Cutting-edge Containers

by Lynn Petrak
As dairy product offerings expand, so do innovations in bottles, jugs and cartons.
It may be true that it is what’s inside that counts, but what holds “it” is often equally as important. Packaging, ever so tied into product development and marketing, encompasses an increasing array of formats for today’s diverse lineups of dairy products.
In particular, bottles, jugs and cartons, which for years didn’t vary much in appearance or substance, now run the gamut in size, shape and color.
As the commodity look of dairy cases has faded into near obscurity, opportunity and technology have converged to allow processors to choose from a variety of styles and materials for their bottles, jugs and cartons. Single-serve fluid milks have changed the way milk is bottled and sold in plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. Dairies are differentiating their jug products as well with non-standard shapes, more distinctive labels, colorful and convenient closures and even materials with light-blocking properties. On the carton side of the business, the standard, traditional gable-top carton is now often enhanced by different features, from screw-top caps to high-impact paperboard graphics. Across the board, shifts in dairy product capabilities, such as a move toward more extended shelf-life products, have had a significant impact on package designs and their respective capabilities and barrier properties.
The sky may not be the limit, but packaging technology for these types of formats is definitely well off the ground, according to packaging suppliers. “We are being driven by their (processors’) new developments and the expanding market for dairy-based beverages. They’ve grown the market,” says John Hoeper, market manager for the North American bottles division of Alcan’s Chicago-based Pechiney Plastic Packaging division.
A broadening marketplace for dairy goods is causing suppliers to utilize emerging technology and materials in innovative ways, creating many new and often custom formats for their respective bottles, jugs and cartons. “Because of the number of products that the dairies have now — dozens of products compared to before — we need to carry more inventory,” says Murray Bain, vice president of marketing Stanpac Inc., Smithville, Ontario, a supplier of glass bottles, closures and capping equipment.
To keep up with demand and best apply the latest in materials and equipment, some suppliers have undergone upgrades as well. “Our customers want high performance cartons and containers that look fantastic, run with high efficiency and deliver their products to the consumer,” says John Nycklemoe, vice president of carton sales for Independence, Mo.-based Burd & Fletcher, a supplier of printed boxes for food products. “To this end, we completely redesigned one of our manufacturing facilities and brought in the latest printing technology and converting technology to support our cooperative goal of being the consummate supplier.”
Bolder Bottles and Jugs
The scope of jugs and bottles that are filled with dairy products, from fluid milk to yogurt-based smoothies to dairy-based nutrition or energy drinks, is truly wide today. On the plastic side for fluid milk, traditional high-density polyethylene (HDPE) remains a popular choice for jugs and bottles because of its relatively affordable cost and proven reliability. Meanwhile, spurred by single-serve flavored milks and larger bottles such as those utilized by brands like Dean Foods’ Chugs®, high performance PET-style bottles offer the benefit of being lightweight and versatile, and can be molded into unique shapes and contours. PET bottles can also be covered in shrink-sleeve labels for added color and graphics that “pop” at the point of sale.
An emerging area of packaging technology for bottles centers on more sophisticated materials for oxygen-sensitive products requiring multiple layers and effective barriers. Pechiney has developed a new Gamma® retortable plastic bottle, targeted to the milk-based beverage and nutritional industries. “We are moving to where the market is moving and we are playing to our strengths. Now that the market is expanding to the shelf stable area, that is where we come in,” says Hoeper.
According to Tim Bubb, Pechiney’s director of research and development, the bottle is formed using multilayer materials. “We deal with products that have oxygen sensitivity, so we have a standard six-layer structure we employ with an oxygen barrier in it. We do a lot of work with polypropylene, and it is also good for the retort side,” he says. The bottle is capped with a two-piece closure, consisting of a metal disk with a plastic rim designed to protect the product without the addition of a liner.
The new prototype, says Hoeper, was produced with input from three large dairy co-packers. “We’ve been working with them for a couple years to work hand in hand to develop a bottle that works with their processes. We’ve developed a strong understanding of what’s needed for milk-based beverages,” he says, adding that the product will soon be brought to market in the United States more broadly.
A promising area of potential application for these single-serve bottles, which range from 8 to 16 ounces, is in vending and school foodservice accounts. “One phenomenon in the marketplace that is happening now is schools are taking carbonated beverages out and are coming back with dairy-based milk and milk-based products to replace them,” says Bubb. “Some of those products are in cans, but ultimately, they are looking for a reclosable plastic container which we can provide.”
In a similar vein, York, Pa.-based Graham Packaging Corp. recently launched a new retortable plastic container. Initially for use for nutritional beverages — specifically, the Boost® beverage manufactured by Mead Johnson and Co. — the bottle is formed from multi-layer polypropylene able to withstand temperatures greater than 250 degrees F. “The technology is finally here, where we can do something like this. Up until now it’s been difficult,” says Mark Leiden, vice president of global marketing, adding that the sealing mechanism can be a one-piece closure or a foil closure. The new nutritional bottle developed for the Boost line is a rectangular container, created to be ergonomic for the end user, which is often an older consumer.
Graham supplies bottles for other shelf-stable and nutritional beverages, including probiotic beverages from the European yogurt company Danone, according to Leiden. They also supply polyethylene bottles for dairy-based beverages like smoothies and energy drinks long with various types of juices.
