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Sustainability upgrade for milk in PET

A world’s first: The French dairy company LSDH is launching a lightweight PET bottle for shelf-stable UHT milk. ‘Dry’ sterilization saves significant amounts of water.

“A global revolution.” That’s how Emmanuel Vasseneix, the young CEO of Laiterie de Saint-Denis-de-l’Hôtel (LSDH), describes the aseptic technology behind his firm’s recently launched 1-L PET bottle of shelf-stable UHT milk. Sterilizing is done on a Predis FMa system from Sidel, which uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide to sterilize preforms just before they’re blown into bottles.

This approach permits a lighter bottle because the blown bottle never has to withstand the rigors of conventional hydrogen peroxide sterilization and the thermal abuse inherent in it. Additional sustainability benefits are accrued because dry decontamination virtually eliminates rinse water consumption.

“At only 24 grams, this bottle is lighter than the traditional PET bottle and thus more environmentally friendly,” says Vasseneix. “For the consumer, it’s both practical and safe. And PET allows us to diversify and personalize bottle shapes.”

Since the middle of this summer, the innovative new bottle has been produced on a Combi Predis FMa at a rate of 400/min. The LSDH plant is in the Loiret countryside, about 100 miles south of Paris.

“Innovation is the only way to differentiate your company,” insists Emmanuel Vasseneix. “If you are doing what everyone else is doing, price will be the only differentiator.”

This company’s entire history could serve as proof for this adage. Founded in 1909 by dairy farmers who wanted to pool their milk production, LSDH collects and processes milk from throughout central France. In control of the company since 1947, the Vasseneix family has continually innovated and adapted to market changes and to reforms in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). LSDH initially bottled pasteurized milk in HDPE and then sterilized milk in glass and later in HDPE (1962), before finally converting to paperboard with Tetra Pak lines (1977). The company expanded in 1980 with the creation of a new dairy about 60 miles away. In 1985, new European regulations and the implementation of milk quotas changed the situation. The Vasseneix family decided to diversify into other beverages. This led to the bottling of fruit juices, 60% of which are sold under store brands with the rest being done for major brands such as Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever, and Eckes.

Opaque preform

Product diversification followed package diversification. The next step was the bottling of fruit juices in plastic bottles. “Going into PET was a real entrepreneurial gamble for us,” notes Emmanuel Vasseneix. “We invested without having a real market.”

In 2007, LSDH acquired a new aseptic line and conducted machine validation tests. These tests were done with sterile milk, a low-acid product that, from a bacteria-kill standpoint, is much more challenging than high-acid fruit juices. Vasseneix puts it this way: “If you can aseptically bottle milk, you can aseptically bottle anything.” And then the idea clicked: If we’re successful packaging UHT milk on a test basis, why not package it for the marketplace?

The problem is that milk is negatively affected as much by light as it is by microbes or air. So LSDH needed an opaque preform. This led to the development of a new process, a development that received considerable assistance from preform manufacturer PDG Plastiques and the Netstal Company , makers of preform molding equipment. This process consists of molding a black PET preform (which absorbs residual light) and then overmolding it with white PET (which reflects light). Design and development took more than two years. In addition to blocking potentially harmful light, the LSDH bottle offers better protection from odors than something like HDPE. Finally, waste reduction gained from a lighter bottle (28 g vs. 30 g for a traditional 1-L high-density polyethylene bottle), was completely in line with the company’s eco-design requirements.

The concept was tested in a supermarket with about 12 million liters, and then the product was successfully launched in 2007. The 1- and 1.5-L bottles really won over consumers. More than 20 million bottles have already been sold. This success has been recognized by the industry, with LSDH recently receiving a Packaging Oscar and a Gré d’Or in the Innovation category.

