Steve Thomas-Emberson discovers that, as well as having environmental plus points, card and board are versatile mediums and improving quality and print standards are now pushing the boundaries further

The card and board packaging business is important to UK plc. Currently there are 4.5 billion metres of board produced every year worth £1.5bn. The annual industry investment figure is around £100m and, as some industry insiders have mentioned, it is only going to rise.

Environmentally, fibreboard is also a star performer with 70% of the total amount being produced from recycled fibres. Corrugated is not made from tropical rain forests but soft woods that are fast growing – indeed, this action is so fast that the trees are being planted faster than they are actually being used. Card and board also benefit from the consumer’s own perception that, if an item is packed in cardboard, it seems a ‘less guilt’ purchase.

Another element of cardboard packaging is that consumers regard it as pleasantly tactile. While, historically, the nature of the print quality could be disappointing, post print has now advanced greatly on the back of highly developed surface technology that has seen virtual cartoon style graphics develop into print applications. Toothpaste packs in the US even have holograms as part of the brand message.

The USA has for a long time been one of the main producers and end users of all forms of cardboard packaging. Mike Dimick, market manager for Mead Westvaco Packaging Resources Group, defines how the market has developed in North America over the past few years.

“As ever in business of any kind, one of the most critical elements is the driving down of costs – competition is integral to the marketplace. There is also the continuation of consumer product companies wanting something different and more creative from their packaging. Shelf appeal is all in the US.

“Also, retail players such as WalMart [now a market leader] are significant players within the product-packaging requirement. Their own brand ranges are taking away market share from the branded products and, as a result, we are seeing retailers becoming more powerful and dictating the style and type of packaging that the product producers can use. This is a very significant change.

“The technological changes here in the US have been mainly from the paperboard producers themselves rather than the packaging producers. There has also been an uplifting of ‘brightness’ levels. My company Mead Westvaco has now uplifted levels to as high as 93.

“The development of the importance of sub-brand packaging has also been great in the US, particularly in consumer markets such as toothpaste where a company such as Colgate will have several sub-brands all targeting different requirements within the toothpaste arena. This type of growth means that packs do not have the length of shelf life that they once had.

“As a result the packaging is constantly changing, which means that the packaging producer has less time to change the packaging, the runs are shorter and, as a result of this, the paperboard and packaging companies are now changing their own corporate systems to facilitate this.

“The result is a far better and more efficient service that caters for the needs of the customers. It really is a question of responding to the marketplace. Paperboard companies have great opportunities in the US to develop specialist substrates so that the packaging companies can offer a wider variety of packaging answers for their clients.”

Dimick’s comprehensive summing up of the current cardboard marketplace in the US is obviously quite bullish and portrays a marketplace in a state of high activity. But is Europe and particularly the UK any different? One leading cardboard company, Finland-based Stora-Enso, took the unusual step of commissioning a range of innovative one-off packs that demonstrated to prospective clients the properties of its Performa paperboard.

The work was carried out by the design consultancy Minale Tattersfield & Partners based in London. Alex Maranzano, chairman of the consultancy, explained: “Our simple brief on this most creative of projects was to see how far we could take the Performa board in packaging solutions. The work was completed using a wide variety of board and weights, depending on what the contents were and how the pack could perform in other areas. For instance, the packs could be used for frozen products right through to the actual cooking process itself. What we tried to demonstrate in a three dimensional way was what was possible for Performa board and therefore for Stora Enso’s clients.”

The selection of ideas is comprehensive, ranging from a folding liquid pack to a concertina pack that actually reduces its volume as the liquid product is used to an expanding popcorn pack for cooking the product and a Sushi pack to eat from.

DS Smith Packaging is a company with a reputation for developing innovative corrugated and carton board solutions such as its recent products based on the micro-flute range. Mike Alvis, sales director at the company, is enthusiastic about the potential for lightweight fluting in the UK. “From E-flute downwards,” he says, “we have seen a rapid increase in the use of micro-flutes and the use of lightweight liners. Without any compromise to performance customers can achieve cost savings as well as other supply chain benefits.

“For example, we have created a number of designs which allow the packaging to act as both the transit case and as the point-of-sale display packaging. This means an outer transit case is no longer needed and, as we also reduce the amount of carton board to a minimum, we achieve a variety of savings for our customers.