The key to Graham’s penetration of the dairy-based beverage market beyond fluid milk, says Leiden, is tied to manufacturers’ interests in specialty products. “We don’t have an off-the-shelf yogurt drink bottle, for instance. We are 100 percent custom — everything is made for our customers’ needs,” he says.
While multi-layer bottles for extended shelf-life and non-traditional dairy beverages may reflect the future of packaging technology, and while PET and HDPE are bottles of choice for many fluid milk items, other dairies continue to build their brand equity through refillable glass bottles. They may have been around since the days of horse-drawn dairy carts, but they haven’t quite gone the way of the buggy whip.
Stanpac, for example, has long supplied glass bottles to small regional dairies and co-ops around the country. Although the glass itself hasn’t changed much, the company’s ability to print graphics and colors on the glass has improved. In recent years, Stanpac has invested in state-of-the-art application equipment to decorate glass containers using a direct-screen printing process called applied ceramic labeling (ACI).
Stanpac is also responding to the changing needs of the distribution chain for milk sold in glass bottles. “We are working on, for the end of this year, a one-way recyclable glass container, as opposed to a refillable one,” says Bain. “Some grocery stores now don’t want to have anything to do with refillable, but a particular dairy may have a good following with customers. If we put it in a recyclable glass container, it doesn’t compromise what the dairies believe and it allows them to get into a bigger distribution network.”
In addition, closures are getting more sophisticated for glass bottles, says Bain. Last year, Stanpac created a new closure for an Illinois dairy, replacing the previous shrink-banded cap with a new one-piece tamper-evident closure. “In the past five years, we’ve seen our injection molded tamper evident closure take over from the older style, like the crimp-on foil closure. Most of those have been discontinued now,” says Bain, adding that such a change was inevitable. “They had been around since the early 1900s, so it wasn’t a bad life span.”
Looking Good on Paper
Another decades-old design is getting a 21st century facelift. Gable-top paperboard cartons, long the ubiquitous milk container, have slowly changed to include stronger paperboard materials, higher-quality graphics and new types of openings. Paperboard offers the advantage of being more cost effective than plastics and other synthetic materials, and being simple to open and use.
Formats are changing for paperboard cartons as well. International Paper and its Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Evergreen Packaging Equipment business recently teamed up for a new Micro-Pak container. Formed and filled on Evergreen’s EMP-1 machine, the 4-, 6-, 8- and 10-ounce single-serve containers feature unique sizes and shapes and were designed to be convenient and easy to handle. The cartons are packaged with a foil straw patch, which is applied during the filling process.
Blue Ridge Paper Products, Canton, N.C., also has come up with a variation on the basic carton format with a new gable-top carton with a transparent, liquid-tight film window. The windows were added to convey freshness and allow consumers to see the product firsthand. The cartons have been shown in various food and dairy trade shows and are geared for gallons and half gallons of fluid milk.
The shape of things to come in this segment, meanwhile, was a literal proposition for Elopak, a Norwegian packaging firm with a U.S. office in New Hudson, Mich. The company is rolling out two new cartons to its European customers, which they will also to promote to U.S. processors. One is a Diamond™ carton, with a larger top gable to accommodate a bigger screw cap. “We’ve been putting screw caps on cartons for years, but they’ve been smaller in diameter. Particularly in the 250 and 500 milliliter sizes, this makes it much easier to drink,” explains Mike Wilcox, vice president of sales and marketing, who sees potential for fluid milks as well as dairy and non-dairy creamers.
A second product in the final development stages at Elopak is a new Pur-Pak® Curve, which features an extra fifth panel on the carton. “The front has a curved scoring, with two scores, so there is an appearance of an S-shape. It provides a little different look to the carton from a retail standpoint, and for graphics it has impact. You can print that space, in contrasting colors or with a message,” says Wilcox.
Enhanced graphics are another attribute of many paperboard cartons today. Gulf States Paper Corp., Tuscaloosa, Ala., offers folding cartons that can be printed utilizing a web-fed offset process, web flexography process or sheet-fed offset process, depending on the type of printing and finishing applications. The company also offers additional features such as holograms, embossing, foil stamping and window application.
Beyond cartons for fluid dairy products, paperboard cartons for ice cream also include more innovative features, from scround shapes to one-piece tamper-evident “locking” closures. Burd & Fletcher is one company that has pursued new technology for its ice cream customers, says Nycklemoe. “Over the past two years we have supported our dairy partners with a new style for square pint packaging, size variation for our Apex scround, square and multiple novelty carton modifications. We continue to match the package to the process,” he says. “We also reviewed and improved the strength of our outer corrugated case so our cartons arrive at our dairy partners plants in pristine condition.
According to Nyckelmoe, the new items were created with the specific needs of dairy customers in mind. “The dairy industry is sometimes very unpredictable. Weather can cause ice cream and novelty sales to spike or decline. Our category specialists work with our customers constantly to make sure we have the right items ready when they need them,” he says, adding that Burd & Fletcher has also invested in the latest pre-press technology to improve the computer-to-plate printing process for superior graphics and colors.
For his part, Nycklemoe says advances in packaging work best when they are well researched, integrated and developed in tandem with customers. “Many times organizations are viewed as innovative because they have a flashy new concept,” he says. “We look at innovation as being focused on all the key elements of this process.”
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
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