Environmental responsibility

The aseptic filling line installed in 2007, which runs at a speed of 300 bottles/hr, was quickly saturated. To increase its production capacity and thus meet its customers’ expectations, LSDH decided to take another technological leap forward: the acquisition of a Sidel line equipped with a Combi Predis™ FMa. This was a first for low-acid beverages. This new technology was chosen for several reasons, explains Vasseneix. “First of all, there was the environmental aspect: the dry decontamination system consumes very little disinfectant, and it reduces water consumption to next to nothing. This was appealing because we think it’s important to look ahead to the company’s future responsibilities, both to society and to the environment.”

Another important feature for LSDH was the possibility of lighter bottles. A 1-L bottle weighs just 24 g. The Predis system sterilizes preforms rather than bottles, which means you don’t need as heavy a bottle because you aren’t subjecting the bottle to the thermal stress of sterilization.

Vasseneix adds that fast output rates and Sidel’s recognized expertise in PET also played a role in the dairy’s choice of aseptic filling equipment. Flexibility was a big consideration, too, because short runs and promotional items are part of the mix and products have to be changed three or four times a week on a line that runs around the clock six days a week. The new line now produces part-skim, skim, and whole milk in 1- and 1.5-L bottles; 500-mL bottles are to be added to the line in 2010. Product shelf life is three to four months at room temperature.

With a few key exceptions, blowing and filling of bottles at the LSDH plant is similar to other Sidel Combi blow/fill/cap installations. Preforms are blown on an SBO Universal blow molder and filled on an FMa (Flow Meter Aseptic) filler/capper.

It’s the sterilization part that’s significantly new. Sterilization of the neck of the preform comes first. It’s done by means of ultraviolet light. Then the preforms undergo a “dust removal” stage in which filtered air is blown in and extracted. Next, hydrogen peroxide is deposited inside each preform by a process Sidel calls “condensation.” Preforms are then heated to 100 degrees C and held at that temperature for 16-18 seconds. This activates the vaporized hydrogen peroxide and sterilizes the preform. Preforms are then transferred under sterile conditions to the blowmolding station where preforms are blown into bottles.

Residual hydrogen peroxide is eliminated in four stages: during preform heating prior to blowing; during transfer of preform to the blowing wheel; during the blowing process, which is done with sterile air; and during transfer from blow wheel to filling. “Bottles we test show hydrogen peroxide levels are much lower than the 0.5 ppm threshold set by the Food & Drug Administration,” says Sidel’s Michael Fasold.

Freshly blown bottles are transferred under sterile conditions to filling and capping stations. The 38-mm injection-molded polypropylene caps are sterilized by means of UV light. But Sidel indicates it’s working on some technology that may replace this existing approach.

To become the national brand

In the 1950s, LSDH had thirteen employees and produced 6,000 liters of milk per day. Today, the company has more than 650 employees and processes 4 million bottles per day, including 0.5 million liters of milk collected from 200 dairy farmers. Still family-run and independent, the company continues to grow. Between 2008 and 2009, LSDH invested 25 million euros in new equipment. Its philosophy: “To participate in the development of our customers’ brands, while guaranteeing consistent quality and continuous innovation.” Quality is ensured at each step of the process, from farm selection to processing, transport and heat treatment. In terms of innovation, LSDH launches about 100 new items each year on its 30 packaging lines, and 25 persons work in the R&D department on products for tomorrow and on the necessary industrial adaptations. The company is now bottling soy-based drinks, fruit juices, soups, creams, milk/juice blends (Danao) and flavored milk. It is also present in the healthy and organic drinks market.

To offer its customers a complete range of package types, LSDH acquired Jus de fruits d’Alsace in 2008. Jus de fruits d’Alsace produces juices in glass bottles and paperboard cartons in sizes from 200 mL to 2 L. LSDH is looking to lighten its PET milk bottle even more, in collaboration with Sidel, with the goal being to get it down to 22 grams. LSDH is also targeting high-end markets (infant formulas, vitamin-enriched milk, products for seniors, etc.) and clearly announces its ambition: “To become the national brand for major retail customers.”

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