Staying Power
by Shonda Talerico Dudlicek
Shelf-stable products increase demands for the right kinds of bottles, jugs and cartons.
It’s a new twist in the battle of paper vs. plastic: How long will the product last? Which yields a better surface for graphics? Can one offer something the other can’t? And what can both offer to dairy processors and consumers?
Such is the current movement in the world of bottles, jugs and cartons for dairy products.
“On the package side, the trends are for higher barrier properties to be able to retain the nutritive value of the product over longer distribution cycles,” says Jim Coe, vice president of sales at Evergreen Packaging Equipment, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Barrier structures are continually being developed and improved.”
Coe says shelf life is increasing in importance in dairy operations. “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,” he says.
To lengthen shelf life, dairy processors have the option of introducing ultra-high temperature pasteurization. This technology requires special processing and a special container that allows for non-refrigerated storage.
Batavia, Ill.-based Portola Packaging Inc. recently formed a joint marketing agreement with Plastic Solutions Molding Inc., Plano, Texas. The companies will market technology, closures and bottles that extend the shelf life of oxygen-sensitive products. The FDA-approved and patent-pending technology retards the growth of bacteria, thus helping to retain the quality of a product for a longer period of time. Portola’s atypical ESL system can be implemented with simple adaptations and is purported to extend the sell-by date by five to 10 days, perhaps longer.
“Portola is very focused on delivering superior closures, bottles and technical service to help our customer’s achieve their packaging objectives,” says Brian Bauerbach, Portola’s president and chief executive officer. “Now we can offer a technology that extends the shelf life of oxygen-sensitive products. This alliance is one more way that Portola can provide a total solution to dairy customers.”
Advantage: Paper
Coe says paperboard cartons get the nod because they offer extremely high graphics capabilities in a format that has a more favorable cost when compared to other types of packaging. “Our new gabletop 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,” he says.
Spout closures provide both the producer and end consumer an easy-to-open package that is also easy to close, Coe says. “Gabletop packaging machines have lower operating costs than bottle fillers in certain markets, such as the extended-life dairy and juice markets,” he says. “All functions — form, fill and seal — are completed on one machine platform utilizing minimal production plant floor space.”Evergreen Packaging develops new packaging machines to serve its customers in various markets. Recent developments for the gabletop market include the EH-3S, which forms, fills and seals a new 59-ounce Slim carton. The N-8ESL, providing additional carton sanitization features, was also recently introduced, packaging 340 Eco-Pak® cartons per minute.
A new family of rotary gravity bottle fillers has also been developed. Different models handle an array of bottle sizes including 8 ounces up to one gallon, and fill at varying speeds from 120 to 525 bottles per minute, depending on size.
Coe acknowledges that bottles offer the ability for different shapes and sizes, which allows for product differentiation. “This is an effective feature for the producer. This feature, however, comes at an additional cost to the producer,” he says. “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.”
Plus, recent increases in resin prices have negatively impacted the cost of bottles, Coe says. “Along with that, the extra capital equipment to perform these operations and the floor space consumed must be accounted for,” he says. “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.”
Advantage: Plastic
Plastic does cost slightly more than paper, but Portola’s Kelly Rosvold says paper packaging requires an expensive, high-maintenance erector/filler. And while paper is lightweight and can reduce shipping costs, easily resealable plastic bottles can be filled and capped on cost-effective rotary fillers, says Rosvold, general manager at Portola’s Canadian branch.
“New advances in plastic bottle manufacturing and capping procedures have increased shelf life. In some instances the shelf life in plastic exceeds that of gabletop containers, primarily where the paper container uses the fold-close pouring spout,” Rosvold says.
Portola provides container design and testing, cap and bottle integration and technical service and support in customer’s facilities. Portola manufactures containers, caps, capping equipment and blow-mold machine parts, and manufactures and refurbishes blow-mold machines and conversions.
Rosvold says plastic container sales to Canadian dairy customers have increased significantly in the last few years, mostly in 2-liter (counterpart to the U.S. half gallon), 1 liter (quart) and 16, 10 and 8-ounce single-serve containers.
Plastic even holds an advantage over glass containers, Rosvold argues, saying they’re expensive and heavy. “Glass is non-gas permeable, which may extend shelf life, but leaves the product open to UV degradation. Conventional glass dairy bottles are resealed with a paper lid, which may allow oxygen entry,” Rosvold says.
Advantage: Consumers
The proliferation of single-serve dairy drinks gives consumers a dizzying array from which to choose. Single-serve containers have shown the largest increase in sales and consumers seem willing to pay the extra cost for convenience, Rosvold says.
Single-serve beverages are gaining attention due to obesity issues, says Lisa Pierce, editor in chief of Food & Drug Packaging magazine. “Schools are changing their vending machines to include more dairy products,” she says.
Coe says whether the consumer buys a paper carton or plastic bottle, they have the same demands.
“Tamper evidence in both paper and plastic packaging, ease of handling, opening and reclosing have always been, and will continue to be, preferences of the consumer,” he says. “Processors are always looking for attractive, functional and unique packaging, whether it is from a sharp-looking gabletop package with high-quality graphics or a new shape from a plastic bottle. Eye-catching graphics will help to promote the sale of the products.”
Taking Shape
In the dairy industry, ergonomics garners more attention. “Milk jugs are rectangular because they fit better in the refrigerator,” Pierce says. “Shipping efficiency is a key factor. That’s what we see, square footprint and rounded shoulders to maximize shipping efficiency.
“The fight between plastic and paper will continue until whenever. The buzzword is ergonomics, with the shape and size.”
Pierce points to the Pure-Pak Curve carton from Elopak Inc. The New Hudson, Mich.-based company features an extra panel on its gabletop carton with a curved “fifth panel.” Canada’s Neilson Dairy is the first dairy processor in North America to use this packaging for its Dairy Oh! enhanced milk products.
Dairy processors in Europe have been using Elopak’s Pure-Pak Curve for the past few years, most recently in Greece. The packaging gives the familiar gabletop a new modern shape. The fifth-panel curve and the diamond shape of the gabletop gives the carton clear differentiation for stronger communication of consumer benefits and brand messages.
Rosvold says the next generation of bottles will have larger label panels to accommodate new labeling information requirements, and predicts an increase in the use of colored and opaque bottles. “There are already a broad range of bottle shapes in the market. Changes would be variations of these existing designs,” Rosvold says.
Shelf appeal and shelf life will be the future of dairy packaging, Coe says. “The more attractive the package and the longer the shelf life,” he says, “the better opportunity to promote the sale of the product.”  m
Shonda Talerico Dudlicek is a freelance journalist and a former managing editor of Dairy Field.