A Glass Act

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Innovative packaging demands attention. With an increasingly bewildering array of products on the supermarket shelf, it is often the force that drives a browser to become a consumer. Despite the growth of PET, glass's versatility still enables brand managers to explore the full potential of this powerful sales tool. Bill Nankivell reports.

No other packaging material has the ability to position a product in the marketplace in the way glass can. Customers associate glass with a number of core characteristics - quality, purity, reliability and longevity - and when used as packaging these key values are transferred, through association, to the contents.

Despite increasing pressure from plastic manufacturers, glass has defended its market share through constant reinvention, becoming lighter, stronger and more versatile. An indication of its continuing popularity is that, overall, UK demand for glass containers has consistently risen over the last few years and notably in certain market sectors. For example, high levels of demand have been experienced from the top end of the mineral water market driven by an on-trade who want attractive, premium packaging to serve to customers.

Developing distribution trends have also had a marked effect. For instance, beverage sales in petrol stations have seen phenomenal growth in recent years. At such outlets many prefer to stock their refrigerators with plastic rather than glass bottles, which has led some of the key lifestyle drinks to move into PET. Such substitution has been countered to some extent by major brand names, including Pepsi, transferring back into glass in order to add value and authenticity to their product.

Popular, natural choice
Recent research carried out by  -  the information bureau that promotes glass packaging to both the trade and consumer  -  indicates that consumers view glass as a more attractive and natural form of packaging material, which is better for the environment. An encouraging 64% of consumers surveyed believe that food and drink tastes better consumed out of glass rather than plastic, while 55% stated that they would like to see more products packaged in glass.

"64% of consumers surveyed believe that food and drink tastes better consumed out of glass "
There is strong evidence to suggest that this growing consumer demand for glass packaging is being recognised and responded to by manufacturers. A significant indicator of this is that in the last six months we have designed and produced more new products at Rexam than in the whole of 2000, a trend being experienced across the industry as manufacturers tap into the potential of glass.

The popularity of glass has always been underpinned by its environmentally friendly properties. Capable of being infinitely recycled without loss of quality and made of naturally occurring raw materials  - primarily sand and limestone  - it could be said that glass is the natural packaging choice.

British glass figures show a 38% increase in the amount of glass recycled between 1995 and 2000, indicating that the population is recycling more than it has ever done before, thanks to greater environmental awareness amongst the public and the increasing number of collection sites across the country. For successful recycling to occur, effective pull and push forces have to be in operation. The pull is necessary to encourage people to recycle, through both education programmes and legislation, while the push refers to the need to find an outlet for all the glass collected.

Return to sender
The recycling vs refillables debate continues to be an issue where there is a clear divide between the UK and the rest of Europe. While the use of refillables is ingrained in the off-trade on the Continent, in the UK they play a more significant role in the on-trade. Historically there are three key issues surrounding refillables  - cost, design and logistics  - all of which are interlinked. To be fit for purpose, refillable containers have to be robust in order to withstand wear and tear. Consequently, they have thicker glass walls, which make them heavier and which also means they are slower to make, as they take longer to cool and form. This increases both transportation and material costs.

Costs have also risen as a result of the increasingly complicated logistics involved in the returns process. Whereas previously a manufacturer could pick up the empty containers while delivering a new consignment, a reduced number of filling points means that bottles are travelling further than ever before. In addition, for the returns process to be effective, refillables have to conform to an industry standard with no distinctive shape and with decoration limited to a paper label, which can be easily removed during the cleaning process. This significantly limits the potential to brand such containers.

As the glass industry continues to improve the economical proposition of single-trip containers through techniques such as lightweighting, while also enhancing the current collection and recycling facilities which service the on-trade, the question is - how much longer can the refillable last?   

The future's clear
The penetration of glass into different market sectors has only been made possible by the commitment of glass manufacturers to invest heavily in the latest equipment and techniques across the whole of the supply chain, in order to improve design, quality, lead times and overall customer satisfaction.

Conventional decorating techniques have also evolved in recent years. For instance, the latest generation of sleeving machines employ steam rather than hot air to gradually shrink the sleeve on to the container, allowing more intricate packaging designs to be produced. A further benefit of the new technology is that PET sleeves can be used for the first time. As PET has a greater shrink capacity than traditional PVC it can be applied to a wider range of shapes and sizes of container, increasing the design possibilities available to brand managers.

A recurrent criticism of glass is that it is heavy and breakable. The industry's response has been to develop a technique called lightweighting, which, as the name suggests, creates lighter bottles by using less glass, in turn reducing material and transport costs while also lightening the shopper's load.

Expert Analysis

Beverage Packaging in Western Europe - Statistical Overview 2001
Packaged beverage fillings data by seven end-use sectors. Extensive market data by material type and individual packaging size. Key market developments (beverage and packaging industries) and market outlook / demand forecasts


The technique is based on the fact that a glass bottle is only as strong as its thinnest point. With lightweighting, a bottle is designed to be thin all over without compromising on strength. Such uniform distribution is achieved by using Narrow Neck Press and Blow production techniques, which reduce deviation in the thickness of the bottle wall resulting in high strength, lightweight bottles.

Despite having been round for centuries, glass has managed to continue to evolve and stay relevant in the modern marketplace. Although the pressure from alternative packaging is sure to increase, efforts to maintain its pre-eminent position in the minds of consumers and drinks producers will help keep glass at the top of the packaging tree.

Companies: PepsiCo

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