Sustainability-driven developments in closures include lightweighting and use of biomaterials.

by Rick Lingle, Executive Editor

Closures in the United States are a large cap market worth $7.8 billion and are expected to grow at a 4% annual clip through 2014. Thus reportsFreedonia Groupin a new study, “Caps & Closures: U.S. Industry Study with Forecasts for 2014 & 2019.”  The United States, which accounted for one-fourth of global cap and closure value demand, will see strong value gains, fueled by a continued shift in the product mix toward value-added configurations, the report predicts. Advances will be aided by greater use of costlier dispensing and child-resistant closures and by the ongoing popularity of single-serve containers.

There’s certainly a whole lot more behind that overarching assessment when the rubber meets the road-or specifically when the plastic or metal cap meets the container. Frequently ubiquitous, sometimes innovative, and always essential, closures top off containers in a myriad of shapes, colors and styles appropriate to general market trends and specific applications.

In all packaging segments that must address customer requests, vendors have responded to sustainability. Sometimes that’s through intense research and development projects related to aggressive lightweighting efforts. Sometimes that’s a result of far simpler methods that yield advantages for customers.

Portola Packaging’sRoy Robinson says there’s a general push from customers to reduce their carbon footprints, including reducing packaging across the board. “We’re doing our part by providing as light a weight closure as possible without sacrificing performance,” Robinson asserts. He cites as an example the company’s 30-mm plug-style closure as one of the lighter weight closures in the market, used mainly in refrigerated dairy products.

AptarGroupis continuing to evolve its stock closures, ensuring its products address sustainability requirements by reducing the amount of resin used in closures up to 37%. For example, its 38-400 RediSpread pour spout for spreadable products such as mayonaisse, mustard, and jelly was redesigned with 14% less resin. That equates to 18,300 pounds saved, based on an annual volume of 10 million units, compared to traditional style closures. This example serves as a reminder that small unit changes can yield big savings in volume.

Last summer,Norland International Inc.introduced the industry’s first oxo-biodegradable cap for 5-gal water bottles (photo at left). The low-density polyethylene 55-millimeter caps, sold under the Earth Cap name, contain a unique additive that accelerates the degradation process, resulting in total degradation in five to 10 years. One of the first users of the Earth Cap is Aloha Water, Aiea, Hawaii.

Closures can provide sustainability improvements in other ways than material reductions through the use of  a systems approach. For example, Aptar recently introduced an FDA-approved recycle-friendly “swimming” silicone valve. The new valve floats, allowing it to be easily separated from PET during the recycling process.

There are other paths to improvements in areas such as making low-technology changes to provide space-saving gains in sustainability. Portola recommends bulk shipments to customers, requiring two truckloads rather than three, to increase efficiency and reduce truck emissions.

Looking beyond sustainability

There’s more to the category than “greening.” Robinson sees Extended Shelf Life (ESL) aseptic products, with a high-performance requirement for barrier closures, poised for expansion. He believes that dairies and other beverage producers are reconsidering ESL and aseptic packaging to leverage expanded distribution.

Certainly, convenience is a perennially popular avenue with consumers. For example,CROWN’sEasyLift technology is designed with finger access under the tab to enhance ease of opening for lids on metal containers. “The number one complaint for the existing easy-open end is the inaccessability of the tab,” says Hella Neffati, marketing manager, CROWN Food Packaging North America. The technology is a new “import” from Europe where it has been in use since 2007. She expects a regional test market in 1Q2011 using ends produced at CROWN’s North America facility.

Neffati’s colleague, Sheila Heath, director of marketing, CROWN Closures Americas, taps private label as being a growth area that has an impact on closures with the advent of  heightened requirements on par with national brands: “Private label doesn’t do ‘me too’ anymore, they make their brands standalone” including the use of closure decoration such as graphics and logos. “Just like the national brands,” she adds.

With a base in the segment including the closures for Abbott Nutrition’s line of bottled Ensure products, Heath foresees a healthy outlook for adult nutritional beverages. These developments that center on plastic bottles rely on composite closure technology that combines a metal disc and plastic band.

Despite the evolution of closures over the years, they maintain the same multifunctional roles as always. Heath reminds us that of ultimate importance is maintaining the integrity of the package; providing a vehicle to advertise or illustrate the package contents; and withstanding processing methods.

So a tip of the cap to these essential components that continue to provide critical closure to packages. F&BP