The Drinktec exhibition is taking place across all of this week in Munich. To coincide with the event, just-drinks' management briefing this month takes a look at the drinks packaging category. In this, the penultimate part of our briefing, we consider the need to be sustainable but also durable for today's consumers.

Drinks packaging developers are being stretched by the seemingly incompatible demands of increasing sustainability while ensuring durability. The truth is that both qualities can be delivered – but it takes a lot of thought, expertise and imagination.

Beverage companies need to ensure their packaging protects the quality and authenticity of their product while pursuing sustainable options that often lead to less packaging.

"Environmental attributes in packaging are important because they not only enhance the brand and the consumer's perspective of the package, but many environmental attributes help from an economic standpoint," says Kate Krebs, senior environmental policy advisor for the American Beverage Association.

Global companies such as The Coca-Cola Co are expanding sustainable packaging; the company announced last year that it plans to accelerate its global production of fully-recyclable bottles that are 30% plant-based and 70% PET. Indeed, Coca-Cola’s partner, JBF Industries, plans to build the world's largest bio-glycol producing facility in Brazil. This is a critical part of Coca-Cola’s 'PlantBottle' plan to use bio-glycol to rely on recyclable packaging worldwide by 2020 – in Brazil, it will be made from sugarcane. Coca-Cola has already sold more than 10bn of these bottles in countries such as Brazil, Norway, Japan, Chile, and the western parts of Canada and the US. Meanwhile, PepsiCo is test marketing its own plant-based bottle, says Krebs.

"Bioplastics are the new evolution," says Adriana Nosewicz, packaging expert at UNESDA, the European non-alcoholic beverages association. "We [UNESDA] would urge that the use of bio-based plastics be promoted to speed up the conversion process and make the initial start-up cost attractive for the industry to invest."

Nestlé Waters  is interested in using plant-based PET, but challenges stand in the way of its development: "No doubt that it is a promising opportunity," says a spokesperson, "but the current supply conditions are not allowing a large industrial scale application yet."

Nestlé Waters is also reducing the amount of resources it uses in its production of PET and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) bottles. The global average weight of the company's total packaging per litre produced has decreased by 25% between 2005 and 2012, the spokesperson adds.

Metal packaging is also becoming more sustainable and lightweight, says Crown Holdings VP Neill Mitchell. His company created SuperEnd can ends, for example, to make its cans more sustainable by using 10% less metal than a traditional beverage end. SuperEnds have also been produced in North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe. To date, Crown and its licensees have produced more than 400bn of these ends, saving an estimated 98,000 metric tonnes of aluminium, 1,600 metric tonnes of coatings and 800,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases. 

Yet, while lighter packaging means less resources are used - thereby generating less waste and saving money for manufacturers - brands have to watch that these packages do not fail to sufficiently protect beverage quality. In other words, "finding that sweet spot between light-weighting a container as much as you can, but making sure it’s still durable and delivers the product in the way that it needs to be is important," says Krebs.

Simply using less material to lighten packaging may not be the best environmental option, notes Virginia Janssens, executive director of the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN). Janssens prefers to use the term packaging "optimisation" rather than "reduction". Less packaging can mean a higher risk of the product spoiling "until eventually a point is reached at which the negative environmental impact of product wastage outweighs the environmental benefits of using less packaging material,” she says. Despite these challenges, there is no doubt that innovations in sustainable packaging will continue. "There is no going back," she adds.

Another challenge for brands, which will make them less keen on scrimping on packaging, is the continuing scourge of beverage counterfeiting worldwide. In this context, packaging is extremely important because it can provide the initial indication to a consumer or retailer that a beverage might be fake. 

CTI is one innovator that seeks to prevent fraud with its Phototag identifier, which involves a special crystal, coupled with polymer inks, that refracts light at a certain frequency. This setting is controlled by CTI and can be checked by electronic readers. It can be built into any design, so it is customisable to the individual customer. "We can put it on there and no one will even know if it's there if you don't want them to, and we make it very easy for whoever cares about it to find out if it's legitimate," says Edson. Its application in the beverage industry could be the next frontier of counterfeiting controls, he claims.

However, the main challenge to this technology at the moment is the high cost of hand readers.

Of course, another issue is combining these demands for sustainability, durability and security with the traditional needs of brands to create unique and interactive packaging: "With widening consumer choice and expectations of increasing differentiation comes fragmentation and complexity," says Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Miguel Daves. "This naturally puts pressure on production and efficiency, which loves uniformity and standardisation." Nevertheless, beverage packagers must adapt because high-end and design-focused packages will always be needed for brands to thrive in the future, he adds.

For the second part of this briefing, click here. For the final part, click here.