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Innovations and Trends in Plastic Food Packaging

From plastic cans to new labeling techniques the latest trends in plastic food packaging support freshness, longer shelf life, and product branding and tracking.

2015 Food Processing
Milacron, a global manufacturer and supplier to the plastics and packaging industries, has developed the Klear Can for food packaging, which
has a shelf life of up to five years and the ability for brand owners to show the quality of the product to consumers.
Milacron, a global manufacturer and supplier to the plastics and packaging industries, has developed the Klear Can for food packaging, which has a shelf life of up to five years and the ability for brand owners to show the quality of the product to consumers.
Applications for food and beverage packaging are one of the largest uses of plastics globally and are expected to grow. In fact, demand for rigid plastic food containers is forecast to advance 5 percent annually to $5.4 billion in 2017, representing 118 billion units.

According to the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based industry market research firm, growth in rigid plastic container demand will outpace the overall food container average based on its advantages over glass, metal, and paperboard alternatives. There are a number of reasons for this increase in demand such as plastics-processing technology improvements including advances in co-extrusion techniques that provide oxygen barrier systems, heat resistance, and other performance characteristics.

When Is a Can Not a Can?
Is a plastic can still a can? Most certainly! Just ask Silgan Plastic Food Containers, one company that has revolutionized the “can” by making it plastic. The Straight Wall Plastic Can is compatible with standard canning systems, which is a primary attribute to making the new can acceptable to food processors. According to Silgan, it can be double-seamed and sterilized in traditional retort systems without the need of overriding pressure. Existing assets can be retrofitted to handle this container making any migration project affordable and easy to implement; best of all, it runs at similar speeds. All of that is good news for food processors. For the consumer the benefits of the Silgan Straight Wall Can are that it’s microwaveable, reusable after opened (re-closable), dent-free, lighter weight, and easily recyclable.

Milacron, a global manufacturer and supplier of turnkey co-injection molding systems to the plastics and packaging industries, has developed a new multi-layer packaging technology designed to meet the needs for a successful high-barrier technology. The technology provides a robust, multi-layer plastic package, delivered with the same high-volume production efficiencies and cycle times as monolayer plastic containers without barrier properties.

With the goal of being close to the food processors, packaging companies tend to locate multiple plants throughout the U.S. to reduce shipping time and costs. Milacron co-injection technology can be applied to production of PET blow-molded containers, PP blow-molded containers, thin wall containers, closures, and more. Most recently, Milacron co-injection developed the Klear Can, an alternative to metal cans and something the company calls “revolutionary” for food packaging. The Klear Can, produced by Kortec, a Milacron division, provides a shelf life of up to five years and the ability for brand owners to show the quality of the product to consumers.

Kortec introduced the Klear Can with Milacron at this year’s National Plastics Exposition. With its three-layer plastic construction (polypropylene outer and inner layers, with an EVOH barrier), the Klear Can is suitable for retort up to 130oC (265oF). It has been tested and approved for both retortability and the integrity of the double seam, which is designed to allow the plastic can’s flange to accept traditional (easy open and non-easy open) metal can ends. This means that food processors can easily shift from traditional metal cans to the use of plastic cans, with no need for investing in new downstream equipment, according to Kortec.

“These plastic cans use the same steel or aluminum can ends, same filling equipment, same seaming equipment, and the same retorting and cooling equipment,” notes Russell Bennett, Kortec vice president of Sales and Marketing. “For the canner and the brand owner, there is no need for significant modifications over what happens today. We see this as a major advantage.”

Other Trends in Rigid Plastics Packaging
Consolidation and vertical integration among plastics packaging processors is continuing as the large players expand their reach to food processors, not only nationwide but globally as well. M&A activity is high in this industry as growth continues and demand for plastic packaging increases.

