Paperboard basket carriers with custom-shaped sidewalls can add to billboard potential.Photo courtesy Graphic Packaging Int’l

by Pan Demetrakakes, editor

When you pick up a six-pack, what do you pick it up with?

For a long time, there were two choices: traditional paperboard “baskets” for bottles or the plastic ring carriers for cans. Those remain the two most popular options. But variations both within and outside those choices are taking hold.

The advantages of paperboard baskets include ease of use, product protection and billboard. The latter can be enhanced by creative printing and converting techniques, says Roxanne McSpadden, director of global beverage marketing forGraphic Packaging Int’l,the largest U.S. supplier of basket carriers.

High-end or craft beers will sometimes use fancy printing techniques like foil stamping, high-gloss coating or matte finishes to attract attention, McSpadden says. The quest for attention can sometimes extend to the shape of the basket itself.

“They might try to do that by interrupting the eye in terms of creating a die-cut along the top so that it’s a unique shape to go along with the brand,” she says. “And then there’s different levels of height with the basket, how high the wall is, to create variation.”

Wall height can serve another function, McSpadden says: Protecting the product from light, which can be a consideration for beer bottled in clear glass.

“In the beer market there are some brands that are more concerned with light protection than others, depending on their bottle and the product,” she says. “They will want a high wall because they don’t want light getting to their product.”

Carrier baskets also have advantages when it comes to sustainability. They’re made with renewable fiber and, as non-contact packaging, are relatively free to use recycled materials, though McSpadden says that has to be done judiciously: “You have to balance it. Really, it’s about what’s the right strength property. Sometimes that is a virgin board, and sometimes it might be recycled.”

Operationally, bottlers that use paperboard baskets must choose between two basic models: drop-load and bulk glass. In the drop-load model, the bottler receives empty bottles in baskets. The bottles are plucked, filled, capped and replaced in the baskets. In the bulk glass system, bottles arrive on pallets, typically separated only by slip sheets between layers. The baskets arrive as blanks, to be erected in the plant.

The drop-load system is dominant in the U.S., while bulk glass is more popular in Europe. The application equipment GPI markets is for bulk glass, where the basket blank is pulled down over the top of filled bottles and then folded on the bottom, locked or glued.

Ring leaders

Ring carriers have been the norm in six-pack cans for decades. They’re light, inexpensive and effective. However, like many forms of plastic packaging, they’ve received their share of criticism on ecological grounds over the years.

The industry is defending itself in several ways. Ring producers point to the light weight and consequent easy transportation of ring carriers as a way to reduce a beverage multipack’s overall carbon footprint. The industry touts other advantages, including the photodegradable aspect of the low-density polyethylene (LDPE) usually used for the carriers.ITW-Hi Cone,a leading supplier of ring carriers, recently established the Ring Leader Recycling Program, which encourages schools and businesses to find recycling centers that accept LDPE. If none exist in a given area-which, the company concedes, is often the case-an organization in the Ring Leader program can arrange to collect ring carriers and ship them postage-paid to Hi-Cone.

Ring carriers tend to be lower cost and lighter than most beverage multipack alternatives. The tradeoffs are in convenience, which in this case translates to handling and security, and in billboard.

Some ring carrier suppliers offer innovations to mitigate these disadvantages. ITW Hi-Cone, for instance, has top- and side-lift multipack carriers that provide handles integrated into the carrier. These can be especially useful for eight-, ten- and 12-packs, which would otherwise be difficult for consumers to handle with conventional rings.

As for billboard, various alternatives are available. Hi-Cone’s BrandPak is a plastic carrier with deep walls and a handle. In some configurations, it can be close to an equivalent of a paperboard carrier in terms of its coverage and impact. Hi-Cone also has promotional panel multipacks, which are standard carriers with a panel attached for graphics, coupons or other promotional use.

Another billboard alternative can take advantage of primary packaging. If a can or bottle’s graphics are arranged so that they form a large graphic when placed side by side, equipment available from Hi-Cone can orient them to guarantee that the effect will appear.

Innovative beverage can unitizers can offer better protection for can tops than traditional ring carriers. Photo courtesy PakTech

Third way

A third alternative for beverage multipacks might be called non-traditional plastic carriers. These are usually sturdier and bulkier than standard LDPE rings.

Because of their ability to handle relatively heavy loads, these carriers are mostly aimed at single and double packs of large, multiserve bottles. Advantages include ease of use and container protection. They combine the stability and security of paperboard carriers with the minimal coverage of can rings.

Amie Thomas, sales manager ofPakTech,says six-pack cans are a relatively new market for her company, which supplies handles made from injection-molded high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

“We’re basically offering a higher-end alternative, because there’s nothing really out there that competes with the traditional rings” in terms of price, Thomas says. When it comes to six-pack cans, PakTech products offer better product protection, because they cover the tops of the cans.

“Third-party testing determined that it provided 95% to 98% more contamination protection than the standard open-top rings,” Thomas says.

PakTech is also working on application speeds. The company recently introduced a CCA 1200, a Can Carrier Applicator that can apply the HDPE carriers to up to 1,200 cans a minute. The company currently is working on equipment that will double that speed.

Beverage multipacks have been around probably as long as people have been buying more than one can or bottle at a time. Awareness of the different ways to pick up a six-pack can, in some instances, help pick up sales.