Carlsberg's pioneering PEN plastic beer bottle will be competing alongside the best new products in the world later this month in the prestigious SIAL d'Or competition held in Paris at the SIAL food and drink exhibition on October 22-26.

The bottle, which became the first plastic refillable beer bottle to be used on a commercial scale last August, was presented with the SIAL d'Or for the best new product in the alcoholic beverage category in May 2000. It now is in contention for the global SIAL d'Or prize, which is awarded to the overall best product.

Since its launch last year, the PEN bottle has been incredibly popular with Carlsberg and Tuborg drinkers. By its first birthday, 25% more bottles were sold than had been expected.

The bottle has been acclaimed by the media around the world and enquiries have flooded in from rivals and Carlsberg Group breweries anxious to make use of the new technology.

According to Kaare Trudsoe, project manager for Carlsberg Danmark, around 7% of Carlsberg's sales in Denmark are now in plastic bottles.

"We have good reason to believe that we can reach a 10% share before the second birthday by increasing both the number of customers and the number of products in the bottles," he says.

Not surprisingly, convenience stores have been the most successful sales channel for the PEN bottle. During the three peak summer months, around 19% of total sales were in the form of plastic bottles sold from kiosks, corner shops and service stations.

The launch hit the headlines and the PEN bottle was featured on the front page of every Danish newspaper. But despite the dream start and the long list of advantages, initial reaction was muted.

"Retailers were not so enthusiastic about the use of plastic for bottles," says Kaare Trudsoe. "Glass has always been considered as a premium packaging material, while plastic is seen as a little downmarket. They were worried that shoppers wouldn't be so keen."

There were also worried that retailers would not be pleased with having a new material to handle in the Danish return bottle system. However, 12 months later the confidence Division Danmark had in the new bottle proved to be correct.

Consumers like it

Contrary to retailers' expectations, but in accordance with analysis carried out by Carlsberg, consumers were quick to take to the lightweight new bottle. Surveys carried out throughout the short life of the bottle have shown acceptance remains steady or increasing, while objections (mostly from people who hadn't tried the bottle) have fallen to a steady level.

"We have tracked the bottle's acceptance from the launch right up to the present day and we can see how the acceptance of the plastic bottle has grown," says Kaare Trudsoe.

"At the beginning some people were worried that beer from plastic bottles wouldn't taste right, but we can see from our surveys that those fears have disappeared completely. The number of people who see glass as the traditional material for beer bottles has also dropped significantly."

Studies have also shown that consumers have no objections to using the plastic bottle in the same situation as its glass equivalent - such as on the dinner table - which they wouldn't consider with cans. The bottle's lightness has also won sales. Not only is it easy to carry on picnics, but it also easy to carry a six-pack home.

The retail trade was a little bit slower to accept the change, but even their scepticism has been turned around and in May this year the PEN bottle was put forward for the prestigious international SIAL d'Or competition for new products by the Danish retail trade association.

Division Danmark's work is pioneering in many ways, not just in the technology it has used to create the bottle. "It is the first commercial large-scale trial that has shown that customers will take to plastic bottles. Not many in the brewing industry thought that would happen. As such Carlsberg is certainly a pioneer and we have paved the way for a much wider acceptance of plastic bottles in the future," Kaare Trudsoe adds.

The use of PEN has also given the bottle the ability to keep beer for as long as in glass - six months. Carlsberg's new bottle has therefore been able to dispel one of the most enduring myths about plastic bottles.

"Technology is advancing all the time in the field of plastics so it is to be expected that materials equal to glass are discovered. But what we have shown in Denmark is that plastic can be used successfully and that the old prejudices don't hold water."

The success of plastic does not mean that Carlsberg is waving goodbye to glass. "We sell beer in plastic bottles because there are certain advantages in doing so," says Kaare Trudsoe. "We take a very pragmatic attitude to packaging. If our customers want glass, we will sell them glass, if they want plastic we'll sell them plastic. Our philosophy is that we fulfil their needs not ours."