Sustainability continues to grow in importance for container development, but perennial needs like convenience are still must-haves.

With all the talk of sustainability these days, you wouldn’t think there were any other factors being considered in new packaging development. That’s not entirely the case.

While sustainability has come on strong and is here to stay, traditional marketing demands continue to be essential aspects to packaging innovation.

“One of the factors driving new container development is the desire for companies to set themselves apart from the rest of the competition and create brand identity in the market place,” says Scott Howland, sales director, Graham Engineering, York, Pa. “Some of these new container developments coincide with the development of premium products and extended-shelf-life products. Another factor driving new container development is the need to lower the cost to produce existing containers.” 

Convenience issues such as single serve also are a factor, says Kevin Gunning, director of frozen dessert sales, Huhtamaki, De Soto, Kans. “Producers are asking for smaller family pack sizes that maintain their shelf price as their internal costs rise,” he says. “Others are looking to differentiate with new shapes and graphics that will set them apart from the other brands.”

Need for specific sizes is impacting development, says Murray Bain, vice president of marketing at Stanpac Inc., Ontario, Canada. “There are still inquiries for sizes in either direction of the standard pint and quart for special applications or projects,” he says. “Because of the large investment in tooling artwork and design, I expect many of these changes to slow down so that all parties involved can take a breather.” 

Product ideas for on-the-go consumption are among the main drivers in the beverage industry,” says Diana Bechtold, global market segment manager for liquid dairy at Chester, Pa.-based SIG Combibloc Inc. “[Consumers] eat and drink whenever they can fit a quick bite into their daily routine. ‘Snacking’ is a booming business.”

On the other hand, Bechtold says, “more and more people are taking a step back and looking at how they live their lives. Many of these people are then deciding to adopt a lifestyle based on a belief in a ‘better world.’ The responsible and sustainable thinking and action associated with this is creating a strong shift towards ethically and environmentally motivated consumer behavior.”

These folks are considered members of the “lifestyle of health and sustainability,” or Lohas, group, she explains. “According to sociological research, in North America and Europe around 30% of the population can already be classified as Lohas, and the trend is rising.”

Hence the concentration by packaging manufacturers on sustainable products made using sustainable practices.

Sustaining concepts

Sustainability has impacted container development in a couple of different ways, Howland says. “One aspect of sustainability is the need to reduce the carbon footprint to produce a particular container. This process can take on subjects like improving the efficiency of the value stream, lightweighting the container and utilizing energy-efficient machinery,” he says. “Specific to container development, sustainability requires that the container development allow for lightweighting while maintaining the overall container performance.”

Huhtamaki evaluates its materials and reduces the amount of paper and poly coating while still maintaining product integrity and package strength, Gunning explains. “Huhtamaki has made some changes in packaging that allow for more to fit into a case, which means more containers on a truck and less freight is needed to get the packages from our manufacturing location to the producer,” he says. “This saves our customer in shipping, warehousing and freight expenses.”

Further, in-plant carton forming is an option for companies interested in sustainability, Gunning says. “This system features shipping the pre-printed container components flat to the producer, saving up to 90% in freight and warehouse costs compared to preformed cups,” he says.  “These containers can be made on demand or can be preformed and ready to fill when the producer needs, giving producers complete control of their inventory and production needs.”

Phil Lanier, national sales manager, CDF Corp., Plymouth, Mass., says the use of returnable plastic containers in some cases can be seen as an advantage over one-way corrugated containers.

“Dairy bottles are already extremely light compared to the volume of product they deliver, so big gains in package alone are hard to come by,” says Steven Rocheleau, president of Fitchbury, Mass.-based Rocheleau Tool and Die Co. Inc. “Overall sustainability needs to look at a big picture which involves questions of onsite manufacturing, which eliminates energy consumption related to transport and additional storage, how product is packaged while in cue for going to the filler, closure and label options. Reducing consumable packing anywhere in the process affects sustainability.”

Bechtold says there’s growing demand for packaging solutions that can be recycled so as to leave behind as small a carbon footprint as possible. “Aseptic carton packs from SIG Combibloc consist up to 75% of wood fiber, a renewable raw material,” she says. “SIG Combibloc demands that all its suppliers of unprocessed cartonboard operate production facilities that are certified according to the chain of custody (CoC) standard Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), in order to cover the value-added chain from forest to carton.”

According to Bechtold, SIG Combibloc is the only manufacturer of carton packs that is certified for a continuous CoC at all its production sites worldwide in accordance with the criteria of the FSC. “Acting with responsibility and foresight and ensuring that our packaging solutions for long-life foods continue to be among the most environmentally friendly food and beverage packaging systems is one of our paramount strategic business objectives,” she says.

