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Brewers pouring into plastic

Brewers around the world have been on the fence about plastic bottles. Suddenly they're commercializing a variety of plastic barrier structures.
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FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy
     

From South Africa to Japan to Great Britain plastic beer bottles have been surfacing quietly over the past year. Even here in the U.S. during WNBA games in Madison Square Garden no less beer in plastic made an appearance this summer when the world's largest brewer Anheuser-Busch tested a 16-oz bottle made of homopolymer polyethylene naphthalate. Last month Miller Brewing became the most recent entrant into plastic (see p. 71).

Now from Germany France and Australia come three more entries in the plastic beer bottle derby: a 1/2-L (16.9 oz) bottle from Karlsberg Brewery of Homberg Germany; a 1/2-L bottle from Brasseries Heineken of Rueil-Malmaison France; and a 400-mL (13.52 oz) bottle from Carlton and United Breweries Ltd. of Melbourne Australia.

These containers are significant because they offer sufficient shelf life at ambient temperatures to permit the brewers to target the retail trade. All three are sold at supermarkets in four-pack carriers. Plastic beer bottles before these were restricted to limited market niches like stadium events sports arenas and seaside venues where temperature distribution and consumption could be controlled. Under these conditions shelf life beyond 60 days wasn't required.

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Nylon barrier

Karlsberg's 1/2-L bottle represents the first commercial application of Schmalbach-Lubeca's (Manchester MI) nylon barrier technology. The polyethylene terephthalate/nylon/PET structure allows Karlsberg to give its beer a best-if-used-by date of nine months. That's significantly longer than any entry in the single-serve beer category thus far.

Officially this is a test package not a launch. But instead of being reluctant to discuss its bottle like most brewers who've tested plastic for beer Karlsberg is sending its innovative bottle to French markets with a full-blown promotional campaign depicting Karlsbrau as "the beer of the future" because it's in a plastic bottle.

"We want to sell this product not just to special groups or at special events but at supermarkets for everybody to buy" says Karlsberg's media relations director Bettena Kuehne. "This is why I think we have to do a little more marketing than others [who've tested plastic for beer]."

Kuehne also emphasizes that Karlsberg views the bottle as a value-added package for which consumers should be willing to pay a premium. In supermarkets in eastern France the 1/2-L bottle is sold in four-pack paperboard carriers for FF28 (US$5.05). That's about FF10 (US$1.80) more than a shopper would pay for the same amount of Karlsbrau beer in glass bottles.

"The bottle is lighter to carry [than glass] and it's unbreakable" says Kuehne. "We think people will learn of its advantages and be willing to pay for them."

Threaded closure

The 28.5-g amber bottle is coinjection stretch/blow-molded in a two-stage process. A red threaded closure injection-molded of polypropylene makes the bottle reclosable. Surprisingly considering the nine-month shelf life the closure contains no oxygen absorber. Peter Rusitzka managing director of Karlsberg Brewery isn't saying who the closure is from or how it keeps oxygen out and CO2 in. As he points out "We worked one-and-a-half years on this technology." About all he'll say is that the closure is from a European supplier.

He adds that further investigation at Karlsberg is aimed at developing a closure capable of withstanding pasteurization temperatures. Cold-filtered Karlsbrau doesn't require pasteurization. Filling is done by a contract packager in France and distribution handled by a Karlsberg brewery also in France.

Why test in France instead of Karlsberg's home court in Germany? In Germany neither government nor society views one-way plastic bottles as being environmentally friendly. France says Kuehne is different.

"French consumers are used to one-way PET" says Kuehne. "They see it for water soft drinks and lemonades."

The assumption says Kuehne is that these bottles will be recycled in France along with monolayer PET bottles though there is no deposit on the bottle to encourage recycling. According to Schmalbach-Lubeca's Bernhard Lohn the PET/nylon/PET bottle is "easily recycled." But he doesn't shed much light on how the amber bottle is to be separated from the clear PET bottles usually used for water and soft drinks.

Commitment to innovation

So why would Karlsberg the seventh-largest brewer in Germany push forward with a plastic beer bottle ahead of competitors that are considerably bigger?

