Aluminum and lighter plastic duke it out to grab consumer attention and increase sustainability for carbonated soft drinks.

Carbonated soft drinks are the pop stars of today’s beverage market. One only needs to walk down the grocery store aisle to find that yesterday’s fad has fizzled out like Lindsay Lohan’s singing career.

New labels, designs and sustainable innovations such as lightweighting and the use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) are pitted against one another to grab the attention of the average consumer, who is concerned more than ever with where a bottle or can is going after the product is finished. Packagers are looking for that philosopher’s stone of a product that will sustain freshness for weeks without burdening the environment for years to come.

Mountain Dew is sporting new custom designs for its second wave of limited edition Green Label Art aluminum bottles.

Design competition

Since carbonated soft drinks make up a highly competitive market, package design can sway that split-second decision on which product to buy, whether a single bottle at a gas station or a case at a store.

PepsiCo has come up with new designs for its Mountain Dew aluminum bottles under a new marketing campaign called Green Label Art, designed by artists ranging from a graffiti artist, a tattoo artist, a collage artist, a musician and others. Along with Pepsi’s unique designs for Mountain Dew’s aluminum bottles, amateur artists can simply log onto awebsiteand take a stab at designing their own bottles. The winning artist will receive $10,000 for the design, which will be featured on limited-edition Mountain Dew bottles.

Yes, product differentiation at first glance helps to attract consumers. But Dr Pepper Snapple Group director of engineering Patrick George believes it takes more than package design.

“Not only do our packages have to look good on the shelf, but they must all run efficiently in our manufacturing locations,” George says. “Proliferation of package designs for their own sake doesn’t make sense. They cost money to design, commercialize and produce.”

Dr Pepper Snapple Group (the new name for Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages) has been able to design packages that are differentiated to the consumer, as well as ones that efficiently run through filling lines, as seen in its Dr Pepper icon, Snapple Mainstream and Peñafiel designs. This eliminates change part and changeover costs while improving line efficiencies.

Cott Corp. is a genie-in-the-bottle among companies, granting wishes by leading its private-label customers through decisions that are desirable for their uniqueness.

“We work with our customers on graphics, package configurations and more to give their brands strong identities and help them stand out on the shelf,” says Cott spokesperson Lucia Ross.

And with sustainable packaging being a big factor today in brand differentiation, Cott’s reduction of its label size by 50% fits the marketplace rule of “less is more.”

Heavy emphasis on lighter weights

Lightweighting primary packaging and minimizing secondary packaging make up a large focus of sustainable decisions companies are putting into practice. Lightweighting and the use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate can be somewhat trickier with carbonated beverages, since both impact shelf life and carbonation retention. While companies like Cott look forward to a more commercially viable bio-resin one day, it has made some strong innovations in terms of bottle weight.

“Our new Sam’s Choice Purified Drinking Water bottle will be the lightest possible gram weight for 20 ounces,” says Cott’s Ross. “We will start at 15 grams, and eventually develop a final version somewhere between 14.2 and 14.6 grams.”

On the secondary packaging front, Pepsi recently introduced the EZ Open shrink wrap, perforated for easy opening, while still developing sustainable options for its shrink film.

“We are currently focusing on many technologies to continue to improve our sustainability footprint, including reduction of secondary packaging such as shrink film and corrugated,” says Pepsi-Cola North America spokeswoman Michelle Naughton.

Snapple's new Venom energy drinks offer sleek designs in resealable aluminum bottles, which cool faster than plastic bottles.

Is plastic always fantastic?

Even though aluminum cans offer a sleeker, cooler look and feel, many consumers still reach for PET bottles because they are resealable.

Yet the problem with PET concerns product freshness. PET bottles don’t offer the strongest carbonation retention, so some companies are opting for resealable aluminum to bring together carbonation retention and reclosability.

Mountain Dew’s new aluminum bottle “fits the unique, cool imagery for the core consumer, and really provides great excitement to brand equity,” according to Naughton.

In addition, Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s Snapple unit launched Venom, a new carbonated energy drink, opting for an aluminum bottle instead of PET.

“[Our] new design will offer the best of both worlds, in that it is a resealable package, as well as offers the equivalent carbonation shelf life to an aluminum can,” says George. “[It] allows the consumer to enjoy the product during multiple occasions without concerns of carbonation loss, unlike most energy drinks in cans.”

