by Rick Lingle, Executive Editor

Considering just the proliferation of containers made from polymers, it may seem to some that glass packaging’s best years are behind it.

However, in 2010 glass packaging remains as timeless as the sand it is made from and is as relevant as ever through innovations including in design and color.

Admittedly, glass packaging has given ground to other materials and formats, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and flexible stand-up pouches. In fact, a turning point for glass was reached almost 20 years ago, according to Joseph Cattaneo, president of theGlass Packaging Institute.

“The conversion of the carbonated soft drink to single-serve PET containers in the early 1990s changed the whole dynamics of the industry,” he says. “Yet glass remains the standard for food packaging.”

Almost 20 years later and a decade into a new century, glass packaging may have found a rallying point around sustainability.

“We have a great story to tell with glass and sustainability,” says Michael Lonsway, vice-president of Global Product Innovations atOwens-Illinois(O-I). “Glass is made from materials that are abundant, and it’s infinitely recyclable.” It’s made from four common ingredients: sand, soda ash, limestone and cullet (pieces of recycled glass).

Glass has been sustained over the centuries by its unique combination of qualities: solid barrier protection, superb clarity and premium cachet. And for food safety: According to the GPI, glass is the only packaging material rated “GRAS” or “generally recognized as safe” by the Food & Drug Administration.

Those were qualities appealing to the launch of Very Cherre from Old Orchard Brands LLC, Sparta, Mich. Introduced on a limited basis in late 2009 and rolling out nationally in 2010, the four-product line features juice made from a particularly healthful variety of cherry and a distinctive glass container.

“From the beginning, I wanted a glass container because it conveyed premium positioning,” states Kevin Miller, Old Orchard Brands’ vice-president of marketing. “Glass is uniquely different from PET, offers heft when held, can be recycled, and evokes quality.”

The rounded 11-ounce custom bottle is manufactured and supplied bySaint-Gobain Containerand decorated with applied ceramic labeling.  “Their engineers worked from our prototype concept and helped us design the bottle,” explains Miller. “It grabs consumers’ attention-people gravitate to the product because of the packaging. It’s a nice little bottle that works real well.” Very Cherre sells for $2.99 to $3.49 a bottle at specialty grocery such as select Whole Food Markets and gourmet stores.

Very Cherre, an upscale juice, turned to a proprietary glass bottle for its look, feel and recyclability.

Glass gets into shape

Very Cherre showcases the possibilities of using shape as a packaging-driven difference-maker on-shelf, an approach that can help turn a package into an icon such as the Coke bottle. According to Doug Hesche, VP of marketing development for Saint-Gobain, a hot spot for glass currently centers around shape for hot sauces and salsas.

“There’s a revolution throughout the hot sauce market for creative brand imagery through both shape and decoration using pressure-sensitive labels and other techniques,” Hesche says. “This is one category where shape can have a significant impact around brand identification with consumers. It’s unusual in that you don’t otherwise see much change in food packaging.”

One example is for Pace brand hot sauces from Campbell Soup Co., which have moved from a stock-like rounded glass container to one with a pinched-in waist.

“We have the ability to create just about any shape customers want,” explains Hesche. “We can put grips on containers, add indents or different angles-all things that brand owners love.”

Spring brings a new look into the market for two new products: Miller Lite’s Vortex bottle features “internal embossing,” while Simpatico beer is relaunching in a first-of-its-kind black glass bottle.

A new twist

Perhaps the shape-shifting, moldable quality of glass is nowhere more apparent than in the new “Vortex” bottle for Miller Lite beer from MillerCoors, where the innovation is found inside the bottle.

Conceived, designed and manufactured by O-I, the Vortex bottle features ribs within the neck using a patented new process O-I calls “internal embossing.” The MillerCoors Vortex bottle is molded with four sets of helixes that impart both functional and aesthetic attributes to a traditional longneck bottle. Vortex began arriving in stores in March and will form the centerpiece for MillerCoors’ summer promotional efforts, says Scott Magnus, O-I beer marketing manager for North America.

MillerCoors has an exclusive on the Vortex bottle for “a period of time” in the beer category, but O-I is getting interest in the technology for other product categories. “It lends itself to a variety of patterns and designs,” says Magnus.

Developments have been made in bottle color as well as design. Simpatico, a beer brand from Mexico with a cult following that’s been dormant for a decade, is resurrecting this spring with a first-of-its-kind black bottle from O-I.

“The black glass provides sophistication versus the black-matte coated bottle used before,” says Magnus, who notes that at one time the brand was more popular than Corona. The black bottles will be recyclable in the amber glass stream, O-I says. There’s also word that other colors, such as bright pink or orange, are on the way.

The ability to be recycled has long been one of glass’ strengths, including that it can be made into a container again and again. The material’s recycling rate has been moving steadily higher the past few years and currently hovers right around 27%, coincidentally the same rate for PET, the most commonly recycled polymer. The GPI has set a goal of 50% recycling for the industry by 2013.

“That rate would be using as much material as is available,” Cattaneo says, “and our industry would reduce its carbon footprint.” Recycling rates in Europe have reached 65%, according to the latest figures (for 2008) from the European Container Glass Federation, which also reports that several countries have achieved glass recycling rates of 100%.

Glass manufacturers are reducing bottle weights on an ongoing basis and are addressing the other “Achilles heel” for glass: breakability. “We’re working on developments that have the potential to help us eliminate the breakability issue,” Hesche says, “but we still need to have consistency with this process to better understand it.”

Such breakthroughs point to glass’s viability, if not its vitality, as a packaging option going forward. Ever “green,” glass packaging will continue to endure.  F&BP