Summertime...and the living is easy. Boy, hasn't it been a hot one? No prizes for assuming that this year's figures for soft drinks will shoot through the roof. Mintel forecasts that the adult soft drinks market will grow by 29% in current terms between 2001-2006, attaining a market value of £822M in 2006. Rodney Abbott discusses the fight by pack suppliers for market share

No matter what your particular poison may be – squashes, juices, isotonics, iced teas and coffees or carbonated – there is little doubt that you drank plenty of one or the other this summer. The big question is what do consumers like to drink from – bottle, carton, pouch or can?

I would choose a bottle every time but individual choice is not always possible, if only because of practicality or economics. For example, the can lends itself to carbonated drinks and not juices because can walls are too thin.

Although fruit juices and fruit-based beverages can be found in a plethora of containers, the carton is still the dominant pack, with the bottle and can trailing a long way behind.

Plastics bottles are best suited to drinks produced in quantity and certainly not premium drinks. No doubt suppliers may argue differently.

Much better barrier and aseptic technologies are required for pure fruit juices. And that is probably why fibre has something like 85% of this market sector.

Carton’s effective shelf life is three times as long as an HDPE bottle [7-10 days]. The extra life of the carton aids logistics as larger supplies of stock can be delivered without it getting out of date.

Despite its complex eight-layered construction, the Tetra Brik [6-month life] is still said to be price competitive with any HDPE, glass or can pack. Both fruit juice and fruit based beverage products continue to exercise an important influence in the non-carbonated liquid food market, with consumption increasing year by year.

Consumer trends within this industry are many and varied, with an increasing focus on product differentiation achieved through new packaging materials and design, increased shelf life, superior quality and consumer convenience.

Increased competition

To succeed in the market, the packaging industry has to monitor and understand these trends and be prepared for the increased competition between its customers.

The players in the market will need to concentrate more on innovation and on cost efficiency throughout the supply chain. As a result of these trends, the fruit juice industry is considering, and already using, a variety of packaging systems to supplement existing and future product portfolios with new products and pack technologies.

The consumer expects a food package to satisfy the basic requirements of containment and protection. Once the package is sealed, the sensory and nutritional quality of juice is greatly influenced by the barrier property of the package, as well as by the interaction of the juice with the package and its environment during storage.

Deterioration processes during storage related to product specific characteristics and environmental conditions such as temperature are inevitable. Consequently, processors have to consider a number of factors when selecting a packaging system for fruit juices or other beverages.

When product composition, quality and packaging system have been defined, the distribution conditions are vital. Will the product be distributed in the cold chain with limited shelf life or with extended shelf life? Does the product require shelf stability necessitating aseptic processing and packaging?

How will the product be positioned in the market, and what kind of image will be communicated through presentation of the product in the shop?

Now carton supremos Elopak are currently in partnership with juice packaging companies to establish a range of high performance PET bottle systems for juice and other oxygen fruit juice applications. So it is likely that juice packaging will be the first active packaging concept to reach full commercial application in Europe.

“The obvious benefit of controlling oxygen in the product makes the system particularly attractive to improve the quality of the product during storage,” says Gunnar Rysstad for Elopak.

“The fruit juice and beverage industry is characterised by an increasing focus on product differentiation, achieved through new packaging materials and design, increased shelf life, consumer convenience and new products. An increased rate of innovation and introduction of new packaging systems are essential for survival.

“There are two basic prerequisites for any new packaging systems. The product must be safe and the nutritional and sensory quality must be maintained. In addition, the packaging system must be cost-effective and meet requirements of environmental and other legislation.

“While consumers are looking for products with increased freshness and higher quality, the retail chain requires products with extended shelf life. In order to solve these two conflicting demands, the industry has to formulate and process products with these characteristics, and the packaging systems must ensure that the initial quality is largely preserved through extended storage.”

PET popularity growing

The use of PET has long since threatened more traditional packaging materials and a boost from Elopak is certainly not going to harm its future progress as a spokesman for Amcor was quick to point out.

“PET’s design flexibility and choice of decoration options allows the creation of a striking visual identity. This can be retained across different bottle sizes for increased branding.

“PET has excellent durability because it is lightweight and shatterproof. It is, therefore, ideal for ‘on-the-move’ drinking.

“Amcor’s development of barrier and multi-layer technologies allows longer shelf-life for carbonated products.

“Amcor PET Packaging is committed to recycling and has recently invested EUR20M in its PET bottle to bottle recycling facility in Beaune, France.”

So what of the carton? The arrival of those Scandinavian giants Tetra Pak and Elopak has done much to throw its adversaries into disarray. After all, the beverage carton has many qualities. It is a lightweight, low resource use, energy saving package designed for minimal impact on the environment.

“But, after the meteoric rise in the popularity and use of the beverage carton in the early 80s, it was not surprising that the diversity of other packaging choices impacted on the continued growth of the industry during the 90s,” says Liquid Food Carton Manufacturers’ Association director Jenny Francis.

“In the 21st century the British consumer is becoming more aware of environmental issues and the benefits of drinking from cartons as demonstrated by the consistent year on year rise in carton sales on the UK market recorded by the LFCMA.

