“Packaging is a field whose day has come.”
That simple and straightforward statement by Colgate-Palmolive’s Chief Technology Officer Patricia Verduin neatly sums up the views shared by all five of the Colgate executives I talked with recently in preparing this year’s View from the Top feature.
“It’s always been viewed as an applied engineering field, if you will,” Verduin continues in her assessment of packaging’s status. “But I think this is an age where packaging changes the way the world buys products, whether it’s making E-Commerce a great experience or it’s addressing the whole plastic waste issue. More than ever before, it’s changing the way people engage with our brands. From Colgate to Tom’s of Maine to Fabuloso to Hill’s, the packaging has to deliver against the promise of our brands and our company purpose as a caring, innovative growth company reimagining a healthier future for all people, their pets, and our planet.”
Working out of Colgate’s Piscataway, N.J., Global Technology Campus, Verduin oversees global R&D, Packaging, and Design. “These are the arms and legs of innovation, the people who are really doing innovation with their pencils and CAD drawings and knowledge,” says Verduin. Noting that this organizational structure has only been in place for a few years, she says it’s really been powerful to have all three of these functional groups together.
“It’s all about having the product formulators, the brand designers, the user experience people, and the packaging engineers and developers all in the same room at the same time and all developing against a common brief,” says Verduin. “Too often in the past the practice was to make the formula and throw it over the wall to the packaging people, who, when they’d come up with a package, would toss it over to the design team for graphics. It just doesn’t work that way anymore. The formulas are too complicated and the delivery mechanisms too varied.”
Colgate-Palmolive is a global company that competes in the oral care, home care, personal care, and pet nutrition categories. With sales of nearly $16 billion, the company supplies products to more than 200 countries and territories and has 40+ manufacturing facilities worldwide, each with its own team of engineers. Like most Consumer Packaged Goods companies, Colgate places a premium on both innovation and sustainability. Somewhat atypically, however, the firm doesn’t have one director of packaging innovation and another of sustainability. Instead, it has a Director of Global Packaging Innovation and Sustainability, the title held by Greg Corra. When asked why things are organized this way, he has this to say: “We believe packaging innovation is the key to achieving Colgate’s purpose of reimagining a healthier future and that our sustainability strategy needs to underpin all aspects of our packaging strategy.”
“Underpin” is a bit of an understatement. The extent to which sustainability shapes all things packaging at Colgate is evident if we look at some of the packages recently introduced by the New York-based firm. Many of these are packages for oral care products, which should come as no surprise. Colgate’s largest category, oral care represented 46% of the firm’s sales in 2019. Let’s start with toothbrushes, since Colgate sells about 3 billion of them every year, two-thirds of them made in-house.
Just reaching U.S. consumers this winter is Colgate Keep, a line of replaceable-head manual toothbrushes featuring an aluminum handle that’s designed to be long lasting for 80% less plastic waste. A new replacement head can be snapped on when bristles are worn. Colgate is launching both a starter kit, which has the aluminum handle with two brush heads, as well as a two-count refill pack sans handle.
The concept of a more permanent and reusable handle made of aluminum is in itself a significant step toward putting less plastic into the solid waste stream. But our interest here is in the fiber-based packaging, which, in a category dominated almost exclusively by plastic blister-packs, is a profound departure.
“The first challenge in our brief was ‘Hey, guys, we need to get out of a plastic blister,’” says Senior Global Design Manager Jadalia Britto. “That led, of course, to a series of questions about the options. How can we use fiber? Can we use recyclable paper? How do we still get premium finish and color? We really had to challenge our external partners to help us find the answers.”
Britto says that her particular responsibility in projects like this is the look, tone, and feel of the package. “It’s all about how to treat the master brand,” she notes. “Then I work closely with our industrial designers to execute on the design intent.”
The package that emerged for the Keep starter kit is a peggable all-fiber tub and lid that stands 229 mm tall, 70 mm wide, and 26 mm deep (9.01 x 2.75 x 1.02 in.). Sourced from sugarcane and wood fiber, the tub is wet-fiber thermoformed by China’s LVHE Packaging Technology Co. Ltd., an impressive specialist in researching, manufacturing, and marketing biodegradable materials and products. The lid, a 400 gsm paperboard containing 60% recycled content, is heat sealed to the tub. Graphics are printed UV offset in six colors plus a matte varnish. As for putting the products into the packs, this is done for now by an outside contractor in a semi-automated process. The starter kit sells for $9.99 and the replacement pack for $4.99.
