Since their introduction 30 years ago, the use of PET bottles has expanded hugely in the soft drinks market, writes Richard Corbett of industry analysts Canadean. But challenges remain, not least boosting PET's consumer appeal in premium categories, increasing usage for more sensitive beverages such as juices and iced teas, and addressing environmental concerns.

In the 30 years or so since the chemist Nathaniel Wyeth patented the first polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle, it has succeeded in reshaping the whole look of the soft drinks market, playing a significant role in the sector's impressive expansion.

In 1998, according to industry analysts Canadean, PET registered a share of 40% of the global soft drinks market; today that figure is up to 57%. Bottles are becoming lighter, barrier developments are extending shelf lives and nitrogen peroxide allows dry sterility and cold filling, and such new technologies will undoubtedly help to continue to increase PET's share of the market.

PET has attributes that appeal to producers, retailers and consumers. Even with the current high prices, PET is economically competitive for producers, while retailers are attracted to the handling advantages it offers over glass. For consumers, the bottles are hard to break, resealable and of course light.

PET has been a direct replacement for glass, and its gain has to a large extent been glass's loss. Globally, PET has edged glass out of the mainstream and marginalised it to the premium end of the market. Glass accounted for nearly one in every five litres of soft drinks sold in 1998; today that figure is approaching one in ten litres sold.

However, in volume terms, the glass decline looks like it may have troughed with a marginal rise in sales expected in 2006. Glass may be losing its foothold in the mainstream to PET, but at the top end of the market its position continues to remain secure. Consumers across the globe associate glass with quality and elegance and producers targeting the premium end of the market and the Horeca channel will almost always opt for a glass bottle. A developing trend is for operators to build a premium image for a brand using glass and then to move it into PET to build volume.

The premium end of the market therefore represents a significant opportunity for PET, but the challenge for the industry is to produce bottles that convey a premium image and deliver a drinking experience that justifies the added expense. Advances in technology are making this more realistic but changing consumer perceptions will be the biggest challenge.

Bottle design in recent years has been the key tool in helping marketers to position their products at the premium end, with more and more elaborate designs appearing across the world.  Ty Nant's award winning PET bottle is designed to reflect running water, while Pom Wonderful has caught the eye of the shopper with its elaborate move into PET. Transferring the Orangina and Granini brands from their distinctive glass bottles to PET was particularly challenging but proved that the technology is available to meet soft drink producers' demands.

PET may still be under represented in the on-premise but in the impulse/on-the-move channel, it is by far and away the leading packaging type. In the carbonates category, up until the mid-90s, the can was firmly established in many markets as the single-serve format for impulse/on-the-move drinkers.  Suppliers saw a chance to trade consumers up to a bigger unit size and boost retailers' turnover, and now the 50cl PET is the predominant format in this channel. In 1998, the volume split between 33cl can and 50cl PET was 60:40. By 2006, the tables had turned and the split is now 61:39 in favour of 50cl PET, a trend mirrored in the vending channel.

The prospects for the can are, however, far from bleak. The success of can multi packs, including recent fridge pack innovation in supermarkets, has shown that consumers still enjoy drinking from them and enjoy the single-serve format both inside and outside the home. This has come at the expense of PET.  Furthermore, the rise of Red Bull's 25cl can has made this format the norm for energy drinks in many markets, boosting can share of the energy category from 17% in 1998 to 47% in 2006.

No soft drink category has benefited more from the progress of PET than the packaged water category, more specifically the still water segment. Today 81% of all water is packaged in PET, a figure that rises to 87% in the still water segment.  PET single-serve bottles have been a major contributor to the rapid expansion of waters.

In the early part of the decade, Nestlé identified PET as a cure for sluggish Perrier sales and invested heavily in the development of a 50cl PET Perrier bottle. The new bottle allowed the brand to increase its presence in the convenience channel and broaden the number of occasions consumers could drink it.  In take-home, PET also allowed suppliers to offer pack sizes of up to 500cl waters with a respectable pack presentation. Sports caps have given PET a further 'string to its bow', initially helping water sales and then giving PET the edge over other rival formats in the rapidly growing sports and still drinks categories. 

While glass and can may have suffered from the growth of PET, cartons have managed to maintain their share of 6%. Around 70% of all cartons are sold in the juice and nectars category, a category where they have managed to increase their share since 1998 and to restrict PET to a penetration of just 16%.  Like PET, cartons are light, do not break easily and have positive handling attributes.  Carton producers have invested in areas where PET may have had advantages, by for instance developing resealable closures and improving pouring.

Moreover, PET has historically struggled to compete with cartons in the juice category and other 'sensitive beverage' sectors like nectars and iced teas because of shelf-life issues, notably the speed at which oxygen and micro-organisms affect the product, and the light-sensitive nature of some of these products. Today these issues can all be addressed with the right barriers but this adds to the cost, and in these categories PET is used in more branded products which command a higher price. Not surprisingly, PET suppliers see these 'sensitive categories' as offering great potential and have invested heavily in the technology to close the price gap.

While all the research points to the rapid continued growth of PET in all soft drink categories, environmental issues remain a concern. But PET has already adapted well in markets where stricter packaging legislation makes refillable bottles necessary and 7% of all PET packaging is already refillable. PET bottles have also proved that they can play their part in meeting the higher and higher recycling targets set by governments.

 


This article is taken from the October issue of Soft Drinks International. For more information, go to www.softdrinksjournal.com

The Canadean report 'PET in Beverages 2006: Innovation and Emerging Trends' is available from www.just-drinks.com/store. For further information, contact Holly Nash at holly.nash@just-drinks.com