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A toy by any other name

Siebert Head director of structural design Sean Fortune paints a brief but colourful history of the dairy carton, which would appear to have originated from the toy industry!

It was in 1915 that the first ‘paper bottle’ was patented. Jon Van Wormer – a toy manufacturer in Toledo – is said to have dropped a glass milk bottle and uttered that timeless phrase “bugger, there has to be a better way!”

His patent was not the first try at the dairy carton. History shows that the package was on sale on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles as early as 1906.

In 1906 it appears that this innovation was a little too radical for the consumer of the time – especially as the pack failed to work due to the hit and miss sealing of the paper!

It was this challenge of creating a truly liquid or milk tight sealed paper bottle that was commercially feasible that the American Paper Bottle Company worked towards until 1929.

It was at this point that the development of the first commercial scale machines started. The development continued by the American Paper Bottle Company until 1934 when machinery development fell to the Ex-Cell-O Corporation.

In 1936 the first Ex-Cell-O Corporation Pure-Pak machine was commissioned for Border Dairies in New York. And by 1937 Pure-Pak volumes had reached 42M units.

Ex-Cell-O gained the rights to market and distribute the complete Pure-Pak system. Once in the driving seat they set about developing the gable end to create a better spout. The pour spout as it became known did not appear until 1960.

The ‘paper bottle’ was seen as a great leap forward for both the packaging and dairy industries as many competitors tried to enter into the market.

None of the early competitors survived. Designing Pure-Pak to be delivered flat, thus creating the advantage of saving distribution and storage costs prior to filling, made the proposition far more commercially attractive than anything offered by its competitors.

So there we have it, the beginning of a radically new packaging format – who was going to use it and were the consumers going to like it? What was the ‘paper bottle’ bringing to its customers, the dairies?

Until the advent of the Pure-Pak system dairies were tied to local operations due to the cycle of doorstep delivery and pick-up of empties to be cleaned and reused.

Pure-Pak was, however, a single-trip use and dispose pack. This gave the dairies far greater freedom, allowing them to expand their operations beyond the traditional boundaries across a far greater area and consumer base.

The major obstacle facing Pure-Pak was consumer acceptance. With any radical change in packaging format the consumer will take some convincing. This process of education and acceptance took many years and everyone did and still does complain about features of the dairy carton to this day!

Pure-Pak under Ex-Cell-O’s control was steadily modified and evolved over the years, the system being refined and developed both as a packaging technology and in terms of its market penetration.

Pure-Pak eventually reached the European market in 1956 through CA Johnson & Co. CA Johnson & Co were granted the sales rights to Pure-Pak throughout Europe with the exception of Belgium and Denmark.

Teaming up with Teidermanns Tobaksfabrik, AS Elopak was formed. AS Elopak had the rights to import, instal and maintain Ex-Cell-O machines from the US. They also had the licence to produce Pure-Pak blanks.

The wax-coated blanks remained as they were in the original patent until 1959 when an alternative lamination system was found. This lamination process was the culmination in the development of the original Pure-Pak. Others, however, started differently!

In Sweden in 1943 development was just beginning on a radical new packaging technology. It was to use material technology that didn’t exist, a shape that was truly groundbreaking, requiring a machine and processing that was just the germ of the idea – Tetra Pak entered the market.

By 1944 the development was concentrating on lamination techniques to provide liquid integrity as well as a sealing system that was applied below the level of the liquid.

It was not until 1951 that Reuben Rausing and Erik Wallenberg revealed the final package to a waiting world under the banner of the newly formed AG Tetra Pak. AG Tetra Pak was a subsidiary of Akerlund & Rausing.

In 1952 the first commercial applications for this new system were seen in the form of a 100ml cream container for the Lünd Dairy. The package was to become an increasingly common sight throughout Sweden over the next few years.

In 1954 the Tetra-Pak grew in size, delivering milk in a 500ml format. It was now that the first break from the dairy market was seen with the launch of a 200ml soft drink variant.

The consolidation over these years was similar in strategy to that of Pure-Pak, the creation of a total packaging system from cardboard conversion through processing and filling to dispatch – a turnkey solution.

The growth of the Tetra Pak was rapid. By 1959 capacity hit 1bn units and the development of the Tetra Brik began. Three years later the classic tetrahedron-shaped pack was introduced in the US. By 1963 the Tetra Brik had been launched in Sweden.

Over the next decade AG Tetra Pak focused on creating a range of Tetra Brik sizes and the development of aseptic filling technologies throughout its global markets.

By 1971 total capacity for Tetra systems exceeded 10bn units world-wide. Tetra Rex flat top growth in the US during 1977 saw sales in excess of 20bn units.

By 1988 the dairy carton had truly evolved out of its core with 400M units containing wine in over 12 markets. This, together with the growth of the soft drinks sector, saw a shift in focus.

The dairy carton created across two continents over the best part of 75 years had become firmly placed in the core of everyday life. It went a long way to replacing the glass milk bottle. It also gave the opportunity for safe non-contaminated dairy products in markets where shelf life and freshness had always been an issue through the use of aseptic filling and UHT technologies.

The ‘paper bottle’ may have started from two different technological and philosophical starting points but one thing is clear – to consumers there was only really one pack.

All the systems in the eyes of the consumer were identical. All the systems gained both the rewards and the criticism for each other’s benefits and failings.

Everybody who has lived through the old style milk cartons has a story to tell about openability, spillage and re-sealability. Who can forget the timeless TV footage of the engineer demonstrating the new ‘easy open spout’?

By the end of the clip he had to resort to a pair of scissors and succeeded in spilling the contents all over the table – but he actually got some in the glass, which was better than I used to manage.

The dairy carton designer addressed those consumer needs and worked continuously to develop new methods of opening and re-closure.

This is all very well but just what has the dairy carton done for us? Returning to Pure-Pak, it was responsible for creating a greater market potential for the dairies. This allowed them to deliver more milk to more homes.

It’s funny to think that the pack is also partially responsible for the decline in doorstep delivery. After all it gave the supermarkets a packaging system that allowed them to stock fresh milk in a low-cost single-use pack that guaranteed freshness.

Consumers’ shopping practices combined with retail power caused problems for the dairy carton. As consumers shopping trips declined, the need for greater flexibility was raised.

Over the last 10 years we have seen mainstream multiple dairies move back into bottles over a broad range of sizes but the bottles are made from plastics and made by the same companies that pioneered the dairy carton.

We now see milkmen delivering dairy cartons and the larger plastics bottles. Is this the beginning of the end for the glass bottle?

Even now we see the dairy carton building on what it has done before. It took some time but now we have a 250ml Tetra Top milk carton for impulse sale, answering a consumer need for those of us that don’t require a pint as an everyday drink.

With the dairy carton we see the explosion in two major sectors – one process-based, the other finding its rationale from a more emotional starting point.

Consumers buy into all the dairy associations that now form part of our shopping heritage and naturally apply it to other product categories, particularly juices and soups.