It could be argued that PET is one of the more exciting packaging materials for beverages on the market today. A lot of research has been taking place that eventually could open up new uses—and new sources—for this beverage packaging material. But the key word here is “eventually,” as many experts advise everyone to be patient: The big advances are still years away.
One of the most eagerly awaited breakthroughs is in the use of biomaterials in place of the petroleum-based PET. But at the Packaging Conference held in February a speaker from Avantium reportedly told the audience that their potentially breakthrough PEF (polyester polyethylene-furanoate) could have a plant up and running by 2016 at the earliest with maybe enough to have a prototype to test on the market by 2018. The breakthrough material has the potential to create a sustainable, low-cost alternative to traditional petroleum-based PET—and with some possibly significant advantages. The PEF bottles could have significant barrier improvements over traditional PET, making them possibly useable in smaller PET bottles than those on the market now. And smaller PET sizes could be quite attractive to some beverage marketers, especially those in the CSD category, given all the recent attention to sugary drinks.
But first the supply chains have to be built out for PEF, and that will take time. By 2018, the amount on the market, will be “just so insignificant to the total amount of tonnage that’s out there in PET,” says John Maddox, president of SBA-CCI, which focuses on supply/demand, end-use demand and commercial issues for PET resin/packaging.
But while the steady advances in research of PEF and other possible bio-material-based PETs at least continue, Maddox is increasingly concerned about the impact a huge oversupply of PET on the market in the U.S. is having on the financial health of the resin suppliers. The amount of excess supply he says is being built up by fresh imports from China, the decline in consumption of major beverage category use of PET, such as carbonated soft drinks, and what he says are still too many PET plants, despite the fact the industry consolidated from nine PET resin producers in North America down to the current five.
“If you look at it as I prefer to do as a percentage of the total retail package price, it’s not insignificant but it’s pretty darn small and, in my opinion being a PET-biased person, the benefits the PET gives are huge compared to aluminum cans or glass containers or any other alternative packaging material,” says Maddox. “And if you took PET away, in other words if you drive suppliers out of business, or you don’t let technology go and grow and expand like it has in the past that gave you hot-fill capabilities, that gave you better barrier capabilities, that gave you colors, that helped you grow your brands, all those technologies were possible because these people had enough profitability to spend on R&D. That’s not happening any more. And it really bothers me.”
Despite this, there are some bright notes when it comes to PET advances, especially when it comes to the harnessing of PET for use in more beverage categories.
“When people come out with new beverages now and new product ideas, it used to be de facto that they’d turn to glass or metal,” says Scott Steele, president, Plastic Technologies, Inc. “But I think increasingly you’re seeing people wanting to use the benefits of PET and plastic and are willing to launch products in those materials.” He points to RTD teas, like Tejava’s recently introduced swirvy bottle, which are using the shapeability of PET to create eye-catching designs that grab the attention of consumers on the increasingly crowded store shelves.
“I also think there’s a renewed interest on the alcoholic beverage side who are looking for a package that has the clarity and unbreakability and resealability attributes that a PET bottle has,” Steele says.
Charlie Schwarze, Global Sustainability Manager, Amcor Rigid Plastics North America, agrees that the spirits side of the business is a potential driver of future use of PET. “[There are]things that you just can’t do in glass that you can do in PET,” Schwarze says. “It’s actually pretty neat on that side and how rapidly you can change the design of that material and respond to events. So say you wanted to do something for the Super Bowl, you can make a mold that was Super Bowl-specific for either a beer-type bottle or a liquor bottle. If you wanted to mold in an image of a horse race on a whiskey bottle for the Kentucky Derby you can do that. One of the ones we did recently was for Captain Morgan’s and that was their barrel bottle. And that’s gotten a lot of good response just because you can do a lot of very fine level detail in a PET bottle that you just can’t do on the glass.”
Schwarze adds that such uses are becoming more accepted by consumers in a segment of beverage once dominated only by glass. “I would say it’s becoming fairly mainstream, especially for your larger sizes of liquor...You’re seeing customers that really want to see cost savings and sustainability benefits and I think consumers are also starting to react in a sense that PET is very recyclable. Plus it’s lightweight so in those larger containers, you’re really seeing consumers react positively to a lightweight bottle as opposed to a heavier glass bottle.”
In fact, when it comes to larger-size PET, Equipolymers recently unveiled its new BISNEINEX PET resin, an innovative Bisphenol-A free solution that is designed for large bottling applications including the home and office delivery (HOD) water bottle market. BISNEINEX offers converters a new, cost-effective solution with no impact on raw material cost and potential improved processing cost conditions due to lower energy usage for large container sizes including 5 gallon and 20 liter applications, the company says. Expanded production of the resin is targeted for 2014.
And Invento Americas has recently introduced a PET beverage can technology developed in Poland and patented worldwide. The Invento technology differs from the old “blow and trim” technology of the 1990s as it incorporates a flange area in the preform that allows for filling/seaming on existing beverage can filling lines with minimal adjustments.
Invento began commercial production 18 months ago in Europe. PET cans are available in 12 oz. ,16oz. ,10.5oz. Sleek, and 12 oz. Sleek. Custom sizes, shapes, and colors are available.
Bill Brandell, Invento Americas, president and CEO, and formerly the SVP of sales, marketing, and innovation for Rexam Beverage Cans in Chicago, says he has been working on the Invento Project for 5 years. The most interested brands are in the sparkling water, energy drinks, soft drinks with vivid color, and wine/mixers beverage categories. This package is not intended to replace aluminum but it does provide brand owners with certain benefits not available in metal cans.
And in related PET news on the supply chain front, System Plast branded unique low-back pressure accumulation belt adds another dimension of sustainability to conveying by eliminating the need for cardboard trays under shrink-wrapped packs. Consisting of half-inch (12.7 mm) acetal rollers, the conveyor surface is specifically designed to ensure support and stability for PET bottles with petaloid bottoms, but can be used for a variety of containers. The conveyor surface provides forward movement of the product, but easily rolls under shrink-wrapped packs during accumulation, minimizing pressure on bottles at the head of the queue and eliminating the need for protective cardboard trays.