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Plastic beer bottle could be big

Australian brewing giant Carlton United Breweries has high hopes for a barrier beer bottle made of plastic. In the meantime, it's launched a monolayer PET bottle that's causing quite a stir.
FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy

Nearly 20 years after the first soft drinks in plastic bottles appeared in Australia Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) has unveiled a unique plastic bottle for beer. In late November the Victoria-based firm launched its popular Carlton Cold brand in 500-mL bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate. CUB expects the biggest market for the unbreakable bottle will be major sport and "cultural" events where glass is banned as well as beaches resorts and other venues where fears of broken glass run high. But off-premise sales are also part of the overall marketing picture. The current monolayer PET bottle isn't equivalent to a glass bottle in either carbonation retention or oxygen barrier properties. While glass offers a shelf life up to 6 months the 33-g PET bottle is coded for seven weeks. Consequently distribution channels are being carefully selected. Supermarkets for instance are not receiving the bottle. But liquor stores convenience stores and the hotel and restaurant trade are natural targets because beverages from such outlets are typically consumed shortly after they're purchased. The launch of the bottle is accompanied by a national outdoor ad campaign emphasizing the advantages of shatter resistance. Unlike most bottled or canned beer the PET bottles are kept refrigerated throughout the distribution chain right up to the moment the consumer makes his purchase. The cooler temperatures slow down the activity of gases so ingress of oxygen and loss of carbonation through the bottle sidewall are both minimized. Without refrigeration shelf life would be far shorter than seven weeks. Injection stretch/blow molded by ACI (Hawthorn Australia) on a reheat-and-blow system from Sidel (Doraville GA) the attractive custom bottles feature embossed "Cold" and "CUB" logos on the neck and body while a ribbed midriff adds extra grip in wet or humid conditions. The injection-molded polypropylene closure also from ACI is being used without an oxygen scavenger. But such scavengers have been tested by CUB and it's possible they'll be incorporated at some future date says Warwick Field manager of packaging at Brewtech the technical division for the Fosters Brewing Group within CUB. The 28-mm threaded closure also has a breakaway band to provide tamper evidence. According to Field crown closures were also evaluated and considered. "But we chose to go with the traditional screw cap partly because it's recognized as the standard closure on a PET bottle and also because consumers may want to be able to reclose a bottle with five hundred milliliters of beer in it" he says. The bottles also get a cold glue-applied paper label printed offset in four colors by Labelmakers [Aust] (Melbourne Australia). Stopgap measure Intriguing as the new bottle is it's only an interim package says Field. He's confident that a barrier version will soon replace the monolayer PET. When it does the need for refrigerated distribution will be over and shelf life can be extended. "While this is not a barrier bottle" says Field "we are experimenting with and obviously lab-and field-testing barrier bottles. But we were anxious to get into the marketplace with a plastic bottle prior to our November to March summer season. So we've preemptively launched if you like this package." CUB is actively testing multilayer containers that include ethylene vinyl alcohol as barrier. Also in test are various combinations of PET and polyethylene naphthalate. "I personally would put my money behind EVOH in a multilayer bottle" says Field. "The commercialization of that technology seems to favor it. PEN and PET/PEN combinations are too expensive at this point in time." But won't that change? "Hopefully" says Field. One property the bottle doesn't require is heat resistance. That's because Carlton Cold which made its debut in 1993 is a cold-filtered beer filled into sterilized bottles. So the bottles need not pass through a tunnel pasteurizer. Versatile line CUB's PET bottle is filled in its Sydney plant on a line routinely used for 250- 375- and 750-mL glass bottles. In addition to an ink-jet coder to mark expiration date on the shoulder two additions to the line were necessary: a capper from Zalkin represented in the U.S. by Fowler Products (Athens GA) and an empty bottle air conveying infeed from Crown-Simplimatic (Lynchburg VA). Light plastic bottles are inherently more difficult to handle particularly when empty so the PET bottles are filled at about 450/min about half as fast as 375-mL glass bottles are filled on the same line. But if the package is as successful as CUB thinks it will be a second Crown-Simplimatic handling system will be added. This twin-infeed system will let CUB fill plastic bottles at about the same speed as glass. The machine that fills the PET bottles is a Model BSF from Krones (Franklin WI). CUB has a total of five of these machines in three different