Paper vs. Plastic
by Shonda Talerico Dudlicek
Packaging manufacturers battle for their share of the market for bottles, jugs and cartons.
Paper or plastic may mean one thing to supermarket consumers, but it takes on a whole new significance among packaging manufacturers and their customers.
But what advantages does one type of container have over the other? What can one offer that the others can’t?
Paperboard cartons have an advantage of extremely high graphics capabilities in a package format that has a more favorable cost when compared to other types of packaging, says John Rooney, general manager of International Paper’s Evergreen Packaging Equipment, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“Our new gable-top package formats, including Micro Pak and the ‘Slim’ half-gallon, give new attractive paper-based packaging options that allow for great shelf presence and a billboard effect for graphics, giving the producer the ability to market his product at a very competitive cost structure,” Rooney says. “Spout closures provide the producer and end consumer an easy-to-open package that is also easy to close. Gable-top packaging machines have lower operating costs than bottle fillers in the extended-life dairy and juice markets. All functions — form, fill and seal — are completed on one machine platform, utilizing minimal production plant floor space.”
Plastic bottles are more consumer friendly than paper cartons, says Steven Rocheleau, president of Rocheleau Tool and Die Co., Fitchburg, Mass. “Plastic has more flexibility for size of packaging, shape and ease of handling. Plastic is resealable, easier to open and easier to transport in a car or backpack.”
Rocheleau adds that plastic is recyclable in a normal polyethylene recycle stream, and a product’s brand can be identified by shape as well as graphic design.
Rooney agrees the ability for different shapes and sizes in bottles allows for effective product differentiation. “This feature, however, comes at an additional cost to the producer. Not only should the cost of the bottle be factored in, but also the cost of the cap, label or shrink sleeve must be considered. Increases in resin prices have negatively impacted the cost of bottles,” he says.
“Along with that, the extra capital equipment to perform these operations and the floor space consumed must be accounted for. High-speed bottling lines utilize significant amounts of water and chemicals for bottle sanitation. All of these costs need to be factored into the total cost of operation.”
The paperboard carton is the best solution for higher graphics, longer shelf life and recyclability and lower costs, asserts Nils-Erik Aaby, senior vice president of Elopak Inc., New Hudson, Mich. Elopak supplies a full line of carton-filling machines, material-handling equipment and paperboard gable-top cartons.
But John Hoeper, market manager of Bottles North America for Chicago-based Alcan Packaging, says plastic is superior to not only paper, but glass and metal as well. “Glass is breakable, heavy and does not provide good portability. Metal cans do not provide good resealability and are poor marketing vehicles,” he says, because of their lack of shape variety and because they’re perceived as a commodity.
Alcan’s most recent bottling development is the new Gamma Retort™ bottle for shelf-stable dairy-based beverage packaging. Alcan’s plastic bottles are essentially unbreakable, reclosable, portable and provide barrier protection so that product does not require refrigeration on the retail shelves or in distribution, Hoeper says. Because the retort bottle is shelf stable, it eliminates refrigeration from the distribution system and retail shelves, eliminating the advantage that only glass and metal previously provided for dairy beverages, he says.  
Alcan’s Gamma Retort packaging features vacuum-paneless design for enhanced label appearance and can be designed in unique shapes and sizes. “Critical to surviving the retort process, our patented seal-surface technology delivers seal integrity through the retort process. We have proprietary material science that provides flavor stability and extended product shelf life,” Hoeper says. Gamma Retort bottles are designed to fill on current dairy processing equipment and are available in 8- to 16-ounce sizes.
Evergreen Packaging, a manufacturer of both gable-top and bottle filling equipment, has new offerings in both areas in response to customer demand. One recent gable-top development is the Q-16, which Rooney says is the world’s fastest quart/liter machine at a speed of up to 300 cartons per minute. Another development in its bottle filling line is the BFAH-30, an advanced hygiene bottle-filling machine targeted for dairy and juice markets. For gable-top products, Evergreen Packaging has standard machines and extended-life machines; bottle fillers range from standard gallon and half-gallon jugs to extended life dairy and juice products packaged in PET bottles.
Health and Safety
The increasing importance focused on shelf life and food safety is a trend shared by both paper and plastic.
“The focus on high hygiene and food safety has pushed the market into more sophisticated packaging machines that control the environment around the filling process,” Rooney says. “On the packaging side, the trends are for higher barrier properties to be able to retain the nutritive value of the product over longer distribution cycles. Barrier structures are continually being developed and improved.”
