Returning from Mexico, Tom Vierhile from Datamonitor shares his thoughts on what plastic packaging has to offer, going forward.

The future of plastic packaging in the beverage industry was very much on the mind of delegates that attended the 11th Latin America PET Markets (LAPET) conference in Mexico City in late-November. The conference offered a glimpse at key issues within the plastic packaging industry that may impact NPD in the future, including worldwide production capacity, bioplastics, recycling and more.

Arguably the biggest issue discussed at LAPET was the veritable tsunami of new PET manufacturing capacity anticipated to hit the market as early as 2014, and potential implications that may result from this building boom. David Swift, MDof PCI PET Packaging, Resin & Recycling, noted that, while annual worldwide PET resin demand is forecast to grow by roughly 1m metric tons a year, 2014 is expected to see more than 5m metric tons of new manufacturing capacity come on-line. Swift indicated that China and India alone will add nearly 3m metric tons of manufacturing capacity next year. To say that these activities could put significant downward pressure on PET pricing - as well as rPET (recycled PET) pricing - would be an understatement.

Such a dramatic change in such a short period of time could throw cold water on the trend toward bioplastics at just such a time when it appears that the trend is gaining momentum. Nestle recently announced that it would be joining Coca-Cola Co (the maker of the PlantBottle), Danone, Ford, H.J. Heinz, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Unilever in the Bioplastics Feedstock Alliance (BFA). The group has the stated goal of encouraging responsible development of bioplastics that are derived from plant materials.

Nestle is said to be especially interested in so-called “second generation bioplastics” that are made from by-products of forestry, agriculture or the food chain.

Nestle already uses bioplastics made from sugar cane and other plant-based materials for packaging used within its product portfolio, including the Vittel bottled water bottle. In early 2012, Nestle began using an innovative PET bottle made from 30% plant-based material for Vittel. Italy’s Sanpellegrino has also jumped on the bioplastic bandwagon with its Levissima bottled water brand, which is sold in a clear PET bottle made with 30% PET from bioethanol derived from sugar cane. This company’s goal is to market a PET bottle of 100% plant origin at some point in the future.

The consensus among speakers at LAPET was that the use of mixed packaging such as the blending of plant- and petroleum-based materials for plastic beverage packaging is problematic for recycling efforts, and could jeopardise the perceived recyclability of PET.

Currently, the consumer perceives that PET plastic is the most recyclable type of packaging material, and the plastic packaging industry is keen to support this perception. According to David Clark, VP of safety, environment & sustainability at Amcor Rigid Plastics: “The most important thing we can do in the industry to reduce environmental impact is to increase recycling.” When asked about the potential impact of bioplastics at the LAPET conference, Clark noted that “bioplastics are a niche-type product” and that we “won’t see (them) move until there is a bigger movement toward biofuels overall”.

The issue of recycling is an especially hot issue in Mexico and Latin America, where a great deal of plastic packaging ends up in landfill. Worldwide recycling rates are surprisingly variable, with China actually leading the world when it comes to recycling PET packaging. The collection rate in China is over 80% compared to just 28% in the US, according to PCI PET Packaging, Resin & Recycling. Nestle puts the PET bottle recycling rate in Mexico at 24%, demonstrating how much need there is for improvement.

Referring to this challenge, Jaime Camara Creixell, DG of  recycling company PetStar, told attendees at LAPET: “There is a great gap between what is said and what is done for recycling.” Creixell went on to say that industry needs to “foster shared responsibility for recycling” and suggested that the most effective way to boost recycling is to focus on educating children on the practice, and they in turn can influence their parents.

But, increasing compliance rates is not the only challenge that plastic recycling firms face. Representatives from plastic recycling firms expressed worries over product innovation in coloured PET packaging. One delegate commented that “nobody (within the recycling industry) wants ‘strange-coloured PET’ since you can’t recycle it”.

But, coloured-PET packaging seems to be part of what could be the next significant wave of PET packaging innovation. Italy’s REPi even showcased its unique “liquid colours” at LAPET which are designed to be added to PET packaging to achieve a number of different looks including transparent, opaque, pearlescent, fluorescent and even metallic packaging.

Indeed, PET packaging innovation is centred on many of these areas, including advanced light protection PET containers. The recent South American introduction of MiGurt, an aseptic-filled yogurt drink in an advanced light protection bottle that can be stored without refrigeration, is one way forward that may have considerable potential. PET packaging is also pushing in more of a premium direction, notes David Clark of Amcor Rigid Plastics. Not only is PET packaging moving into more “sensitive” categories like spirits and dairy products, but bottles themselves are getting increasingly creative with a new focus on bottle decoration, closures and handles.

Alcohol beverages could be another huge innovation opportunity given the relatively high ratio of product packaging to actual product weight for beverages like wine. Clark noted that packaging alone can account for more than one-third of the weight of a typical shipment of a product like wine. If this packaging was changed from glass to PET plastic, the weight of the shipment accounted for by packaging alone would drop to less than 3%, meaning that nearly 50% more product can be shipped per truckload in PET than with glass. This is very much in line with the PET industry’s focus on lightweighting, a practice that has knocked down the weight of PET bottles by as much as 70% over the last couple of decades.

All in all, the future looks bright, if not somewhat more complex, for plastic beverage packaging.