Concern over environmental impacts and the need for functionality have precipitated many notable packaging innovations in the soft drinks arena. Simon Maddrell of Euromonitor International takes a look at recent developments.

Innovation in packaging often reflects key market trends, and this is certainly true of the global soft drinks market. Packagers apply innovations to meet changing consumer demands, respond to environmental concerns and offer consumers exciting new packaging concepts which stand out.

In soft drinks, functionality is at the heart of closure innovation. Current consumer demands for functionality through retail, on-trade and impulse channels largely centre on offering consumers flexibility in how they consume the drink. The ability to consume products on-the-go through impulse channels is particularly apparent in Western Europe and North America. Consumers demand resealability, dispensability and easy disposability.

PET packages largely satisfy these demands, fuelling their growth in all soft drinks categories. However, other pack types are recovering share by improving their closure capabilities.

Coca-Cola has teamed up with Ball Packaging Europe to produce resealable can closures. These have been trialled by Coca-Cola in Germany, and were launched in 2008 in France for the company's Burn energy drink, receiving positive responses during consumer testing but underperforming in the marketplace.

Tetra Pak has also been innovating, with the introduction in 2007 of the Tetra Top Eifel package, a one-step opening with tamper evidence built into the cap. The improvement of closures on liquid cartons is essential for their growth in small, single-serve packaging.

PET has, however, continued its dominance of the soft drinks market through constant refining of closure systems to satisfy consumer demands. For example, the Smartseal FLEX closure, which claims to eradicate spillages, has been successfully launched in Europe and Latin America.

Many soft drinks manufacturers have been slow to respond to rising environmental concerns, which are at their most intense in Western Europe and North America. However, many packagers have reacted innovatively to these concerns, increasing their use of recyclable materials.

A cardboard milk bottle, created by GreenBottle for Asda, has a carbon footprint that is 48% lower than plastic. Huhtamaki's new bio-coated cup for use in foodservice outlets and vending machines is 100% compostable, while the first biodegradable closures for beverage bottles have been made from a compostable thermoplastic by Novamont. Similarly, Turkey-based Hamidiye launched 'A Bag in Box Water', which comes in 12 and 20-litre recyclable carton boxes.

There has also been strong growth in the use of bioplastics. In the UK, Belu has launched a bottle made entirely from corn starch. These products have been available in the US and France since 2005 and, although they have seen growth, still represent a niche in the global soft drinks market. The recent news that Biota Brands of America, a pioneering maker of biodegradable water bottles, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy will concern other bioplastic manufacturers.

Light weighting is an equally important means by which packagers have attempted to respond to the environmental threat. This aim is also motivated by the phenomenal increase in oil and raw materials prices.

In late 2007, Sidel launched NoBottle, an ultralightweight technology, already being used by mineral water giants like Nestlé Waters in the US, for its Eco-shape bottle. Similarly, Krones has set new standards for the world's lightest PET container in the 500ml to l litre class in Germany.

World aluminium prices have also been rising and are expected to continue to do so in 2009. Ball Packaging has continued to take steps to cut the weight of its packages, with aluminium cans now 40% lighter than they were in 1969.

Glass packaging has also tried to reduce its weight, with the added aim of making the product easier to transport for retailers and consumers. ACI Glass Packaging claims to have reduced the weight of glass by 31% over the past decade.

The success of the Nestlé Aquapod, a rounded PET bottle for children, demonstrates the need for packagers to create packaging which appeals to the specific needs of different consumer groups. Arguably, the ultimate package in this regard is Erie Plastics' Pop 'n' Shake, which allows consumers to create their own blended soft drink. Various ingredients are held in a tamper-evident closure, which is popped by consumers to release the desired flavours.

Packaging is a crucial determinant of sales as it is at the heart of the link between manufacturers and consumers. Future innovations will continue to centre on the three key areas of functionality, environment and resource use and brand image.

In conclusion, it can be said that packagers aiming to take share from PET in the area of functionality face a tough challenge as PET not only offers extremely effective and innovative functionality but does so at a relatively low price, which is particularly important in the highest-growth regions of Asia Pacific, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Environmentally, packagers still have much to do to satisfy consumers' demands. The majority of attention will be placed upon lightweighting and recycling programmes.

There remains a perception in the packaging industry that sustainable packaging simply does not offer the same level of barrier protection and quality as standard packaging, and is more expensive. There has also been negative media attention paid to biopolymers as they use a large amount of food resources. These concerns will suppress the development of these technologies, although they will still play an important part in the industry's response to environmental and resource use issues.

The trajectory of packages attempting to boost the shelf presence and excitement surrounding certain soft drinks is more difficult to predict. However, it is certain that packaging will continue to reflect the ever more segmented soft drinks market, appealing to increasingly specific target groups, and adding value to products.

Source: Soft Drinks International

For more information, go to www.softdrinksinternational.com