"We're an innovative company" says Kuehne. "We don't want to wait for others if we have a good idea. We act on it. We believe the plastic beer bottle has a bright future. Even though this is officially a test we see this bottle rolling out into other countries."

Kuehne adds that just because this test is in France it doesn't mean the German market has disappeared from Karlsberg marketers' radar screen. Plastic is definitely being considered for Germany too. But according to Kuehne whenever Germans see Karlsberg product in plastic the bottles are likely to be either returnable and refillable or they'll carry the required deposit to encourage recycling. So it's likely that any bottle marketed in Germany will be different than the one being tested in France.

As for the test in France it's intriguing to see the extent to which Karlsberg is going to promote a package not a product. Point-of-purchase displays in the supermarkets and an elaborate promotional brochure aimed at supermarket decision makers feature a black-suited "bodyguards" concept. Like bodyguards protect important people this plastic container protects the Karlsbrau beer.

"PET is popular in today's beverage market but only a further development in PET multilayer technology makes it an ideal package for a high-quality product like Karlsbrau beer" notes the brochure. "In France Karlsbrau is known as the beer of connoisseurs. Because of PET multilayer technique it becomes the beer of the future a pioneer in a new kind of bottle: unbreakable light one hundred percent recyclable and terrific in protecting the beer."

Karlsberg's promotional efforts cleverly align the plastic beer bottle with the new Mercedes Smartmobile a subcompact car with an all-plastic chassis. Karlsberg promotional teams are touring French supermarkets in Smartmobiles decorated with Karlsberg logos and colors. It's an irresistable promotional connection as Kuehne points out. "Why not link the plastic car with the plastic beer bottle?"

Unique shape for '33' Export

Unlike the traditional long-neck amber beer-bottle image projected by the Karlsberg bottle Brasseries Heineken in France opted for a new look in launching a 1/2-L plastic bottle for its "33" Export brand. "Lightweight and unbreakable the bottle is very practical" says brand manager Pascal Peltier. "But esthetically it's unique. We took full advantage of plastic's potential to make a very pleasing shape."

The contemporary-looking bottle has "33" Export embossed prominently around its sidewalls. Labeling is limited to the neck area so that the embossing is clearly visible and can be felt in the hand. The brightly decorated glue-applied paper label wraps completely around the neck and shoulder.

Co-injection stretch/blow-molded by Continental PET Technologies (Florence KY) the 53.5-g green bottle provides a six-month shelf life. At a Heineken brewery near the French town of Lille the beer is flash-pasteurized and cold-filled.

Heineken says the bottle has five layers. Naturally PET is among them. The rest of the material spec is closely guarded by blow molder CPT. When asked if the Heineken bottle is similar to the five-layer barrier bottle the firm makes for Miller Brewing CPT wouldn't comment. But industry observers believe the two are similar and that in addition to PET the bottle also incorporates an oxygen-scavenging layer or layers and nylon for carbonation retention.

CPT injection molds the Heineken preform at a plant near Boston and blows the preforms in Etten-Leur the Netherlands. This trans-Atlantic bottle-making arrangement will likely change says Heineken's Catherine Lopaz packaging development manager once volumes pick up. Peltier for one expects they will.

Paperboard carriers

Heineken began shipping the bottles in paperboard four-pack carriers to supermarkets in the north of France this month. Unlike the FF28 price point Karlsberg set for its four-pack of same-sized bottles Heineken's four-packs are priced at FF15 (US $2.70). Part of the difference in price points however is explained by the fact that Karlsbrau is what the French would call a "biere especiale" while "33" Export a "biere deluxe" is aimed at a less-discriminating palate.

Peltier says consumers pay about the same per liter of beer whether "33" Export is in glass or plastic. He acknowledges the plastic bottle costs his company considerably more-for now. "But we didn't think consumers were ready to pay a premium for a plastic beer bottle yet" he adds.

Capping the bottle is a 28-mm roll-on aluminum closure from Alcoa (Indianapolis IN). According to Lopaz an inner compound of polyvinyl chloride helps prevent carbonation loss. Why a threaded closure and not a crown?

"We wanted people to be able to reclose the bottle" says Lopaz. "We think people will often be outside when they drink from this bottle and reclosing it could be useful."