plants. But it wasn't always so. When the non-pasteurized Carlton Cold brand was introduced in glass in 1993 CUB used a "clean room" approach. Filling and capping machines were cleaned with chemical sterilants and personnel too had time-consuming sanitation procedures to undergo before production could begin. "We weren't happy with the level of sophistication that was involved" says Field. "It was like hospital-type standards." So CUB worked with Krones to develop technology aimed at simplifying the bottling of nonpasteurized beer. What emerged is a system capable of steam-sterilizing bottles immediately before filling. A prototype system was installed in CUB's Brisbane brewery and now there are two BSF fillers in Melbourne and two in Sydney as well. "I think we have more of these Krones systems than anyone in the world" says Field. Interestingly the steam sterilization mode can be switched on or off. So CUB's bottling lines can be used to fill and pasteurize or to fill into a sterile bottle and not pasteurize. "We built the line for flexibility" says Field. Young vs old Early reaction to the PET bottle from consumers has been excellent says Field. He acknowledges that older people will have a harder time making the switch from glass to plastic but he believes the younger generation is so accustomed to this kind of beverage package they'll make the switch with little trouble at all. "It's an excellent package a superb package" says Field. Part of its strength he points out is its proprietary design. He notes that in recent packaging conferences he's attended from New York to Singapore one speaker after another has extolled the virtues of unique package design. "That's why we've avoided a stock bottle that's why our bottle is embossed and stippled" says Field. Yet as fond as he is of the PET bottle it's clear that the next-generation plastic beer bottle is the one on which he really has his sights set. "My estimate is that we'll see a barrier plastic beer bottle in the next three months" says Field. Will CUB be first to commercialize it? Field isn't saying though he does offer this: "We have a dedicated team that has worked on it for many years and I think it's the only new beverage packaging medium that is going to make any impact on conventional steel or aluminum cans or glass bottles. I'm very excited about it. It's an enormous opportunity to take beverage packaging one step farther." Regarding economics Field says comparisons are not particularly useful right now for several reasons. First the plastic bottle has not yet been produced in any significant volumes nor has there been time to accurately gauge costs derived from different distribution and handling. In addition says Field "The price of PET has plummeted or at least it has in Australia. So comparing resin prices at this time is not meaningful." Environmental issue And how does the PET bottle fit into the solid waste picture? Its one-way status is no mark against it since returnable glass beer bottles are even rarer in Australia than in the U.S. However glass recycling is far better established in Australia than recycling of plastics so some are a bit concerned by the emergence of a plastic beer bottle. "The environmental [activists] I must admit are not super happy with us at this point" concedes Field. "But at the end of the day this bottle fits into the collection of plastic soft drink bottles which are collected at curbside in major cities." But what happens when a barrier bottle with EVOH is developed? Won't that complicate the recycling picture? "Well we haven't elected to go down that path yet" says Field who emphasizes that a PET/PEN blend is still a contender. Regardless of which barrier path CUB takes the general feeling says Field is that the addition of small amounts of either PEN or EVOH into the stream of PET recyclate will not have a negative effect. He only wishes that the three major bottle suppliers in Australia would open up more so that such issues could be more fully explored. "We'd like to get closer to the technical development areas at these firms to ascertain how the progress with barrier is going and in what direction" says Field. "But at the moment all three are keeping their cards very close to the chest. It's partly because so much is riding on it." What Field refers to is that one of the three plastic bottle suppliers is also a big producer of glass bottles. Another of the three is a big supplier of cans. Should CUB's plastic bottle prove successful the impact on glass and can producers could be significant. And by all appearances the plastic bottle is indeed causing quite a stir. "Sales are going through the roof" says Field. "Hotels and other institutions that cater to New Year's Eve crowds are clamoring for it." That's partly because they're forbidden by law to sell beer in glass bottles on New Year's Eve. So this year they can as in years past sell only canned beer. Or they can stock up on Carlton Cold in PET and offer their customers a choice of cans or bottles. "Even police organizations have endorsed the bottle because of its shatter-proof nature" says Field. "It's made supply a difficult proposition. It's being rationed very tightly."

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