Milk is one product that doesn't lend itself to glamorous packaging. After all, it is no more or less than a basic commodity that is part of our everyday lives. Nevertheless, it still has to be delivered to the consumer safety and cost-effectively. Rodney Abbott looks at what's on offer

It seems only yesterday when virtually all milk was delivered to our front doorsteps by local milkmen in a choice of a one-pint glass bottle or…a one-pint glass bottle. Today, milk products are supplied in a panoply of packs and the market has different feelings at to which pack offers the ultimate solution.

With the growth of supermarkets, cartons came to the fore with the additional benefits of choice of size (one and two pints). Even so the carton has been around for some time. Blank fed gable top cartons were first developed in 1915

The carton doesn’t shatter if dropped, is lighter, non-returnable and logistically much more efficient. Tetra Pak has firmly tied its commercial future to the carton.

Tetra Pak claim to have launched the first ever continuous-fed tetrahedon carton line for form, fill and seal applications in 1952 which made the whole concept far more cost-effective.

The company’s leading brand Tetra Top was not launched until 1985 and then it was only in trial form. In 1992 Tetra Top packs with a plastics injection moulded closure were launched onto UK market.

One of these packs, which was filled from the bottom, was produced every 0.33sec. The pack is made up of two skins of LDPE sandwiching a pre-printed paperboard inner. It featured a ring pull that had to be twisted 90¡ anti-clockwise before it could be opened. Over a billion have been produced since 1992.

Finally, in 1998 an LDPE screw cap was launched on packs distributed by Robert Wiseman Dairies to improve functionality for consumers. This added cost to the pack but was driven by customer demand through competitive pack development.

Tetra Pak has downweighted the board level but the same pack strength is achieved with less weight. The weight of a Tetra Top pack has been slashed by 20% in the last 15 years. Plastics packs for the dairy industry have developed along the same lines.

“It is incredible how the swing towards board from glass has changed in the last 10 years,” says Tetra Pak category marketing manager John Rose.

“A decade ago 80% of milk supplied to supermarkets was packed in glass bottles, 10% in plastics bottles and 10% in cartons. Today, the share has dramatically changed, with 60% of milk to supermarkets being supplied in one- and two-litre plastics bottles.

“Doorstep deliveries now account for just 20% of all milk sold. The carton, much favoured by Tetra Pak, tends to be channelled through the corner shop and other middle ground outlets used by the consumer just to top up their milk supply.”

However, Tetra Pak is busy trying to paddle its canoe upstream in an adventurous bid to develop doorstep deliveries and its business with the major multiples such as Tesco.

“The carton offers the user the best solution because the basic packaging cost is lower, the carton’s environmental profile is superior and the pack is significantly more cost-effective in transit,” says Mr Rose.

“That is why we looked at the logic of hole-in-the-wall operations. Users should remember that the Tetra Top pack offers a blank canvas for branding.

“The label on a plastics bottle offers less space for branding. Yes, it is possible to print directly onto plastics but at a price!

“In addition, the Tetra Top pack offers new low-cost possibilities for niche markets and value added products including organic milk.”

For Current formats – See Table

Future plans for Tetra Top include a modified screw cap to improve access to a wider range of products including a peelable foil top on portion packs for yoghurts, a larger size of openings for cream and plans to make the pack easier to open and easier to use.

“Tetra Top now accounts for 6% of the litreage of milk sold in this country every year and 12% of the packs. Tetra Pak claims 70% of the carton market. The other 30% is taken up by Elopak and Variopak.”

Elopak manager, marketing communications Peter Barnes echoes most of Mr Rose’s thoughts. “Gable topped cartons are still a highly reliable packaging vehicle for freshness, value added milks and brand differentiators,” he says.

“Plastics may have become the main commodity package for fresh milk but cartons are still the more economic package for the smaller sizes even with the closure – litres as well as pints.

“High volume milk economies in roll containers are better served by cartons because of the volume density especially in the smaller sizes, except for the 2 pint polybottle which equals 2 pint cartons in load carrying capacity.

“But retailers want packaging range consistency for their milks.

That is why the cheaper, larger plastics bottle is supported by the more expensive smaller-sized HDPE milk bottles.

“Other milk products are better served by cartons simply because of better differentiation. Organics are set to grow and grow and the carton seems to be a natural milk differentiator

“With the growing emphasis on health, nutrition and choice, niche markets are in abundance. Three immediately spring to mind – soya which is now throwing off its early tasteless image, goats milk which is more digestible and the increasing demand for lactose intolerant products.

“Last but certainly not least, there are the premium products that offer special milk flavours plus the added ‘functional food’ milks like Benecol and Evolus.