Asked and answered

Meanwhile, what are dairy processors asking for from their suppliers?

“The growth curve for many customers has flattened out in this mature market,” Howland says. “Therefore, they cannot rely on growth alone to drive improved profits.  Rather than looking externally for growth, many companies are focusing inward, realizing that there is significant profit and growth potential through improving the efficiencies of their internal operations.”

Gunning says: “Customers are looking for speed to market with new packaging shapes and sizes. Suppliers have to be able to design, test and launch new package production within a matter of months.” 

And Bain adds: “Our customers are looking for shorter lead times and smaller run quantities in order to keep their inventory levels as low as possible.”

Globally, Bechtold says, the food and beverage industry is searching for product innovations that have the potential for success and offer added value all along the supply chain. “Additionally, foodservice providers and manufacturers are concentrating on presenting offers that satisfy consumers’ high quality standards while also providing appropriate verifiability that the products have been manufactured using processes that are high-quality, environmentally and socially responsible and sustainable,” she says.

In response to their customers, suppliers are developing a host of innovations.

CDF is now offering a 3-inch dispense fitment that enhances the ability to dispense more viscous dairy products, Lanier notes.

Omaha, Neb.-based Airlite Plastics has introduced three new lines of containers and lids all with in-mold labels for superior graphic decoration. The new lines – M-Line, A-Line and U-Line – offer round and square packages with standard and tamper deterring lids. 

Other companies have focused on working closely with customers to develop exactly the packaging or machinery they need for a specific application.

“Stanpac has developed a business model that allows us to give the customer what they need when they need it,” Bain says.

And at Rocheleau, “we are building more machinery ‘fit to purpose’ to closely match customer requirements rather than one size fits all approach,” the company’s president says. “One example is developing a new die head to allow increased cavitation of smaller-size bottles such as 8-ounce school milk without increasing machine size or energy consumption. In this case, we get 20% more 8-ounce bottles in the same machine platform.”

Many dairies use small bottles, but in much lower quantities than half-gallon and gallon bottles, Rocheleau explains, so his company continues to develop new machinery that is applicable to lower volume usages so savings can be realized at nearly any production level.

Graham Engineering has worked aggressively to help companies uncover and exploit the potential for improved profits from improving their internal efficiencies, Howland says.  “We will send a team to a customer’s facility … [to] conduct a detailed study, in which we show them the true cost of converting to more efficient, high-speed machinery, including engineering costs, project management, blow-molding equipment and auxiliary equipment,” he says. “Our report will also show them what this improved efficiency will do to their bottom line.” The Graham team also will evaluate the existing container design and point out where the container can be optimized.

“Huhtamaki Systems machinery is designed, produced and assembled all within the walls of our corporate offices,” Gunning says. “Integration with the package design team and control over the process, start to finish, has allowed recent innovations to be launched within four months of project inception.”

Sometimes product and container development go hand in hand. SIG Combibloc has developed Drinksplus, a solution that makes the added value of a product “perceptible” by adding natural extras such as pieces of real fruit and vegetables or cereal grains to drinks, Bechtold explains.

“Now it is possible for products containing up to 10% particulates to be filled in aseptic carton packs using standard SIG Combibloc filling machines for liquid dairy and NCSD products,” she says. “When considering new product concepts, it is not just a matter of coming up with innovative ideas but it is also necessary to think about technical feasibility. SIG Combibloc succeeded in bringing the liquid and solid product components together, on a continuous basis as part of the routine filling process and filling the products into carton packs under sterile conditions using standard machines.”

What's next?

What’s the “next big thing” for dairy containers?

Lanier foresees “the continued conversion from shipping in smaller containers to larger intermediate bulk containers, thus achieving economies of scale.”

Howland says: “There appears to be a growing trend in the development of extended-shelf-life containers for fresh milk products and shelf-stable products. Both create demand for new container development including multilayer applications.”

Gunning says it’s more on-the-go products for frozen desserts. “The growth in single-serve and convenience products plus the variety of sizes and flavor options for the consumer will enhance the market,” he says. “Frozen desserts will be competing with candy and salty snacks as an impulse purchase for immediate consumption.”

Bechtold says: “We are anticipating that more and more manufacturers will be launching products that are organic and based on regional concepts, or that explicitly avoid genetic engineering technology.” Accordingly, Bechtold anticipates a wealth of new products that bring additional natural benefits to classic dairy products, such as in the form of pieces of real fruit.

And, of course, every new dairy food product launched to market has to have an appropriate container to help make it a success.

Airlite Plastics Co.
CDF Corp.
Graham Engineering
Rocheleau Tool and Die Co. Inc.
SIG Combibloc
Stanpac Inc.