“An illustration of this is our shelf ready packaging such as the Shelf Master products. Shelf Master 1 is made in two pieces but delivered as one and converts from the transit case to a high-sided display tray in around two seconds. Shelf Master 2 is a one-piece version of Shelf Master 1 but better suited to smaller format cases. Products like this can save the retailer time and money as they are so quick and easy for the staff to assemble and place on the shelf. After use, the packs are simple to collapse for disposal.

“The other opportunity afforded by micro-flute is its ability to be printed on directly and at very high levels of quality using litho printing, avoiding in the process the need for lamination.”

The mention of print quality is critical in today’s consumer driven marketplace and Mead Westvaco’s new coated post print liner is helping packaging companies compete more effectively in the market for packaging with high-end graphic usage. It was recently used in the production of a promotional gift box for Zaro Bakery Basket in New York. As well as a very high print quality, the substrate also provides protection strength as it is a mailed box without using corrugated shippers. The product in this case was fed into corrugators prior to the flexographic post printing enabling the converter to produce the entire packing job in-house reducing both costs and lead time.

The advantages of cardboard packaging – particularly the life cycle analysis – are emphasised by Peter Warren of SCA Packaging Company. “There are many advantages of using cardboard over other packaging materials. We are already seeing the virtual amalgamation of the transit pack into the PoS pack due in part to print quality.

“There is then the matter of recyclability and this is where cardboard really scores compared with other packaging material. The recycling of cardboard cases is currently 60% and climbing. Compare this to the 15-20% targets set for plastic. The situation is actually more positive as fibreboard can go through the chain five or six times before it loses its inherent qualities necessary for packaging. The story does not, as one might expect, end there since the fibre is compressed into bricks so that these can be burnt to generate power.

“This shows how an important a product cardboard is to the packaging industry and to the end user. There are also hygiene issues in so far as a one-time use case can offer hygiene levels that returnable crates cannot match. It is used once, binned and recycled. Increasingly, hygiene is an important issue in all forms of packaging and the economics for returnable plastic crates are not as beneficial as people are led to believe. This is one of the reasons we are seeing a return to cardboard boxes.”

What then of the PoS scenario? Well, it is obviously important and is likely to be of even greater significance in the future. Linpac has developed a very extensive range of cardboard PoS products under the Master brand banner. Two of the range, Loadmaster and Storemaster, answer PoS requirements in two different ways.

As its name suggests, the Loadmaster has the ability to ship over a tonne of liquid across the country and then double up in-store as a supermarket display. The Storemaster is a die-cut case designed specifically for a supermarket dolly. The benefits of this unit are now de rigueur – no stacking, ready for display in seconds and just remove the front and it can be customised to fit any size and type of supermarket dolly. Linpac says: “The last few hundred yards of the supply chain – the final journey to the supermarket shelf – is the most costly of all.” If that is so both of these systems answer that costly problem.

Good design sells and, in packaging, it can promote a very lasting feeling. The Berkeley Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge has an air of under-stated elegance and none more so than in its Blue Bar. As a way of promoting the hotel and bar they commissioned Pentagram to design a presentation box-set of CDs featuring the music played in The Blue Bar.

John Rushworth, designer and partner at Pentagram, explains: “We needed to make a statement, be something different, and we had to work hard to achieve this. Using the now traditional plastic CD box would not have given us the qualities we needed – card signifies the difference.

“The set contains three disks, each of which is housed in a slip-case that has been designed to resemble a book of matches, as one would expect to find in such a hotel bar.

“These are in turn housed in a light blue colour box rather like a cigarette box. By our interpretation of the bar and using card we have achieved an aura of sophistication for the product and by the use of cardboard customers perceive them as high quality. It is the sheer beauty of card that consumers like, whether it is a perfume box or a lone carrier bag.”

Cardboard is a competitive marketplace on a global scale. China has a history of paper and very soon will be a major player as a pack producer. Other companies such as Encasse, Smurfit et al are all producing innovative packaging products.

Nobody is resting on their laurels and most are proactive in their innovation.

The use of cardboard is very much alive and well and is being used to produce some very able solutions for increasingly demanding clients.