Intensive research work carried out over more than three years at the world´s leading brewer AB InBev’s Global Innovation and Technology Center is marking a milestone today in the development of sustainable packaging. Taking advantage of leftover material from barley harvests, an essential ingredient in beer production, and combining it with fully recycled wood fibers, the company created high-resistance six-pack boxes of its Corona brand beers. The six-pack box is produced without felling virgin trees and using up to 90% less water, less energy and fewer harsh chemicals vs traditional pulping processes.
AB InBev launched the new six-pack box in Colombia in March with an initial output of 10,000 units, and will introduce it soon to other markets around the world. Corona teams in Canada, Chile and Mexico have shown their enthusiasm for the initiative and want to run pilots before year’s end. Consumer acceptance was also very positive, as reflected in opinions on social media after interacting with the packaging in stores, as told to Mundo PMMI by Antonella Babino, Corona's Global Director.
The leader of this project is Keenan Thompson, Global Director of Innovation for AB InBev. He combines his vision and experience as a mechanical engineer with a specialization in International Business, to permanently create platforms that enhance materials, structural design and technological innovation and shape the future of the beverage packaging industry. Thompson applies his experience in marketing, innovation, engineering and development to approach business problems from a new perspective, deconstructing value chains and connecting technology with the needs of customers, vendors and retailers to create new ideas and bring them to life. Mundo PMMI spoke with him to learn about the background and development projections for the new AB InBev circular packaging for Corona beers.
Mundo PMMI: In terms of packaging circularity, taking advantage of the same raw materials used in beer and its waste to produce packaging looks like a very impressive innovation.
Keenan Thompson: Yes. A circular economy is certainly the main objective, and this technology platform will take advantage of things that used to be waste materials in our processes. It is a network that really makes sense: with the grain we make the beer and the straw is there to be used and taken for paper processing. We are creating a circular economy not only with straw, but also by giving new life to recycled cardboard. We help recycling progress so we do not have to use as many trees, and at the same time we provide barley straw to replace some of those fibers. It is one of those projects that you can honestly be proud of, because all the right things are being done for consumer convenience, business viability, and to develop really clean technology.
Mundo PMMI: What does it mean to you to lead the team that developed this circular packaging? Why do you consider this to be such an important step towards circular economy?
We like our work to have a big impact, developing products that are right for the consumer, good for business, and environmentally friendly. This technology space has been in development for a few decades, to get involved three years ago and help bring it to life for the consumer, has been extremely rewarding for the team. Now we see this initiative come to life. We learned a lot along the way, and I believe that continuing to learn and being able to help move the industry in the right direction are factors that make this project so rewarding.
Mundo PMMI: Is the new packaging similar to the old one? Do they involve any aesthetic change?
Aesthetically, they look a little different, and we did that on purpose, so the consumers would understand that we made a change. That´s one of the great things about packaging, it is an incredible canvas for marketers to communicate with consumers. We removed the white coating, so Corona adjusted their branding graphics. In the future we can decide to produce packaging that looks exactly the same, or we could make it visually differentiated. The goal is that the packages behave the same as their predecessors. We do not necessarily want to change that unless, of course, we find some aspect that makes them work even better. In short, the goal is for them to perform the same or better.
Mundo PMMI: You have surely faced great technological challenges in the last three years. What were these main challenges, and what has been the path towards this development?
In the past year, the biggest challenge was traveling and getting our team together in the right places, even focusing on virtual trials, ideation workshops and team meetings and the like. In addition, we are impacting the entire value chain, from obtaining the fibers to their transformation into pulp, their entry into paper machines, the search for the precise mix and achieving the right quality, plus all the aspects we must comply with in the field of beverage packaging.
Beverage packaging needs to stand up to some very harsh environments and it needs to perform. Think about it, our packages journey involves humid, cold, and hot environments, and many vibrations; the handles on our packaging must work. In short, there are a lot of performance factors packaging has to meet, and I think we try to get a good fiber and make it into an exceptionally good material.
Mundo PMMI: What was the biggest challenge in terms of biomaterials development and technology?
The biggest challenge was achieving excellent performance. We started with the performance we already had, and found that we could achieve that and more. We are very excited about the future and the contribution that non-wood fibers can make to sustainable packaging. They are an especially useful tool in the packaging field.
Mundo PMMI: What are the advantages of barley straw fibers and how do they behave? What do their physical properties add to packaging materials?
Our goal is to achieve optimal performance. I can say that we are very happy with what we achieved. The material exceeded our expectations, so we are very optimistic about its future.
