Going green can mean saving some green, as environmental and economic concerns lead innovations in dairy packaging.

Cartons and containers are no longer just a holding cell for ice cream, milk and the like. Despite what the economy scoops up and dishes out, ice cream addicts can enjoy more for less, while yogurt lovers can dip into their favorite calcium-enriched treat without even using a spoon. Milk processors are even jumping aboard to update their packaging.

According to a recent study conducted by BNP Media’s Clear Seas Research, Troy, Mich., 40% of companies are increasing their innovative packaging initiatives, while 49% are maintaining their focus. Only 11% of companies surveyed are decreasing their efforts.

Moreover, 62% strongly agree that product packaging influences consumer purchase decisions, while 61% say that packaging design has a direct impact on consumer perceptions of a product, the study illustrates. 

Among dairy products, ice cream tubs have received one of the larger makeovers in the dairy market.

For many ice cream processors, the “traditional” 56-ounce carton (the new standard, with only a handful of companies clinging to a true half gallon) is being reincarnated yet again as suppliers seek to offset input costs. But some companies are going retro, if you will, to deliver products that give consumers a bit more scoops for their tightly stretched dollars.

For example, while much of the ice cream industry has been transitioning yet again, this time from 56-ounce to 48-ounce tubs, Gifford’s Ice Cream traded up by delivering ice cream in 64-ounce containers, a true half-gallon, giving ice cream lovers 8 to 16 more ounces that other brands for the same price.

“In many cases, customers were unaware that the size of their favorite product had changed [to 48 ounces],” says Lindsay Gifford, vice president of sales and marketing for the Skowhegan, Maine-based company, which is abandoning its 56-ounce carton. “We listened to our consumers’ frustration and given these tough economic times, we made not just a packaging decision, but a pricing decision.”

Meanwhile, Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry’s is retaining its 16-ounce pint size, while many of its competitors are shrinking from 16- to 14-ounce “pints.”

But while size means one thing, shape means another. The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., has launched Danimals CrushCups. Introduced in January, the yogurt cups are made of polystyrene and designed to make it more fun for kids yet easier to eat while on the go.

“We continue to identify opportunities to reduce primary and secondary packaging, while maintaining the integrity and protective properties of our packaging,” says Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for Dannon. “We are also continuing to find ways to reduce our packaging material weights on various formats.”

BelGioioso Cheese Inc. recently launched Unwrap & Roll, designed for deli operators and those just looking to create a simple, yet distinctive dish. The Wisconsin-based company’s fresh mozzarella is formed into a thin, ready-to-use sheet that can be peeled off and used in salads, appetizers and pizzas. Plus, the distinctive packaging includes easy-to-read instructions and suggests some optional uses.

Milking excitement

Of all dairy segments, milk seems to be among the least exciting when it comes to packaging. Short of the now-standard plastic single-serve bottle, a format created by Dean’s Chug, there has been little innovation. Yet today’s technological advances and consumers’ urgency to go green produce opportunities for milk processors to get up to date.

“Milk continues to have a halo effect in not doing a lot with innovation packaging,” says Michael Richmond, president of Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions, Kalamazoo, Mich., and a Dairy Foods columnist. “But there is real opportunity. Just look back when original single-serve flavored milk in plastic bottles came out.”

Additionally, consumers place a larger impact on today’s economical conditions than ever before.

The retail price of milk, for instance, has dropped over the past six months, says Doug Adams, president of Prime Consulting Group Inc., whose firm helps clients – which have included MilkPEP – address a spectrum of sales- and advertising-related issues. Therefore, it’s imperative, he says, for milk companies to begin updating their packaging in order to stay on trend with other refrigerated beverages.

Some of the volume growth also results from consumers eating at home more often, thus depending on milk as the primary cooking beverage, Adams says. Schools are even considering making changes to milk cartons to reduce the impact on the environment, he notes.

“Cartons represent nearly 90% of the packaging used for milk in schools,” Adams says. “I have recently seen strong efforts by packaging companies to help provide the infrastructure and education to show schools how to recycle milk packages.” (See sidebar above on the Carton Council.)

In fact, paperboard milk cartons are touted by their manufacturers as the most responsible form of packaging because they are less expensive, require less storage space, are made from fewer raw materials and block ultraviolet light, according to a recent recap of carton recycling and composting case studies from schools produced by the Paperboard Manufacturers Association.

“Packaging is a very visible way that involves the consumer,” Adams says. “I anticipate processors will also work on improvements at the plant and encourage improvements all the way back to the farm.”

On the other hand, consumers also want convenience and portability, Richmond says, but sees that not much has been done in the cream cheese, cottage cheese, spreads and even milk packaging in quite some time.

“[It] seems like most are graphic changes, though Wal-Mart has gone into a space-efficient plastic container and I have seen some single-serve flavored milks in flexible pouches in four packs,” he notes. “There has been good growth of the mini bottles of healthy yogurt drinks and, most recently, Kraft has introduced a new semi-rigid natural slices deli pack.”

Labels that speak

While some companies aim to save the environment one carton, tub or plastic bottle at a time, suppliers also are taking advantage of the exterior canvas to “talk” to consumers.

New Hampshire-based organic yogurt powerhouse Stonyfield Farm is famous for its mini homilies about climate change on its foil lids, and Gifford’s return to half-gallon cartons brought with it labels that offer stories about the company, its flavors and its charity work.

