The second part of September's management briefing, which shines the spotlight on what the future holds for the drinks industry, MJ Deschamps looks at the rising importance of packaging to differentiate a product.

With consumers basing their beverage choice more on their lifestyles and less on the need to quench their thirst, innovations taking place in drinks packaging show that, in the future, containers will be just as important as their contents.

With the functional drinks market predicted to play an active part in the beverage industry in the future, Rick Haffner, beverages industry manager at Euromonitor, belives the sector will be a driving force in packaging innovations. “Sometimes,” he says, “making a beverage with additives in a ready-to-drink form could make the particular vitamin inside unstable." Packaging for functional beverages is already starting to focus innovation in this area, he notes.

One example of this is Activate, a vitamin-enhanced functional drink made by US-based Rising Beverage Co, which employs a patented format where vitamins are stored in dry powder form in a container within the lid, which twists to release them before consumption.

Another example comes from Nestlé, a leading player in beverage research and development: The company manufacturers several products containing probiotics but, when Nestlé Nutrition wanted to make a milk drink for children with a shelf life of one year, the firm realised that it is impossible to keep the probiotic alive at room temperature for more than a few days. The solution was a shelf-stable nutritional drink with the probiotic in the straw, instead of in the drink. Inside the patented straw of Boost Kid Essentials is the probiotic lactobacillus reuteri ‘protectus’, released by the liquid when the consumer drinks through the straw.

Tom Pirko, president of food and beverage advisory firm Bevmark, predicts that the drinks packaging of the future will include such things as packs that work for both hot and cold beverages (so one can consume the beverage at whatever temperature one wishes). He also believes that package functionality will become an even more important focus, with drinks containers becoming easier to carry, and packaging being able to detail the temperature of the liquid inside. The engineering of packaging will also begin to rely more on higher concepts of science, such as nanotechnology, he believes. “I think the industry has realised that, the smaller you go, the more advantages and opportunities there are to make changes,” says Pirko, adding that the emphasis on being ‘green’ will also continue: “In 20 years, all drinks packaging will somehow have to be converted and reused.”

Beverage giant The Coca-Cola Co has begun to head in this direction already with its PlantBottle packaging, made from 30% plant-based material. The company is currently working towards developing a recyclable bottle that is made from 100% plant-based waste. Also, earlier this year, Coca-Cola announced a joint venture with ECO Plastics to develop a new purpose-built recycling facility in England. The plastics reprocessing plant will help supply Coca-Cola with enough UK-sourced, high-quality rPET (recycled PET) to achieve the company’s target of including 25% rPET in all its plastic packaging in the country by 2012. 

Mineral water brand Volvic claims it was the first company to introduce the first 100% recyclable PET plastic bottle in the UK – made partially from sugarcane waste – last September.

Michael Delle Selve, spokesman at the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE) says that glass bottle manufacturers are looking into technical innovation for ‘light-weighting’ packaging formats: Back in 2008, a research project based in the UK, called Container Lite and funded by the UK’s WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), saw leading glass manufactures, brand owners, retailers, academics and industrial experts work together to develop, trial and launch a range of new lightweight glass containers. The project found that there was significant scope to reduce the weight of beer bottles without negatively affecting consumer perceptions or container performance. One participant, Molson Coors' UK arm, recently launched a lightweight version of the 30cl Grolsch bottle, which retained the original Grolsch profile, but with a 13% weight reduction, saving 4,500 tonnes of glass each year. Due to the success of the Container Lite trial, Coors Brewers has even further light-weighted its beer bottles, achieving an overall weight reduction of 23%.

“Environment and health awareness will also play big roles in the future [of packaging]” says Delle Selve. “The environment factor will be pushed by climate change awareness and policies like resource efficiency - emphasis on eco-design and pure materials for recycling and reuse – and health – purity and protection of taste, odour and content are drivers.”

For example, in March, a European Union ban on using the plastics additive BPA in plastic infant feeding bottles took effect, with the European Commission recommending that parents move towards glass bottles. A survey released in May by Belgian independent research consultancy InSites Consulting also showed that, overall, there is a substantial proportion of European consumers that would be prepared to pay extra for glass containers, especially for milk, yoghurts, juices and wine. “It may well be that consumers are willing to pay more as good packaging protects the health benefits and taste of the product for longer”, says Stefan Jaenecke, member of the FEVE board of directors.

A spokesperson for global consumer packaging company Rexam says that, with on-the-go consumption increasing, packaging needs to conform to meet this trend. “These demands mean that the packaging needs to be easy and efficient to aid them in their time-pressed lives,” the spokesperson says, adding that consumers are increasingly looking for a range of pack sizes to suit different beverage types and thirst levels, as well as functional and aesthetically-pleasing packaging. Rexam’s ‘Fusion’ bottle, for example, chills faster than other packaging and protects its contents from light and oxygen, providing a long shelf life without any deterioration in freshness and taste. “Another key theme we see emerging is event-specific designs which allows brands to capitalise on sponsorships, celebrations and specific events, creating something new and exciting on shelf for consumers,” the spokesperson concludes.