“These statistics are very pleasing and demonstrate that the industry’s messages on the unique environmental benefits of the beverage carton are getting through.

“Recent developments such as the probiotic and sensitory straws [Tetra Pak], flexibility of pack shape and volume [SIG Combibloc] and easy opening and resealable cap systems [Elopak] reflect the forward looking attitude of the industry, building on a simple but functional premise.

“The life cycle of a carton from sustainable managed forests to disposal through the new recycling facility now operational in Fife, is something we are proud to communicate alongside pack usability and performance as relevant to today’s consumer.”

At the other end of the spectrum, traditional packs such as the can and the bottle have stood up well to unprecedented competition from traditional materials.

According to Tony Woods at the MPMA, the UK is the largest market in Europe for soft drinks in cans. In the UK sales of empty cans for soft drinks have shown an increase in each of the last two years. Sales were particularly good in 2002 – 3813m units in 2002, an increase of 88m or 2.4% over 2001 which in turn was an increase of 109m compared to the 2000 total.

Cans sold in multipacks have proved to be highly successful in supermarkets and are often subject to very competitive pricing.

The increasing popularity of energy drinks in 25cl cans has provided a new market sector for tinplate and aluminium in recent years and constitutes a large part of the growth in soft drinks.

The new can for Lilt Banana and Peach with striking graphics gives stunning shelf impact and perfectly reflects the tropical drink contents. Manufactured by Rexam Beverage Can UK for Coca Cola GB & Ireland, it was designed by Turner Duckworth.

Shaped can technology

Silver Arrow has recently introduced a range of cans that utilise shaping technology from Crown. While innovation is beginning to mushroom in this sector, the ‘Holy Grail’ of self-chilling cans is still very much a development in this market.

Glass has always offered a touch of class but it, too, has come under increasing competition from alternative materials. In the decade that I have spent with the packaging industry I have seen the glass industry reel from pressure exerted from rival packs.

To be quite honest, it did it no harm. Designs had become staid and uninteresting until this tight knit sector was forced to ask what today’s consumer expected.

“Consumers are looking for packages that are easy to open, retain their freshness, are straightforward to use and are environmentally friendly,” says Rockware Glass marketing manager Andy Hartley.

A number of technologies have brought glass to the fore in recent years – sleeving, holography, embossing and de-bossing. In addition, this industry has a larder full of technologies that are set to go on demand. Wiegand Glas is a good example.

Wiegand Glas uses a polymer coating and has enabled the development of a 1-litre soft drinks container which had its weight reduced by 23%. When the polymer coating had been applied, it resulted in a 10% increase in the container’s internal pressure strength measured after filling and transport.

A 50% increase in internal pressure strength results in coating containers that are not light-weighted, thereby increasing the safety of containers where this aspect is paramount such as drinks for children.

The coating does not affect the container’s transparency and could be used to colour the glass. There is no effect on the recycling of glass as the coating is 0.005mm thick. The only demand that it makes of end-of-line packaging is a different adhesive formulation for labelling.

While it is being used in Germany for mineral waters, it has not been developed to any great extent to date because of the lack of demand for lighter bottles.

In addition, the savings were said to be outweighed by the lost value in perception due to the lightweight and ‘plastic’ feel.

Sustainable route

Glass is also a good example of a sustainable approach to packaging design and manufacture. It is the one packaging material whose properties are undiminished when it is recycled. Sustainability represents a good opportunity for the glass business and plays an increasingly important role in partnerships with customers and suppliers.

Partnership with customers is also paying environmental dividends. Working with Rockware, Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd has become one of the first major soft drinks companies to phase out returnable bottles in favour of recyclable bottles.

CCE is moving from returnable to recyclable glass bottles. It is revolutionising its entire offering in the licensed trade to meet consumers’ expectations with a complete rejuvenation of packaging, specifically designed to meet the needs of contemporary drinkers for stylish, quality products.

One area I have not covered to any great degree is the pouch, a pack that offers similar advantages in many instances to the can but one that is a touch less cost-effective where transit is concerned.

The pouch also offers the soft drinks sector an opportunity to develop innovative packs for the big brands as well as provide containment and protection as well as good barrier properties.

Pouch technology in the beverage sector first became popular for packaging milk in Germany and Switzerland. Today, this sector is becoming increasingly popular in the soft drinks sector, particularly among the young and those that want to drink on the hoof.

Sterility is achieved for pouched products through a retort process. Pack pressure is carefully controlled to prevent bursting. The retort process places heavy demands upon laminate performance. Aluminium foil provides the core protection against ultra violet light, oxygen and moisture transmission.

The ability of the pouch maker to offer add-on features such as drinking spouts, pouring taps, handles and shapes is assuming greater importance.

Pouches must be easier to open and, in some instances, be reclosable. Packs that self-vent to prevent bursting will become increasingly popular.

Compared to cans and jars, filled stand-up pouches are not easy to stack. Nor are they space friendly due to their tapered shape, a point increasingly emphasised by retailers.

To meet these concerns, Amcor has launched a liquid version of its FlexCan. The first generation of FlexCan liquid is based on a pre-made pouch so as to secure seal integrity and die cutting of special shapes.