“From start to launch, including the time we had to spend exploring material options, it took about eight months,” says Britto. “We’re getting faster with getting these things out the door.”
Elsewhere in the oral care category is another brand new product called Optic White Overnight Teeth Whitening Pen. The product itself is a 2.5-mL aluminum and plastic cylinder in an injection-molded stand. Packaging, once again, is entirely paperboard, including an inner tray made of 100% compostable PaperFoam . Based in the Netherlands but with manufacturing facilities in countries including the U.S., PaperFoam mixes four bio-based ingredients into a thick paste that is then injected into a custom aluminum mold and baked at about 400 deg F. The manufacturing process is said to be energy-efficient, and the resulting part provides the cushioning properties of plastic foam alternatives but is TUV-certified as compostable in home or industrial settings and is UL-validated as recyclable.
The other packaging component for the whitening pen is a 24-point SBS sleeve with two locking tabs. The inner tray holding the pen and stand slides into this sleeve. Supplied by Multi-Pack Solutions, it’s offset printed in seven colors with a foil stamp plus varnish. “We definitely focused on a recycled paperboard,” says Britto. “And the cold foil accents bring a nice element of premiumness without interfering with recyclability.”
When asked if the team ever thought about a clear package for the whitening pen, considering how consumers respond to product visibility, Britto says, “I wouldn’t say we never considered it, but from the perspective of graphic impact it would have had its limitations. This printed paperboard says Colgate Red. Also, when I thought about E-Commerce, I wanted the package to stand out in a sea of blues and whites. I really wanted that color. And I wanted that curved shape, even though it complicates a number of things compared to a simple rectangular carton. We almost bailed on the curve at one point, but we pushed ahead and solved it because it delivers on the premium experience that we were after.”
Ships In Own Container
Since the whitening pen debuted as an E-Commerce item, Colgate Director of E-Commerce Bruce Cummings was a key contributor on the team behind its development. “Early on, we considered a carton into a corrugated box,” says Cummings. “But by launch we’d come up with the red mailer, which is lighter and has that easy-open tear strip. Then comes the Colgate-Red sleeve, out of which the inner foam tray smoothly slides out. Compact and compelling, it’s an experience that resembles an elegant process of unboxing.”
Cummings says the team would have gone with a paper mailer rather than the polypropylene air-filled wrap had COVID-19 not messed with the supply chain as it did. “The idea is that once the unboxing experience is complete the consumer can put all of the packaging into the paper recycle stream,” notes Cummings. He adds that the paper mailer is now in the works.
This package is an example of a SIOC (Ships In Own Container) that is sent from Colgate’s contract manufacturer to the Amazons of the world in a corrugated case of 24 units. Each unit, of course, consists of pen in holder, inner foam tray, instruction booklet, outer paperboard sleeve, and mailer. The Amazons of the world apply the last piece of packaging onto the mailer: a thermal-transfer-printed pressure-sensitive label that has all the information needed to get the unit to Mr. Smith at 810 S. Main St.
Another nice example of a Colgate SIOC for the E-Commerce channel is what Cummings refers to as the Smile Box. Like the mailer used for the whitening pen, both Colgate Red and the smile component are used prominently on this corrugated packaging that holds three cartons of toothpaste. Currently the package is a single-wall B-flute corrugated printed flexo in one color Colgate Red by WestRock. This represents a downgauging compared to the original structure, which was a C-flute. And according to Cummings, a third iteration is currently being evaluated. This kind of ongoing optimization, he notes, is fundamental to Colgate’s approach to packaging regardless of which channel it’s designed for.
“I like to say that we need to continue versioning so that we can arrive at better solutions,” says Cummings. But as much as downgauging and cost-optimization are vigorously pursued, he emphasizes this: “We never compromise where quality standards are concerned. We don’t want people getting a tube that leaks or a dog food pack that’s been punctured.”
A very different kind of container was developed by Colgate for a brand new mouthwash called Swish. It’s an impact-extruded aluminum bottle from Trivium Packaging with a 38-mm threaded closure. It’s designed to stand apart from the ubiquitous plastic containers in which mouth wash is so typically found, and the messaging printed on the sidewall proudly proclaims “Refreshingly thoughtful: forever recyclable aluminum bottle.” Available in stores and online, the 16-oz bottle sells for about $6.00.
