Hard News on Rigid Packaging
by Lynn Petrak
From traditional cartons to cutting-edge plastics, dairy manufacturers can hardly contain their creativity.
If the dairy case was once a sea of white, it’s certainly awash in color, pattern and shape right now.
While flexible packaging may get the glamour in some parts of the retail store, such as the cheese case, much of the refrigerated dairy case is lined with rigid packaging that is increasingly designed to stand out and be noticed. Indeed, the interpretation of the term “rigid” as dull or stiff doesn’t apply to containers that are constructed from cardboard, plastic, glass and aluminum, whether they’re used for direct consumer sale or stored in foodservice refrigerators and freezers.
Like any good package, some of the latest rigid packaging designs for dairy stem from technical improvements to the material itself. Other advances reflect purely aesthetic features, from improved on-package printing to tamper proof or recloseable openings. Many recent upgrades and new product introductions exemplify a bit of both.
Plastic’s Next Step
The flurry of plastic bottles and containers that have emerged over the past decade certainly helped open the floodgates to innovative rigid packaging design for dairy products. For all of the eye-catching, strategically-developed single-serve milk bottles and jugs, there have also been noteworthy advances in plastic vessels for cultured products, dairy-based beverages and, to a smaller extent, ice cream.
On the material side, packaging suppliers have put their own R&D teams to work on developing bottles and containers that ensure quality and freshness while drawing attention in a crowded marketplace.
From a structural standpoint, for instance, Amcor PET Packaging, with U.S. offices in Manchester, Mich., recently announced a new family of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers called the QuadPlus and QuadMax3, which offer improved strength for hot-filled beverage applications.
The QuadPlus is used for 46-, 48- and 64-ounce hot-filled rectangular PET bottles. The QuadMax3 was designed for beverage applications currently in round PET containers or already in a rectangular footprint but appealing for processors interested in converting to 64-, 46- or 48-ounce rectangular footprints with space-saving geometry.
Also in the PET category, in a case of what’s old can be new, Union, N.J-based manufacturer O. Berk Co. has introduced a new PET line of dairy rounds in five sizes, from 8-ounce to 32-ounce containers. The bottles were designed to look like old fashioned milk bottles with round bodies and tapered-style necks. The dairy rounds have an option of labeling and frosting for visual effect.
Meanwhile, in another literal old-is-new development, Minnetonka, Minn.-based NatureWorks LLC, a stand-alone company wholly owned by Cargill, doubled its sales in the first half of 2005 compared to the previous year, as interest in its renewable-resource-based packaging grew dramatically. Currently, NatureWorks offers a resin derived entirely from the sugar found in common field corn, or maize, as an alterative to petroleum based PET. With oil prices skyrocketing, NatureWorks has been working to promote its cost advantage.
In some notable cases, plastic is being used for dairy products other than liquid beverages. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Inc. shook up the freezer in 2005 with plastic packaging for its new line of Dibs bite-size ice cream novelties, which come in a bright red tub with a tamper-proof recloseable lid.
Beyond the bottle, jug or tub itself, the advent of sleeves certainly changed the visual impact of plastic bottles used for dairy when they were broadly introduced into the beverage category in the past 10 years or so. Bottle design these days continues to improve, including sleeves and other printing technologies, resulting in packages with greater clarity that “pop” from the shelf or case.
IPL Packaging, a Canadian designer and manufacturer of innovative packaging based in Saint Damien, Quebec, now offers in-molding labeling (IML) for plastic packaging in place of traditional dry-offset printing. According to Stephane Auclair, marketing manager, IML technology offers several advantages, such as full photographic quality, top-to-bottom container coverage, 100 percent shading of colors and typefaces as small as 6 point. “Many people will appreciate the no label look. Because the label itself is polypropylene, it becomes basically integrated into the container,” he explains. “The greatest benefit is graphic quality, because it has twice the resolution. It is also always at the right position.”
Dairy applications for IPL’s new IML printing include containers of specialty cheeses, such as cheese in brine and feta, along with various dips. At this point, Auclair says, IPL doesn’t specialize in liquid food packaging. “We are looking at yogurt, and are in the R&D stage,” he adds.
Like suppliers of packaging materials, companies that provide equipment for rigid packaging are also upgrading their offerings. For processors looking to reach out to the global dairy market, for example, Uniloy Milacron, Tecumseh, Mich., is supplying HDPE milk bottles for countries with limited refrigeration systems. Uniloy recently introduced a new reciprocating blow-molding machine that can produce three-layer extended-shelf-life (ESL) bottles.
Uniloy’s new UMR2000-3L can produce 5,400 bottles an hour, which are typically topped with a foil seal and screw cap. “Primary advantages over wheel and shuttle blow molding machines include lower energy costs, shorter dry cycle time, lower melt temperature and higher clamp force,” says Richard Smith, director of sales and marketing, reciprocating technologies.
Other Packages
In addition to plastic, other rigid packages for dairy are sporting a new look these days, to better entice buyers and maintain product quality.
On the paper side, suppliers across the board offer an array of packages with different finishes and closures, from gabletops with screw caps to multi-layered cartons for aseptic beverages.
Swiss packaging manufacturer Elopak recently introduced a sleek paper-based package called the iCone for premium beverage products. The iCone features a unique cone shape and comes in a range of sizes, including single-serve containers that fit into cup holders. The large flat surface on the iCone’s front panel maximizes brand exposure, and the packages have an environmental benefit in that they require less of a thinner grade of paperboard.
Canton, N.C.-based Blue Ridge Paper Products Inc., meanwhile, has been working on new window cartons and expanding applications of its DazzlePak, a holographic film laminated to a food-grade paperboard substrate.
Finally, in the world of rigid packaging for beverages and foods, aluminum is nothing new. What is different, though, is the use of aluminum for shelf-stable dairy-based products. Indeed, many new milk-based drinks are packaged in specialty cans that can withstand high temperature processes required for shelf stability.
One example comes from Seattle beverage kingpin Starbucks Coffee Co., which recently launched Starbucks Iced Coffee sold in a can. Caffe Del Mar is another company that fills its coffee drinks in aluminum, offering a 15-ounce canned espresso latte energy drink called Frappio.
There has been other packaging news in the bustling ready-to-drink coffee can segment, which indicates that while the market for rigid packaging is dynamic, there are lessons to be learned. The Wolfgang Puck brand licensed by WP Beverages developed a series of gourmet coffee latte and mocha drinks sold in a unique self-heating can, which were distributed broadly in Safeway and Albertsons supermarkets earlier this year. Although the cans were reportedly nearly 10 years in the making, the products were officially recalled from the market in the spring because some cans began bursting, melting or not heating up the coffee appropriately enough.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.