PET is the daddy of soft drinks & water packaging - but are its days numbered?

PET is the daddy of soft drinks & water packaging - but are its days numbered?

The soft drinks and water categories are not short on controversial issues. One of the most actively-argued areas is packaging. This month, Ray Rowlands looks at what direction drinks producers are heading in when it comes to what holds their products.

Beverage packaging comes in all shapes and sizes and employs a diverse array of materials - from 5cl polyethylene terephthalate (PET) energy shot bottles to 15-litre high-density polyethylene (HDPE) packaged water cubes - and the assortment seems to be endlessly evolving. Of course, packaging choice varies depending on both the product and drinking occasion. PET is the main packaging medium in use across the full spectrum of soft drinks although its primary application is linked with CSDs and bottled water, the world’s largest soft drinks categories, by far.

However, soft drinks companies have come under increasing criticism from environmental groups for using PET, which, though recyclable, are not bio-degradable. As a result, The Coca-Cola Co has introduced a new packaging material that is up to 30% plant-based and derived from sugar cane. The ‘plant bottle’ was first introduced in Denmark in 2009 and, according to Coca-Cola's website, was rolled out in nine countries during 2010 with 2.5bn bottles reaching the global marketplace that year. In rough figures, that is about the equivalent of 1bn to 2bn litres. That sounds impressive until you take into consideration that total soft drinks PET volumes are around 200bn to 300bn litres; a cautious move, then. But, is it even in the right direction?   

The initiative has not received the backing of environmentalists who claim that the ‘plant bottle’ is still just a non-biodegradable plastic container. However, Coca-Cola’s move is an indication of the move by companies to consider alternatives with a higher percentage of plant material in their composition. Last year, Coca-Cola subsidiary Odwalla adopted a “100%” plant-based bottle (minimum of 96% plant materials). Meanwhile, PepsiCo is reported to be in the process of introducing a 100% plant-based bottle with pilot production planned for 2012. Coca-Cola also hopes to eventually launch a plastic bottle that is made with 100% renewable raw materials and that is fully recyclable. This sounds better for the environment, so long as the public can be persuaded to dispose of such containers sensibly. However, it is still too early to quantify general implementation and broader industry support.

Until these ‘plant bottles’ become mainstream, the PET bottle holds sway. One drawback of PET has been the inability to incorporate a handle as part of the container, thus tending to limit the convenience and size of the container. This has provided an opening for HDPE bottles, which, unlike PVC, are relatively shatterproof and flexible like PET, but more opaque in appearance. It will be interesting to see if any of the new ‘plant bottles’ can be adapted to allow for the inclusion of a handle in their make-up.  

Figures released by Can Makers, the body representing the UK manufacturers of beer and CSD cans, have revealed that CSD can shipments were up by 8% in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. In total, 2.5 bn cans for soft drinks were shipped in the UK in the first six months of the year. Moreover, cans may not be as versatile as PET but they do allow for some fairly interesting features such as slim-lining (e.g. the Pepsi skinny can), screw-cap lids (Nescafe iced coffee), 360-degree embossing and even a self-heating coffee can (not technically a soft drink but an icebreaker nonetheless).

Cans have also gone through a major process of weight reduction (an evolutionary development that PET bottles are following). The first beverage cans weighed over 80gms, today a 50cl can weighs well under half this amount (depending on whether it is made of aluminium or steel). This has not only reduced demand on raw material reserves but also the energy used up in transportation has been significantly reduced, to the benefit of the environment. Moreover, drink cans are amongst the most recycled packages in the world with a ready market for their recovered metals. Nonetheless, cans are under pressure, especially from single-serve PET bottles. This particularly applies in the core CSD market, though the position of the can still remains firm in the expanding energy drinks category. 

The carton is the main packaging format for juice drinks. It tends to be available in a wider range of sizes than the can, is seen as more natural and more environmentally friendly than PET, takes up less space in transportation and on shelf than both glass and PET on a unit basis and is also lighter and more robust than a glass bottle. Despite all such advantages, the carton lacks drive within soft drinks. A main limitation is that that it is inappropriate for carbonated drinks. It is also another casualty of the trend towards PET. In February in the US, for example, PepsiCo announced that it is favouring a shift towards the plastic bottle in place of the carton for its flagship Tropicana juice brand. Numerous other juice and juice drink launches last year also gave preference to PET. Various reasons have been cited for this trend including the fact that product quality is more visible in the plastic and that PET is more flexible in terms of pack size and related pricing.  

The main advantage of glass packaging is that it is chemically inert and will not affect the quality, or taste of the product. It is also 100% recyclable. On the downside, it is easily broken. However, glass possesses high image quality and, according to a recent survey carried out across 17 European countries for the European glass packaging body FEVE, it is the most popular packaging material for food and beverages. Like PET, glass is employed in all ready-to-drink soft drink categories. The material is particularly favoured in restaurants where product image is important. Nonetheless glass, like, the can and the carton, is losing ground to the ubiquitous PET bottle.

Since it achieved widespread usage in the 1970s, the substitution of PET for competing packaging materials has been phenomenal. Its popularity has been driven by its well-recognised attributes such as its clarity, robustness and versatility. As a beverage container, PET offers good opportunities for brand differentiation, product innovation and consumer convenience. Indeed, from the current standpoint, PET is the packaging medium that is moulding the future shape of soft drinks.