“It’s a beautiful package, isn’t it?” says Verduin, though in the next sentence she confesses it brought her a few extra gray hairs. One challenge the development team faced involved the essential oils in some of the flavorings. As originally formulated, these oils reacted unfavorably with the internal coating of the container, so the product formulas had to be modified.
Jose Luis Molinar, Global Packaging Director Personal & Home Care, views the launch of Swish from a filling line perspective. He describes the project as “a smart combination of existing assets, new assets, and a commitment to making it happen.
“We are filling this on an existing line used for plastic bottles in our factory in Tennessee,” he continues. “But two things have to be done differently. The automated unscrambling and feeding system used for plastic could damage the aluminum bottles, so we are feeding them into the filling system manually. Also, because the bottle won’t withstand the top-load pressure of the rotary capper that was on the line, we needed to install a new capper.” The ROPP rotary capper is from Zalkin.
The push for monomaterials
Intriguing as the above initiatives may be, the area of emphasis staked out by Colgate that may be the most fascinating—not to mention challenging—is the development of monomaterials that score sustainability points because they fit neatly into an already established recycle stream. Notable progress has been made in pouches for Hill’s Pet Nutrition pet food treats and in toothpaste tubes. Since Colgate is the world’s biggest toothpaste producer, let’s begin with the tubes in which all that toothpaste is packaged.
When the Tom’s of Maine brand reached store shelves earlier this year in a monomaterial recyclable tube, it was the culmination of a five-year effort. The Colgate technology represents the first oral care or personal care tube to earn recognition for recyclability from the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
Popular in a variety of product categories, laminated tubes for toothpaste alone number an estimated 20 billion annually around the world. In most of these tubes, a layer of aluminum is included in the multilayer lamination to protect the toothpaste’s flavor and fluoride. It’s this laminated combination of dissimilar materials that makes it just about impossible to cost effectively recycle such materials through established methods.
To make a recyclable tube, Colgate first eliminated the layer of aluminum, says Director of Packaging Innovation and Sustainability Corra. “The other innovation,” he says, “was changing the resin specification from a mix of LLDPE and HDPE to mostly HDPE. The tricky part was getting the specs of the resins for the multiple layers to work well to make a flat sheet. Remember, our goal was to be able to make these tubes at scale. Had we only been after a prototype or a lab sample, it would have been another story. What we needed was a nice flat sheet that we can print on and form into tubes at our current rates. So that was the key innovation on the lamination side. And then on the shoulder of the tube it was a matter of switching from a much higher melt index to a lower melt index so that we’re compatible with the well-established HDPE recycle stream.” As in the past, the injection-molded shoulder is heat sealed to the tube body.
The development team at Colgate’s Piscataway Global Technology Center tested a dozen different combinations, using from six to 20 layers, to find the recipe that allows people to comfortably squeeze out all the toothpaste, protects the integrity of the product, and meets the demands of high-speed production. The product protection component now that aluminum has been eliminated is EVOH. Corra notes that either of two approaches can be taken. The entire tube material can be coextrusion blown in a single pass or multiple layers of blown HDPE can be extrusion laminated to a blown coextrusion that includes EVOH.
One other dynamic to keep in mind is how vertically integrated Colgate is when it comes to the toothpaste tube business. In other words, they don’t just fill and cap the tubes, they make a whole lot of the tubes, too. “That made it interesting,” notes Corra, “because as the developer of the new package we couldn’t just beat a supplier down on cost or delivery. The supply chain boss who owns that tube-making equipment is my colleague. But it wound up being a very good partnership. Our China factory that does the lamination is one of our centers of excellence for tube forming, and the people there were all in when it came to getting it right.”
When asked about the relative cost of the recyclable tube, Corra says that parity is the goal. “We have a long track record of cost-optimizing tubes and we fully believe in our ability to get the cost of this one where we need it to be,” he says. “That was always in the design brief, as was scalability. Remember, in time we’ll be making billions of these.”
Colgate chooses to share its technology
Notably, so will the competition. In spite of all that Colgate has invested in bringing this tube to market, it is sharing the technology openly with any and all who choose to use it. John Standish, Technical Director at the Association of Plastic Recyclers, applauds this move. “With Colgate sharing technology, others will be able to offer recycle-compatible tubes faster and at lower development time and cost,” says Standish. “It’s a great pioneering effort from Colgate that shows real industry leadership.”