As the consumer moved to the habit of ‘once-a-week’ shopping, and combined with the supermarket philosophy of the larger the pack size the cheaper it is, and the trend of polybottles in the US, the four-pint polybottle was introduced in the early 80s.

This ostensibly gave consumers the size of pack they wanted at a cheaper price (less packaging involved), improved functionality in that it is easy to open, pour and close.

The family of plastics packs – one-, two-, four- and six pints – was initiated by Tesco in 1995 with Sainsbury leading the makeover to give the traditional design a larger handle for improved functionality a few years later.

From the above brief history it is easy to see the consumers key drivers – range of sizes including family packs and, above all, functionality, and they are only too aware of what works and what doesn’t.

Pack innovation is evolving continually. A new sealing system for PET bottles is under development by Societe Alsacienne d’Aluminium, part of VAW’s flexible packaging business segment.

The firm’s Top Peel peelable foil laminate system is designed for milk bottle capping systems and has been designed for use with the HDPE bottle sector, especially milk – sterilised, UHT and fresh.

The main advantage of Top Peel is said to lie in its ease of peeling. The material can be supplied in reels, as flat pre-cut lids or recessed lids.

“At this moment in time polybottles meet most of these requirements better than the competition. That is not to say that Nampak, which claims to be the market leader in polybottle supply in the UK market, can be complacent. Potential improvements are continually being discussed and evaluated with our customers,” said Nampak Liquid Foods marketing director Jon Sweet.

As the major dairies strive for economies of scale by consolidating their production sites, the volume throughput reaches the critical mass necessary to consider in-plant (through the wall) production.

This is a concept both the dairy and packaging industries have embraced. Nampak currently have four in-plant facilities in the UK Dairy market either fully operational or under construction for Dairy Crest at Chadwell Heath, Severnside and Kidlington and Oakthorpe for Arla Foods.

“This concept improves customer communications, bottle consistency, filling line efficiencies, and reduces distribution costs and it’s environmental impact,” says Mr Sweet.

In addition, Elopak has completed the installation of a futuristic dairy handling system at Dairy Crest’s site in Chadwell Heath, Essex which, when fully operational at the end of 2001, will be capable of handling 400M litres of milk every year.

Following Dairy Crest’s second phase of restructuring as a result of the Unigate acquisition, the Chadwell Heath site will consolidate the dairy’s liquid milk production in Southern England. It will become the dedicated centre for the processing, packing, and distribution of milk in polybottles to multiples and retail customers in London and the south-east.

The complete materials handling system, which was designed, custom-built and installed by Elopak’s UK office and Elopak Materials Handling Finland, is similar to that supplied by Elopak to SkŒne Dairy in Sweden.

The system begins at the return goods bay that receives empty containers for processing. Roll Containers are de-nested and placed into the system for washing and overhead transport to the roll container loader.

After the filling stage, the fresh polybottled milk is conveyed to the downstream handling area where the bottles are automatically inserted into roll containers.

An ‘intelligent’ automatic transfer wagon gathers, unloads and conveys the bottles to a new cold-store area, also designed and built by Elopak.

In a system new to the UK dairy handling industry, the queued product awaiting capture is recognised by its individual barcode and stored accordingly.

While there are a variety of alternatives available on the global market and used in other countries, the UK consumer and retailer have a high expectation of what they want from a pack.

Cartons have brought about a number of closure options, making them easier to open/pour and close but they are restricted as to size of pack.

“The whisper that pouches are being considered yet again did the rounds, only to slip back into obscurity,” said Mr Sweet. Environmentally, pouches’ lightweight minimalism is commendable but this is a lowly second behind functionality on the UK consumer’s priority list.

“The real problem as to the environmental impact of packaging is the general lack of awareness as to what and how the general public can recycle materials.”

John Rose is in broad agreement. “I am sceptical of the plastics pouch,” he says. “Environmentally, it may use less material but this is hardly sufficient argument for its use when one takes into consideration the loss of consumer function, difficulty in stacking and difficulty in use.

“I don’t believe the British public is prepared to go without these three critical factors purely for any environmental benefit. Some might be influenced if the product retailed at half the price of a board product.”

And, according to Jon Sweet, the pack format that is currently creating the most interest is PET which is aimed at fresh added value products – single-serve flavoured milks, yoghurts and functional drinks.”

Outside the UK, the new generation of aseptic filling technology is gaining momentum giving the opportunity to use the design flexibility of plastics bottles combined with the full range of products available to be filled, particularly the premium niche sectors.

However, with so many containers competing for the consumers’ eye on shelf with vibrantly coloured shrink sleeves, brand owners are thinking twice as to what is selling the product

Current Formats
Elopack’s 31415 Roll Container