolet] (UV) rays,” he explains.

In general, dark-colored glass bottles often are used to package beer, as the glass prevents over-fermentation and deflects  UV rays, thereby reducing the occurrence of “skunky” beer, according to the December 2014 report “Glass Packaging Market – Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast 2014-2020” by Transparency Market Research, Albany, N.Y. For wine and hard ciders, beverage-makers also choose dark-colored glass bottles, which helps in storing the bottles for longer periods of time, it adds.

Although lighter in color, plastic bottles can offer barrier properties too, according to Plastic Technologies. The company’s over-molded oPTI lightweight foamed PET bottles feature a dual-layer structure where barrier properties can be added. “For example, an oxygen barrier can be added to the inner layer, while the outer layer can include a carbon-dioxide barrier,” the company said in a statement.

In addition, plastic offers product protection in another way. As the most flexible of the three major primary packaging material types, plastic bottles are shatterproof, protecting the product on the beverage line, during transit, at retail, through to the point of consumption, Sidel’s Le Guen notes.

A time for everything

Many of plastic bottles’ qualities, including their shatterproof nature, make them suitable for multiple use occasions. “[Consumers] are looking for packages that fit their lifestyles — convenient, on-the-go formats that are easy to handle, store and carry,” Sidel’s Le Guen explains. Plastic Technologies’ Puvak notes that plastic bottles’ shatterproof and lightweight qualities make them easy and safe for consumers to carry with them, and their re-sealable quality allows consumers to enjoy the beverage inside in portions and save the rest for later.

Like plastic bottles, cans also offer lightweight qualities that make them easily portable and shatterproof qualities that allow them to be taken to public locations, like beaches and pools, where glass is not allowed, points out Ball Corp.’s Billings. “For some customers not yet in aluminum, they reach a point in their current packaging that, in order to grow, they need to expand into metal cans to increase occasions,” he says.

Crown’s Skotleski also notes that cans are durable and can keep a drink cooler for a longer period of time.

However, beverage cans often do not as frequently offer the re-sealability features that plastic bottles do, but the can industry is continuing to work to change that. Now re-sealable cans are becoming a growing part of the industry’s package offerings, according to Claude Marbach, president of Rexam Beverage Can North America, Chicago.

In line with these efforts, Xolution GmbH, Munich, released earlier this year its next generation of XO technology for can ends. The XO system equips beverage cans with lids featuring an integrated plastic opening mechanism that allows the can to be re-closed and portioned for later consumption, the company says. Re-sealing the can with gas- and liquid-tight seals also prevents spills, allows the beverage to stay fresher and carbonated for longer, and prevents dirt or insects from entering the can, it says. New features of the next-generation technology include less and even thinner plastic parts to achieve a reduction of the total weight as well as of the stacking height of the XO ends, it explains. The plastic technologies for the lid also are designed to increase heat resistance during the filling process to support high-temperature pasteurization and hot-filling, it says. For consumer safety, the technology also includes a tamper-evident seal that covers the opening mechanisms and breaks when initially opened, it notes. Re-sealable XO ends can be processed on existing filling lines without modification, it adds.

Aluminum bottles also have been utilized as a solution to address the re-sealability issues, Ball Corp.’s Billings notes.

Across the board, primary packages are addressing the re-sealability issue by offering smaller portion sizes, which might not need to be re-sealed as often. This also appeals to consumers’ interests in portion-controlled beverages to support a healthier lifestyle, Crown’s Skotleski says. “Large beverage producers in particular … are shifting their focus toward smaller portion sizes,” he says. “This translates into a growing demand for smaller, sleeker packaging sizes.”

 In all of these ways, various beverage packaging materials can help meet the needs of both beverage-makers and consumers. Beverage-makers just need to figure out what combination of benefits makes the most sense for their products and brands and craft their glass, aluminum or plastic containers.