The pouch appears to have been a packaging format for drinks that has never been either fashionable or popular. And yet, Capri Sun, a product so clearly identified by its pouch-and-straw format, is an internationally-recognised brand, celebrating its 40th birthday this year. Paul Gander asks what the future holds for the pouch.

This year, children's juice brand Capri Sun celebrates its fortieth birthday. A notable achievement in its own right, but arguably also a victory (some might say against all the odds) for the brand's chosen packaging format, the pouch. After all, Capri Sun is identified internationally by its pouch-and-straw pack. To a great extent, that is its brand identity.

So why 'against all the odds'? Well, while kids love it, any mum will tell you that the pack does not score highly in terms of consumer convenience. In fact, it could be that the very potential for messy outcomes is what appeals to children.

As Matthias Becker, sales director at machinery company Laudenberg bluntly puts it: "Decades ago, it was a big thing. Today, no one would design a pack that way. From the point of view of opening, it's complete rubbish."

Responsible for Capri Sun's pouch-filling equipment is Rudolf Wild sister company Indag. In 1972, Indag developed its own pouch technology, and from those 10,000pph machines, the company has progressed to today's high-speed 30,000pph lines.

Today, Capri Sun has 18 production sites around the world, and licensed partnerships with some of the world's leading drinks companies, from Coca-Cola Enterprises in the UK and Lotte in China to Kraft Foods in North America.

Indag has introduced a new generation of machines capable of filling shaped and spouted pouches, allowing Capri Sun to diversify. In addition to the square-shouldered 200ml pouch for children in the 6-to-12 age range, the company has introduced a 330ml profiled pouch for thirstier 12-to-18-year-olds. This has a built-in spout instead of the infamous Capri Sun straw, and is even reclosable.

While the pouch is not a particularly common choice of packaging format, a number of energy drinks in Germany are now using pouches. Other more international sports drink brands filled into pouches include Lucozade. As part of its packaging mix, the GlaxoSmithkline-owned brand still uses spouted packs formed on machinery from
Italian manufacturer Gualapack.

In the UK, RDA Organic has rigid plastics for its adult drinks, but has put its Sqqquishy and Squeeezy kids drinks into flexibles. In Macedonia, Vivaks offers pouches alongside other materials such as cartons, and Gulf Union in Saudi Arabia has a similar multi-format strategy. Dolphin Water in the Netherlands has its 250ml SmartPack pouch, which applies Amcor's AquaflexCan technology.

So internationally, why are there not more soft drinks marketed in the pouch format? Mike Carroll, market director at Amcor Flexibles, spells it out: "Overall, we feel that there is a consumer perception as to what is acceptable. The move to pouches goes against what is deemed to be 'normal'. However, while we see progress to be slow, we do see the status quo being challenged on a more regular basis as companies begin to recognise the benefits of flexibles. As more examples enter the market, consumer education and acceptance will increase."

Historically, the North American market has been no less resistant to the pouch format than Europe.

Canadian company Eco-Container, established just two years ago, is using Gualapack technology sourced through Cheer Pack North America. But to date, the company has focused on filling an apple sauce product for US-based fruit corporation Dole.

"We've looked at the technology for still drinks and energy drinks, and a number of people around North America are interested," says Eco-Container president Stephen Fairfield. What is holding people back, Fairfield says, are questions of cost. He also cites issues of logistics and merchandising as barriers to take-up.

Just as has been done with other flexible formats for food, the company says it has even looked at merchandisers which hang the spouted pouch from its neck.

As the company's name suggests, Eco-Container makes much of the pouch's environmental credentials. So how do these stack up?

Lifecycle analysis carried out for the alcoholic drinks sector suggests that, even disregarding recycling, and even where laminates go to landfill, weight and energy criteria mean that their overall impact is much less than glass.

Regarding cost, Fairfield says there is no simple formula here for comparing the pouch with other formats.

Carroll says: "When you're just looking at material costs, there's a big benefit." This is likely to be the case, even allowing for some more complex laminates and convenience features such as spouts. He adds: "But we try not to lose sight of the fact that there's a total cost."

While producing and filling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, for instance, can be made cost-effective at different output ranges, the same is not necessarily the case for pouches. Once a company such as Capri Sun has built up high volumes over time with a bespoke line, says Carroll, there is a cost benefit.

The same is true for the low volumes associated with new launches and smaller-scale trials. "It is the middle ground between the two which is always an issue with pouches," he explains.

However, packaging specialists are striving to improve pouch-filling technology. For example, materials company Huhtamaki is working with a new (as yet unnamed) machinery partner on a second-generation system. This will take speeds up to the 200ppm range, the company says. The pouches produced will be in a 'can'-style pack, in the 200-250ml size range.

Other pouch machinery options include the BMK range from Spanish manufacturer Bossar. This forms pouches from the reel, and will produce a range of styles including spouted pouches.

After two years of development, Bossar recently added the Aseptis A300 to its range, offering cold aseptic pouch filling for sensitive products. The A300 uses hydrogen peroxide sterilisation and can achieve outputs of up to 150ppm on its triple valve version.

As Carroll explains, one of the key challenges for system suppliers is guaranteeing seal integrity at high speeds.

Those challenges regarding seal integrity for still drinks are as nothing compared with the obstacles to filling carbonated beverages into flexibles. And as unlikely as it may seem, Amcor says it is even looking at options for partially carbonated drinks. So perhaps in only a few years' time, consumers will look at pouches and see something other than Capri Sun.