In July, Berry Plastics Group Inc. entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Avintiv Inc. from private equity funds managed by The Blackstone Group LP. It appears that Berry is becoming a more vertically integrated company, as Avintiv Inc. is one of the world’s leading developers, producers, and marketers of specialty materials used in infection prevention, personal care, and high-performance solutions. With 23 locations in 14 countries, an employee base of over 4,500 people, and the broadest range of process technologies in the industry, Avintiv’s strategically located manufacturing facilities position it as a global supplier to many of the same leading consumer and industrial product manufacturers that Berry Plastics supplies. Berry Plastics itself has more than 90 facilities worldwide, and the company continues to expand its footprint.

With the goal of being close to their customers, i.e., the food and beverage processors, packaging companies tend to locate multiple plants throughout the U.S. to reduce shipping time and costs. For example, Silgan has 19 manufacturing facilities located throughout the U.S. and Canada. Yet, with M&A activity often comes consolidation. These plastic cans use the same steel or aluminum can ends, same filling equipment, same seaming equipment, and the same retorting and cooling equipment. For the canner and the brand owner, there is no need for significant modifications over what happens today. We see this as a major advantage. Russell Bennett, Kortec vice president of Sales and Marketing

For example, in August, Amcor Rigid Plastics announced it would consolidate its Des Plaines, Ill., manufacturing facility into its Itasca, Ill., manufacturing facility to better meet changing customer needs. The “phased” consolidation will take place over the next 12 months to ensure there will be no service disruptions to customers. Amcor Rigid Plastics acquired the Des Plaines facility from Alcan Global Pharmaceutical Packaging in 2010. With more than 180 manufacturing operations in 40+ countries, Amcor Rigid Plastics is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of rigid plastic packaging for the food, beverage, spirits, and a wide range of consumer markets.

Combating Counterfeiting
Global supply chains and manufacturing brings one big problem that continues to plague many companies: counterfeit products. To help solve this problem companies are looking to packaging to designate product authenticity. Amcor just announced a partnership with Kezzler AS, a provider of serialization business services, to offer Amcor’s customers a full service, advanced packaging serialization backed by a cloud platform.

The new product, MaXQ, offers brand owners unique identification codes printed on every package. The dynamic codes can be used for digital consumer engagement, anti-counterfeiting, track and trace, and other activations. The unique codes are generated and printed on each package, seamlessly integrating with customers’ existing packaging supply chain, notes Amcor.

Bob Travis, president of InkWorks Printing, a company focused on advanced digital imaging and label technology that creates value for its customers, commented that digital watermarking is the next big technological advancement in packaging that offers a hidden mark that the eye cannot see. “However, as you pass your smartphone over the package a filter on the phone picks up the information and the consumer is immediately engaged. It’s the brand experience they want people to have,” he explains. “The unseen digital watermark is there without disrupting the logo on the package.”

Additionally, Travis notes, it brings more engagement at point of contact. “The digital watermark takes the consumer right to the brand owner’s website with one wand-over, eliminating transaction fatigue caused by the number of clicks people have to make to get there,” he says. “Digitally watermarked images provide a number of benefits that other ways of marking or identifying products don’t, including the ability to track and authenticate products.”

In-Mold Labeling
The North American market is expanding for in-mold labeling (IML) applications driven in part by big brand promotions, new IML functional labels, new brands coming into the market, and new product segments. In-mold labels can often be more than just labels when it comes to food and beverage packaging. However, there continues to be some reluctance among the large food brand owners and processors to implement IML because of the initial costs for molds and required automation equipment. Additionally, since brand owners typically have a vast number of SKUs, molding rigid plastic containers with the labels on them makes any required changes difficult. Often this can result in all the IML containers for a specific SKU having to be recycled if there is a label change because with IML the label becomes part of the container.

However, new IML functionality along with innovation is creating more demand in North America for IML. New technology such as using IML for barrier packaging — in which the label actually becomes part of the oxygen or light barrier — is getting attention. Creating marketing appeal — such as labels with textures, metallic looks, and tactile properties, as well as variable information — is also driving demand.

In an age when shelves are filled with competing products, labels are becoming more critical to catching the consumer’s eye, differentiating products, and providing functional properties. IML is certainly becoming a big part of that trend.
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