While PET bottles may be lighter in weight and easier to transport, aluminum bottles are much more valuable as far as recycling goes. Just as well, consumers like aluminum cans because of their convenience, durability, longer shelf life and ability to cool fast, but dislike the inability to reseal them to keep an unfinished beverage as fresh as when it was first opened.

With beverages sporting larger can sizes, particularly energy drinks such as Monster and Rockstar (which can contain two to three times as much liquid as a traditional single-serve 8-ounce can), it isn’t necessarily desirable to finish an entire can in one sitting, but it’s hard to keep the freshness from fizzling out. More expensive aluminum bottles used to be the only option for a resealable feature…until now.

Coke's resealable aluminum can top uses minimal plastic in its seal to retain recyclability, as well as maintain carbonation retention.

A can-do attitude

Within the last year, three different resealable aluminum cans have been introduced.

• Monster, Rockstar and Jolt have each released products in 24-ounce cans with a resealable cap can closure, developed by Rexam PLC. (Monster has also introduced a new 32-ounce can, which currently doesn’t have a resealable cap, but could definitely benefit from it.) Because of the cap top, however, these cans cannot be stacked in the same way as traditional carbonated soft drink cans.

• This reclosable can design does allow stacking. Ball Packaging Europe, in association with Dutch firm Bound2B B.V. and Coca-Cola Germany, has taken the concept of a resealable can one step further. It has created a new resealable can end that’s being used for Coca-Cola’s French energy drink, Burn.

“Intensive research was carried out to deliver a consumer oriented solution,” says Coca-Cola France marketing manager Vincent Bouin. “The resealable [can] end marks a major advance in beverage packaging, and the French Trade understood it: They all welcomed the innovation with enthusiasm.”

The can end, which launched in March on the French market, preserves drip-tightness and pressure stability with a plastic flat opening mechanism that rotates to uncover and cover the can’s opening.

• Team Advercan designed the Advercan Soda Seal*, a resealable can top that features a full color, high-resolution advertisement when the can is sealed. After the can (which looks like a regular soft drink can) is opened, the tab can be turned 180 degrees to reclose with a water- and gas-tight seal, revealing the advertisement in the mouth of the can.

*CORRECTION: Robert Davis, president of Davis Advertising Inc., was the actual designer of the Advercan Soda Seal.

Team Advercan's Soda Seal features a sandwich top design with a middle layer that swivels to seal the can's opening.

Product/package tradeoffs

But when it comes to freshness and shelf life, carbonation retention isn’t the only factor important to consumers.

“PET can challenge our system during the summer months, but just as challenging are the diet sweetners included in the product,” says George. “Any future improvements to packaging for freshness will need to be paired with more stable sweetners.”

So, while aluminum keeps a product cooler longer and maintains stronger carbonation retention, it takes more energy and natural resources to process and transport than PET, which has a lower melting point and weighs less, making transport not as difficult or costly. Regardless of the choice being made, there are certainly strong benefits to the consumer in regards to product quality.

“Shelf life is always a concern, and further improvement to support this goes hand in hand,” says George.F&BP

Coca-Cola's newest recycling plant, while similar to its four other recycling plants, will be the largest.

SIDEBAR: The lighter side of Coke

Coca-Cola is working on technologies to put larger amounts of recycled materials into its packaging. More than half of the material in the company’s aluminum cans is recycled, and it uses recycled-content polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in more than 17 markets around the world, thus leading the industry in the use of recycled plastic.

In conjunction with United Resource Recovery Corp., Coca-Cola is building the world’s largest plastic bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. The plant will produce approximately 100 million pounds of food-grade recycled PET for reuse each year, which is the equivalent of producing nearly two billion 20-ounce Coca-Cola bottles. The new 30-acre site is expected to be fully operational in 2009.

“We have set an ambitious goal to recycle or reuse all the plastic bottles we use in the U.S. market,” says Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America. “Our investments in recycling infrastructure, coupled with our work on sustainable package design, will help us reach this target.”

Glass is also conserved, as shown in the company’s new design of its most popular package, the glass contour bottle. Not only was the bottle’s amount of glass reduced by about 20%, but impact resistance was improved, causing it to be 40% stronger. In the end, the design has eliminated 52,000 metric tons of glass, resulting in a CO2 reduction of 26,000 tons, or the equivalent of planting 8,000 acres of trees.

Coca-Cola’s strong emphasis on sustainability is no frivolous choice; beverage containers are among the world’s most recycled consumer product packaging. Package design revolves strongly around the ability to retain economic value and utility after their contents are consumed.