On the environmental side Heineken emphasizes that the bottle is completely recyclable and icons on the label encourage consumers to recycle the bottle. But recycling of PET is in its infancy in France where water and soft drink bottles made of PET most often wind up being incinerated. The beer bottle will likely join them for now but Lopaz insists that's about to change and that France will soon have a PET collection/reprocessing system in place. In that environment a plastic beer bottle is a good fit she says.

Coating for barrier

While Karlsberg and Heineken opted for multilayer technology to send plastic beer bottles to the retail market Australia's Carlton and United Breweries Ltd. selected monolayer PET with an epoxy amine coating from PPG Industries (Pittsburgh PA). Containers Packaging (Abbotsford Victoria Australia) injection stretch/blow molds the 400-mL bottle and then sprays the exterior of the bottle with PPG's Bairocade(TM) 32020 coating. At 100 days unrefrigerated shelf life on the 400-mL bottle of Carlton Cold is just beyond three months says CUB's manager of packaging Warwick Field. The beer is "sterile-filtered" says CUB and cold-filled.

CUB made it clear some time ago that a plastic bottle for beer was an idea whose time had come. Since November '96 it has sold its Carlton Cold brand in a 1/2-L 33-g monolayer PET bottle at stadium events clubs and other settings where breakability made glass a liability (see Packaging World January '97 p. 40). But that PET container-even when shipped and stored under refrigeration-offered only a 50-day shelf life. So it was viewed as an interim package. What CUB really wanted was a plastic container with enough shelf life to permit distribution through conventional retail channels. The coated PET is that package. It now replaces CUB's uncoated PET.

"Carlton & United is delighted to be the first to bring this packaging innovation to Australian beer consumers" says CUB managing director Nuno D'Aquino. "Consumers have really taken to the unbreakable beer bottle because PET is a thermal insulator. This means that even though the outside of the bottle doesn't feel as cold as other containers the beer actually stays colder longer."

The new bottle weighs 31.5 g and has a 28-mm neck finish. It has "Cold" and "CUB" logos embossed on the neck and body while a ribbed midriff provides extra grip. Also significant says Field is its extra-wide base diameter which makes it easier to handle throughout the packaging process.

"The 'champagne' base with a fifty-millimeter diameter is the first of its kind" says Field. "It's tricky to produce because the wider you get in a pressurized container like a beer bottle the easier it is for the concave base to 'reverse dome.'" In other words if the bottle design and distribution of plastic aren't just right the concave bottom blows out under pressure and becomes convex.

Front and back paper labels are cold glue applied. The injection-molded PP threaded closure supplied by the bottle vendor incorporates a barrier component.

"We make the proprietary barrier material that goes in the wadding of the cap" says Containers Packaging's Ray Waycott. "There's no oxygen scavenger in this particular closure but there could be if desired." The closure also incorporates a drop-down breakaway TE band.

According to Waycott the patent-applied-for rotary coating equipment used at Containers Packaging is a two-stage system. Coating is applied to bottles and heat-treated then it's heated a second time.

Recyclability is crucial

"The new bottle is recyclable so it can go straight into the household or special-events recycling systems operating in eastern Australia where it is being released" says D'Aquino. The recyclability of the container played a big role in CUB's decision to use it.

"One reason we elected not to go down the path of multilayer technology is that coated PET in this country anyway is more appropriate from a recycling standpoint" says Field. It's CUB's belief that it's easier to remove the coating than to separate PET from a multilayer structure. So CUB says its beer bottle can join the established flow of PET recyclate in a cost-effective manner. In fact says Field "We aim to go bottle-to-bottle."

One added advantage of the coating technology says Field is that if a colored bottle is desired the coloring can go in the coating not the resin. That simplifies recycling. "No sortation by color is needed because the color can be in the coating not in the resin" says Field. "Once the coating is removed all bottles-amber green whatever-yield clear flake."

The new Carlton Cold bottle will be available initially from retailers in Australia's eastern states. It will be sold in four-packs in clear shrink film for AUS$6 to AUS$8 (US$3.74 to $5.00). The launch is supported by a promotional trialing program over the summer featuring a "Keeps colder longer" message.

When asked about the cost of the coated bottle Field replies "It's not meaningful at this time to pinpoint costs. You need volume to get price down."

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