Gifford’s also changed the carton rims from different colors to a uniform green, to create a more impactful visual presence in the dairy case, Gifford says. “Fortunately, ice cream packaging is relatively simple, but we are always looking for ways to be more environmentally friendly,” she says. “Our best way to do that is to work closely as our suppliers are developing more ecological alternatives. We definitely want to move in that direction as long as the quality of the product is protected.”    

Similarly, companies like Breyers Yogurt Co. are introducing new yogurt labels. While the 6-ounce cup sizes remain the same, the North Lawrence, N.Y.-based unit of Healthy Food Holdings brightened up its labels with solid black backgrounds and three-dimensional fruit images. The cup itself is of a slender design, offering an easier fit in the hand.

But environmental issues, while economical in some ways, can become less of a priority when consumers are pinching pennies. “The recent economic slowdown has led many consumers to reduce what they spend that may temporarily reduce the influence of other factors such as sustainability,” Adams says.

So whether it’s to save, speak or scrimp, packaging transformations can help entice consumers to purchase one brand over another while saving the environment. In the end, it’s all about reaching the consumer and letting their purchasing dollars speak for themselves.

Sidebar: Calculating cost reduction

It’s no secret that today’s economical slump has forced some companies to revamp their product lines, operational processes and packaging needs. Thanks to the Reusable Packaging Economic Calculator, businesses can save some green while going green.

Created by the Reusable Packaging Association in cooperation with StopWaste.org, the calculator is based on a financial model that compares basic cost differences of single-use corrugated and reusable packaging.

The calculator allows for a potential reusable packaging user to perform basic financial analysis to determine if the supply chain in question is favorable for reusable packaging, according to a press release.

In fact, the dairy industry completed an ISO 14040 life-cycle assessment, says Bob Klimko, chairman of the Landover, Md.-based RPA. The study indicates that the dairy industry generates 28 million metric tons of CO2, therefore reusable milk crates continue to be a common and viable option for dairy companies.

Sidebar: Packaging industry unites around recycling programs

Four of the country’s carton manufacturers have joined forces to help advance improvements to carton recycling infrastructure across the country, building on the environmental benefits afforded by carton packaging.

The formation of the Carton Council by Tetra Pak, Elopak, Evergreen Packaging and SIG Combibloc signals an unusual move by companies who are strong industry competitors. However, a shared commitment to sustainability has brought them together as they seek to improve environmental performance of their products.

The council is specifically committed to increasing carton recycling in the United States. By promoting both recycling technology and local collection programs, it believes it can help limit the number of cartons that become waste.

The council also will encourage consumers to consider the environmental impact of product packaging before they make a purchase. Both gable-top and aseptic cartons are made primarily from paper, a renewable resource that is highly recyclable. In general, cartons have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional packages.

“We are very proud that the environmental impact of cartons already is among the lowest in the packaging industry,” said Tetra Pak’s Ed Klein, executive director of the Carton Council. “Cartons are source-reduced and made primarily of paper, a renewable resource, from responsibly sourced, well-managed forests. But we want to take our commitments to the next level, and that’s where significantly increasing recycling comes in.”

One of the first alliances from the Carton Council to increase carton recycling is with Waste Management, which has agreed to include cartons in all its recycling programs.

For more information on the Carton Council, visitwww.recyclecartons.com.

Sidebar: Study: Demand For Food Containers to Approach $25B by 2013

U.S. demand for food containers is projected to increase 2.5% per year to $25 billion in 2013, or more than 300 billion units, and dairy is expected to be a large part of that, according to a new study by the Freedonia Group.

Advances will be based on an expanding population base, real growth (albeit decelerated) in disposable personal income, smaller household sizes, consumer demand for foods offering a combination of convenience and value, and trends toward value-added packaging providing enhanced freshness protection and convenience of use. Unit expansion will be aided by the growing popularity of single-serving packaging, such as plastic cups and pouches, in a widening range of applications.

In 2008, the largest markets for food containers were dairy products, fruits and vegetables, grain mill products (including pet food) and baked goods, which together accounted for nearly 50 percent of total demand.

These and other trends are presented in “Food Containers: Rigid & Flexible,” a study from the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based industry research firm.

Plastic containers, bags and pouches will experience the fastest growth among food container types, often supplanting paperboard, metal and glass containers, the study projects. Gains for plastic containers will be attributable to performance advantages over glass, metal and paperboard alternatives, as well as improved resin and processing technologies.

Advances for bags and pouches will be the result of cost and performance advantages that will enable continued inroads into rigid packaging applications, the study says. Moreover, the source reduction advantages of flexible packaging such as bags and pouches will support gains as brand owners seek to enhance the environmental friendliness of their packaging.

Prospects in the more mature paperboard, metal and glass food container segments will be less favorable, though growth niches will exist. For instance, demand for paperboard food containers will be aided by heightened demand for recycled content packaging and the promotion of paper as a renewable resource. In addition, aseptic cartons will log robust gains in soups and canned specialties, sauces and condiments, often at the expense of metal cans.

Despite declines for glass containers resulting from significant losses to plastic containers, advantages of relatively stable pricing, long shelf life and a high-quality image will enable glass to remain an important part of the container mix in certain markets.