Cash and Caring

When it comes to dairy containers, it’s all about the green – in more ways that one.

The buzzword continues to be sustainability – packaging that’s recyclable, made from renewable resources or otherwise friendly to the environment. But whether that means using new materials or just downgauging existing packaging, it all comes back to the other green issue: saving money.

“In part a response to established sustainability initiatives and to current uncertain economic conditions, efficiency in packaging will trump other innovation drivers,” says Gene Welch, vice president and general manager of meat and dairy flexibles North America and rigid containers for Alcan Packaging, Chicago. “Using less material and realizing economies throughout the value chain will mark the characteristics of new dairy packaging solutions.”

Michelle Schmitt, market analyst for Evansville, Ind.-based Berry Plastics Corp., acknowledges that consumers’ concern for the environment and cost savings are currently driving development of dairy packaging. But according to Penny Staats, marketing manager at Huhtamaki, De Soto, Kans., the desire to downsize is accompanied by the need to differentiate.

“In both factors, the need to improve sustainability characteristics and provide a more convenient package is part of those initiatives,” Staats says. “The entire supply chain in delivering packaging and efficiently moving product through production onto the retail shelf is now being considered in the design process. Lighter, renewable, recyclable and reducing materials are all in the forefront of making a more responsible and sustainable packaging.” 

And differentiation breeds innovation. “With our study and design department and our R&D office, we always propose new types of containers to our customers,” says Christine Bouveret, sales manager at Quebec’s IML. “We’ve mixed different materials on the same container, for example, a cardboard tray with a plastic lid, or a wooden tray with a plastic dome. The trend of the moment is bi-injection, or two different resins or colors on the same lid.”

The aseptic packaging systems offered by SIG Combibloc address multiple industry demands. “SIG’s aseptic carton filling lines are designed for optimal efficiency to reduce product and packaging waste,” says Beatriz Callanta, marketing manager for North and Central America at the Chester, Pa.-based company. “Its high-speed filling lines (up to 24,000 packs per hour) offer the dairy industry additional volumes at little to no extra costs. The carton itself has a guaranteed shelf life for up to a year and offers customers an attractive and environmentally friendly alternative.

“Although about 75% of the aseptic carton packaging is made from a renewable resource and can count on a very low carbon footprint in comparison with other packaging types, the industry demands even more stringent and continuous corporate measures to reduce the impact on the environment. In concrete terms, that means that not only the aseptic carton itself, but also the sourcing of our fiber, production methods and logistics need to be revisited for constant improvements to our sustainability profile.”

Staats concurs, noting that sustainability has evolved to a “must-have” feature of any new container. “The scope of consideration for sustainability has broadened beyond just the package,” she says. “We address how the package is produced, how the containers are received, how it’s used on the production floor and how the finished packaged product is delivered and displayed in the retail shelf.”

Demand brings innovation

Beyond the greening of waste and wallet, processors continue to look to the containers they use for a competitive edge, Welch says. “In the near term, the market is contracting, so dairy brand owners will succeed by capturing market share and by creating consumer relevancy in the retail and home environments,” he says. “Dynamic graphic presentation, consumer convenience and product safety are all paramount in developing new packaging concepts.”

Toward that end, Alcan Packaging has launched its MatteFX advanced surface finish technology, which can alternate matte and gloss finishes on the same package for special package effects. “One application of the technology is to create a registered viewing window in the flexible package, which is a great way to showcase freshness and quality of the product inside,” Welch explains. “By using MatteFX technology to reveal the fresh, natural attributes of natural cheeses and other dairy foods, brand owners can create high-impact packaging that stimulates a powerful emotional response from consumers at the critical moment of truth.”

On the other hand, some companies have opted to better reflect the current economic climate. “Customers are cost conscious, but still desire upscale graphics on their packages. We are meeting these demands by continuing to invest in state-of-the-art molding and decorating technologies,” says Schmitt, who lists high-cavitation in-mold labeled containers and thermoformed PP drink cups among Berry’s innovations.

As a key supplier of ice cream containers, Huhtamaki has been on the front lines of the frozen dessert industry’s downsizing of the “half gallon” to curtail myriad input costs, with several new offerings in 2008. The company’s new 48-ounce Regal XT non-round container offers increased billboard space for better branding, is easier to hold and scoop, and 20% more of them fit on a retail freezer shelf, Staats explains.

“We also engineered a re-design of the nested stack on our pint Nestyle containers,” she says. “Although invisible to the consumer, this change allows for an increase in the number of containers per case. More cups in the case equals improved cube efficiencies, and more units in a truckload, netting fewer trucks on the road.”  

Further, single-serve containers with the spoon in the lid or with the package have made significant progress in the away-from-home convenience category, Staats adds. 

Bouveret says environmental demands drive IML’s customers to use recyclable containers, which for her company means thin-walled, injection-molded polypropylene resin with in-mold labels.

“There are two areas our customers focus on: reusability of the containers and increased durability of the product,” Bouveret says. “That means increasing the shelf life. We’ve developed some packaging with light and oxygen barriers. Also, our containers are sealable with a membrane or tamper-proof [closure].”

IML’s offerings for dairy over the past several years have included an oval ice cream container with tamper evidence and a wrap-around label. “Our customer optimized his palletization, shipping, inventory space and productivity with this new shape versus his old round container,” Bouveret says. IML also has developed a clear ice cream container, to allow visibility of inclusions.

At SIG Combibloc, customers are looking to maximize the optimalization of their aseptic cartons – reduce package weight and minimize inner layers while upholding aseptic integrity, Callanta explains. “Regarding openings, customers demand a lower fitment grammage, but also are looking for better pourability and ease of opening,” she says. “This year, the U.S. market will see the first launch of our CombiFit Premium package in 500- and 1,000-milliliter sizes. CombiFit Premium is available for noncarbonated beverages and beverage applications, and features a slim and elegant style with an attractive slanted top.

In addition, SIG has launched its new CombiSmart opening feature, purported to be the smallest screw cap available for small-size product applications such as condensed milk and creamers.

The next big thing

Where is container development going from here?

“Our customers are demanding better, closer collaboration in developing packaging innovations for their brands,” Welch says. They are looking for a shared commitment in their product’s success. By being part of the development process early on, with more informed access to our customers’ particular market and operational dynamics, we are able to effect innovative, productive solutions throughout the value chain and within the consumer’s brand experience.”

That’s definitely the case at Huhtamaki, where the company involves all stakeholders from the initiation of a project. “New product introductions will continue to see a reduction in package size, whether it’s a family pack or single-serve,” Staats says. “Huhtamaki will take on this challenge as we create packages that will improve the overall consumer experience, address key sustainability opportunities and continue to focus on decreasing costs for the entire supply chain.”

Aseptic technology will grow in importance, Callanta maintains. “The next big thing in dairy containers will be improved shelf life. Aseptic cartons, due to their cost benefits regarding energy, waste and sustainability will make an inroad onto the retail shelves,” she says. “Dairy packaging will even further appeal to customers’ health and wellness goals by offering more convenient formats and sizes and on-the-go concepts.”

Alcan Packaging
Berry Plastics Corp.
IML Containers North America
SIG Combibloc Inc.