Corra and colleagues believe that sharing the monomaterial technology is the best way to ensure the long-term market viability of this solution. “Having gotten a recyclable tube over the finish line, it only makes sense to help others get there,” says Corra. “If our tube is going to be recycled, it’s going to be because all tubes are recyclable. We get that. We also understand clearly that developing sustainable packaging is a marathon, not a sprint. We have a lot of work to do, and it’s not just in changing consumers’ behavior so that they are actively engaged with the idea of recycling these tubes. We also are working with the Municipal Recycling Facilities so that when consumers do put packaging materials into the correct bin, those materials actually find their way to the right place so that they can in fact get recycled.”
Since the Tom’s of Maine launch, Colgate now has brought the monomaterial tube to a 75-mL Colgate Smile for Good brand in Europe and both 90- and 120-g sizes of its Natural Extracts brand in Latin America. By the end of this year North America will see the new material in the Colgate Optic White brand in sizes above 3 oz and in the 4.2-oz Colgate Kids Zero brand. Corra says the firm has started up this technology in five of its manufacturing plants and continues to adapt its manufacturing and supply chains so that by 2025 it can achieve its goal that all of its toothpaste will be in the recyclable tube.
Meanwhile, in Topeka
Also busy working on a monolayer recyclable package are the packaging developers at Colgate subsidiary Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kans. In the most recent edition of the Flexible Packaging Association’s annual competition, the bottom-gusseted standup pouch they designed for 8-oz Hill’s Pet Nutrition pet food treats won a Gold Award for Packaging Excellence plus a Silver Award for Sustainability and another Silver for Technical Innovation.
As we saw with toothpaste tubes, flexible packages for pet treats are also multilayer structures that include such things as aluminum, polyester, or nylon. But while these materials are terrific at delivering performance characteristics like toughness, barrier, machineability, and economics, they make recycling challenging because they consist of too many incompatible materials.
By contrast, the material from which the Hill’s pouch is made, Thrive-Recyclable from Plastic Packaging Technologies, is described by PPT as monomaterial PE. According to Dave Potter, VP Technical and Engineering at PPT, it’s a two-layer lamination, and the two substrates are married by way of a solvent-free adhesive on a Nordmeccanica www.nordmeccanica.com laminator. The outside layer is a clear 1-mil high-density polyethylene supplied by Jindal Films. PPT reverse prints this substrate in eight colors on a W&H flexo press. The inner layer is a five-layer blown coextrusion of PE resins. Included in the coextrusion, which PPT purchases from Charter Next Generation, is EVOH for gas barrier purposes. Sealant layers are included, too. Also important in this coextrusion is the presence of a compatibilizer technology from Dow called RETAIN. Without this Dow component, EVOH is not compatible with the PE recycle stream. But with it, the two incompatible materials mix and distribute evenly.
PPT had to bring in all new Totani pouch converting equipment for this material. The big challenge is heat management. In a more traditional structure, where a 48-ga polyester is the outer layer, the material has a much higher heat resistance. You drive the heat through that outer layer of polyester to activate the polyethylene sealant layers, which have a lower seal initiation temperature. Then, once the seal is made, the sealing jaws are still able to open without sticking to the outer layer of polyester. But with this new structure, the outer layer is polyethylene. That makes it tricky to deliver enough heat for the inner sealant layers to be activated without also melting the outer layer of polyethylene. So this wasn’t just a matter of materials development. It required modification of existing pouch-making equipment by adding cooling bars and so forth. It’s an entirely new film technology where materials, equipment, and process all had to come together.
This intersection of new packaging materials and the converting and packaging machinery on which they must run is a place that Colgate’s Molinar knows all too well. He oversees global packaging for personal care and home care, where containers fly through high-speed packaging lines at 500-plus per minute. “Every single gram you take out of a container complicates the process window,” he observes. “Every time we want to modify the filling temperature of a liquid product so that we can cool faster and thus fill faster, it creates a strain on container stability. But opportunities lie in this tension between the limitations of equipment and the performance characteristics of emerging materials. Nowhere do you see that more than in the challenges we face with monomaterials. It’s an interesting challenge to say the least, and an important one, too, since in categories like home care and personal care we use a lot of pouches that are various combinations of polyester and polyethylene. That’s why we’re working so closely on this monomaterial challenge with all three of the packaging machinery OEMs that supply us with our form/fill/seal equipment.”