Consumers want to take their dairy products with them, and processors are able to fill their needs with portable packaging. Portability and resealability is the clear advantage for plastic bottles, Hoeper says.
“With more and more people on the go, people want to be able to take their beverage with them, take a sip and be able to reclose the package,” he says. “The demand for a package that meets these needs has been there for quite some time, it was just waiting for the technology to catch up.”
And food integrity is equally important to consumers and processors. “Tamper evidence in both paper and plastic packaging, ease of handling, opening and reclosing have always been, and will continue to be, preferences of our customers,” Rooney says.
Rocheleau’s company is seeing continued growth in single-serve packaging in HDPE bottles and unique shapes and sizes with creative high-end labeling like shrink-sleeve labeling. “Attractive, resealable, cost-effective and convenient, HDPE bottles have a marketing advantage in certain areas over paper or PET bottles,” he says.  
Dairy processors are requesting consumer-friendly products featuring shelf-stable packaging and high-end graphics. “Dairy processors are looking for a plastic bottle that can run on the same lines as their metal cans or glass bottles so as to minimize their investment, yet provide them with an alternative package to offer to customers demanding plastic bottles,” Hoeper says.
Schoolyard Battle
One of the newest battlegrounds is in packaging school milk. Recent studies have suggested school milk sells better in plastic single-serve bottles because there’s greater opportunity for graphics and they’re easier to reclose.
Rocheleau Tool and Die, a third-generation family-owned company, will be introducing its new 10-cavity machine for 8-ounce school milk bottles at this fall’s Worldwide Food Expo in Chicago. The company manufactures reciprocating screw extrusion blow-molding machinery for HDPE dairy containers, with a strong focus on single-serves.
“There is a lot of consumer pressure to move to plastic,” Rocheleau says. “New bottle designs, labeling and capping help make the cost of plastic very competitive with paper cartons. Beta sites have been very successful showing increased consumption. New bottle designs allow better utilization of dairy crate for reduced shipping cost and storage cost to the school.”
The demand for high-quality milk cartons is strong and growing, Aaby says. “Our solution to the school milk program is having the lowest cost option. School milk cartons can be printed with high graphics and caps applied to match the options provided by plastic,” he says.
Rooney agrees. “One of the major obstacles to school milk in bottles is the significant additional cost to accomplish this. This extra cost is not recoverable by the producer in price increases due to the bid nature of school milk business. We have seen a lot of talk, but no major switch to bottles in school milk to date,” he says.
Rooney concludes: “We also believe if school milk, in paper gable-top cartons, was offered in multiple flavors, and at a colder temperature, sales would incrementally increase, just as the study shows for plastic single-serve bottles.”
Alcan’s Hoeper puts it simply: “There has been a significant rise in dairy processors asking for plastic. If I was a paperboard manufacturer supplying single-serve dairy-based beverages, I would be worried.”  m
Shonda Talerico Dudlicek is a freelance journalist and a former managing editor of Dairy Field.
For Some, Glass Is the Clear Choice
Milk in glass bottles may bring back childhood memories of the friendly neighborhood milkman, but today’s packagers say glass bottles have carved out an important niche in dairy packaging.
One such packager, Stanpac Inc., offers a full line of refillable glass packaging for the dairy industry. In fact, the Canadian company recently introduced a 32-ounce non-refillable glass bottle that’s gaining momentum in the dairy industry.  
“We notice an ever-increasing demand for our products,” says Murray Bain, vice president of marketing. “Small to mid-size dairies find that glass containers give them an edge over their competition. They are set apart by the package. The taste of the product, the feel of the container, the nostalgic appeal, and the environmental benefits of glass are features that consumers reach for.”
Stanpac’s newest product, a 32-ounce non-refillable One Trip glass container, is intended for dairies that wish to add a premium line to their product mix.
“Dairies that already use glass are also adding the One Trip to their product line to get their products into regions outside of their distribution area and into markets where the refillable system isn’t practical. The same great look and taste are experienced with the One Trip as with the refillable,” Bain says. “Dairies are also using this packaging for special products such as holiday eggnog and flavored milks.”
Stanpac offers 8-ounce to 64-ounce bottles; injection-molded tamper-evident closures; crimp-on foil closures, plastic cases and wire carriers; and capping equipment. The company, based in Smithville, Ontario, also helps dairy processors find suitable equipment and information about packaging milk in glass.  
“Overall, glass overwhelmingly provides the essence of premium and quality for dairy products,” Bain says, steering clear of the materials battle. “We will stay out of this argument and let the paper and plastic guys fight it out. We will stick to providing our customers with the premium package for a specific segment of the market.”