Mundo PMMI: How do you prepare the combination of recycled wood-based materials and barley straw to produce cardboard?
I am not going to comment in depth, but I can say we have experimented with many types of fiber recipes and machines. Every place in the world is different due to the available raw materials, the machines and the various processes that exist in each country. So there is no recipe that works the same everywhere. When we experiment, we have to optimize the process by location, consider a very large number of variables, and figure out what to do for each market. The secret in the method is to bring a solid paper solution to those markets and to the different packaging technologies, solve it, and make that equation work.
Mundo PMMI: Regarding the converting of this material, how does the pulping process work, using 90% less water and less energy?
We work with a technology partner called Sustainable Fiber Technologies. Traditional wood pulping process requires intense pressures and high temperatures to break down a wood chip into a fiber that can be used for paper; it is pure chemistry. What we have done is find a new way to handle the more delicate fibers, because if we used the traditional process exactly it would be too intense and we would not have a particularly good fiber. We have used that knowledge to our advantage and this has led us to an innovative path.
Mundo PMMI: How can you calculate the positive impact of this new development on the environment? How is AB InBev's ecological footprint reduced?
I think that's another point where there is no fixed measure, and where there are a lot of elements that we need to consider regarding biomass. Still, we want to make sure we do what's right for the environment at every step of the value chain. We mean from the very harvest of the raw material, how to maintain healthy soil, how to preserve energy in the manufacturing process, how to use less water and less aggressive chemicals, and to reduce our transport as much as possible, covering the entire value chain. In addition, we try to build local economies around non-wood materials, based on harvesting and allowing paper manufacturers to be part of this experience by working with a company like AB InBev. Another interesting aspect is that this also allows pulp manufacturers to be part of that value chain, while trying to use the largest amount of recycled cardboard globally.
Mundo PMMI: What is the biggest opportunity that barley straw presents to farmers compared to the way they work today? What is the impact that this development could have on farmers?
For me, not using wood is going to create two main economies for farmers. The first is better sales of a by-product they currently have; that is a benefit to them. Straw biomass is used for different things. Normally, people leave it in the field or sell it for some value; sometimes it is even burned. What we are doing is giving farmers more value for their harvest, and this is something that has a very broad impact. There is also a local economy around the collection, transportation and delivery of biomass to the different actors in the value chain. I think these are two great opportunities to create more value and new business.
Mundo PMMI: There is a lot of talk about packaging recyclability and reuse, but the use of biomaterials in packaging does not seem that close. To what extent do you foresee they will have a leading role and be at the center of packaging innovation in the short term?
I think that for our industry the use of biomaterials is going to be fundamental very soon. We will see it more and more in the coming years in new projects like this one, and in new collaborations like the one with the Corona brand. I work in a part of the company called GITEC, the Global Center for Technology Innovation of AB InBev. We build technologies that suppliers typically would not tackle on their own, we integrate, we bring different parties to the table to work on the challenges and try to solve them from different perspectives. On the other side of the partnership we have the brands like Corona, who is very excited about this technology. It suits their positioning well, and from there we can take it to the rest of the world. With this combination, it can become something very big, something that everyone can start thinking about.
Mundo PMMI: Does this new type of material has applications in other packaging solutions? On labels, for example?
Yes. Ultimately, we focused on making a good fiber to make paper. So if we get this good fiber that makes good paper, the possibilities could be endless.
Mundo PMMI: Is the supply of this material proportional to the production of beer? I mean ... is there a sufficient supply of barley straw?
The balance is in our favor. There is more biomass than is needed to create the packages.
Mundo PMMI: Are you planning to use this new packaging with other AB InBev brands?
The point is to keep learning and move forward as quickly as possible. I think we all agree that a circular economy is the right thing to do for the planet and that it will bring big changes to the industry, but it can take time. As I said before, partnering with Corona and letting the world know that this process is possible will help a lot.
Mundo PMMI: Could this potential global positive impact lead AB InBev to share this development, this solution, with other companies and brands outside the group?
I think that, because it is so good for the environment and appropriate for the paper industry, it will be adopted in the future. It will happen in time. It will take some big companies like AB InBev to make a sizable impact for the industry to start moving in this direction. I believe that AB InBev’s role is to be the catalyst for the creation of this new industry, and now it depends on many players in the value chain to get involved and start working in this new space. At GITEC our role is to build technological platforms, and seek to create synergies that allow us to continue contributing in the commercial aspect -- in costs, and efficiency. We are excited about these kinds of projects, and the six-pack beer package meets those characteristics.