Two other observations Molinar makes when it comes to packaging equipment touch on flexibility and digital printing. “Considering how E-Commerce and the whole direct-to-consumer idea is growing, we must be able to accommodate more and more different packaging configurations,” says Molinar. “Quick-change ability for varied case counts, for example, will be essential. Also being explored is greater flexibility on lines where the bottle shape changes frequently, and our team of engineers is looking at ways to accomplish this through magnetics rather than making a mechanical change as has typically been done in the past. As for digital printing, of course it will play a more prominent role as the notion of one size fits all gets replaced by the growing demand for personalized and customized packaging.”
Returning to the topic of emerging materials, the question of cost is of course a crucial consideration. When asked about the economics of the new monomaterial used for the Hill’s Pet Nutrition pouch, PPT’s Potter is reluctant to throw out a number because there are so many variables involved, including the size of the package, what barrier properties are needed, and how many pouches are ordered. But when pressed he says materials in the Thrive line will carry a premium of anywhere from 15 to 25% compared to the multilayer alternatives they are designed to replace. It remains to be seen how many brand owners will pay such an upcharge. But Potter likes his chances for two reasons. First, brand owners of all stripes are more serious than ever about setting sustainable-packaging goals and then meeting them; using this material could go a long way toward helping them accomplish their objectives. And second, recycle-ready solutions for flexible packaging offered to brand owners in the recent past have come with an upcharge more like 35 to 50%. That could make the premium they pay for Thrive materials seem downright manageable.
One other notable package developed by the talented Topeka team is a corrugated SIOC designed for getting 35-lb bags of dried pet food through the E-Commerce channel. Director of E-Commerce Cummings describes its evolution.
“Because Amazon only stocks certain sizes of corrugated boxes, for a period of time they were putting our 35-lb bags into a large box with considerable dunnage. So we designed our own corrugated box, which was considerably smaller and had very attractive graphics. But now we’ve evolved again to a corrugated box that features hand holes. It’s less ink and it’s slightly downgauged. But it’s the hand holes that have generated a ton of positive feedback, which only stands to reason. Getting 35 pounds off the front porch takes some effort. Was the beautifully decorated box more aesthetically pleasing? Sure. But the revised box still delivers big on branding, on trust, and, perhaps most important, on delivering functional consumer value.”
Cummings says that Amazon was so impressed with the functionality of this package that it holds it up as a model of what other brand owners might consider doing. Go to pwgo.to/5807 for a video on this clever E-Commerce packaging concept.
Impact of the pandemic
As for COVID-19, Corra notes that some of the course corrections required by the pandemic highlighted the resiliency of Colgate’s packaging supply chain. “As the virus hit we started discovering that we couldn’t get as many pumps as we needed, so we quickly qualified a different closure that was more of a flip-cap style to keep liquid hand soap in full production,” he points out. “And look what we did and how quickly we did it with the bar soap we donated for the World Health Organization’s #SafeHands Challenge.” For more on this initiative, see Lead Off column on page 7.
Molinar says that one change brought about by the pandemic will remain a permanent fixture at Colgate: expanded use of remote connectivity. “At the height of the pandemic, we had to install in a facility in Brazil a new shrink sleeve labeler fabricated in the Netherlands,” he says. “So we relied heavily on teleconferencing and virtual reality goggles to get the factory acceptance test done. It was fantastic the amount of information we were able to exchange. We all agreed it was one of the best FATs we’d ever experienced. We’ll be sure to build on this in the future.”
Also fixed in Colgate’s future are the challenges it will face in an era when E-Commerce will continue to grow briskly and consumers are increasingly vociferous in their demand for more sustainable packaging. “We have a million challenges, but I think those are the two big ones,” says Verduin.
The E-Commerce challenge, she says, is all about packaging and production lines that are versatile enough to crank out product that is thoughtfully omnichannel. “Remember, our channel has been brick and mortar for many years, and our lines are optimized that way. Now it’s clear we need to build in more flexibility.”
And sustainable packaging? “The key is getting the right balance between delivering a great consumer experience and doing the right thing for the planet,” says Verduin. “We’ve set some tough goals for the year 2025, including making sure that all of our packaging is either recyclable, reusable, or compostable. But if you don’t set lofty goals, how can you ever deliver what’s really called for?”