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From the first product packaged under a trademark by a UK company back in 1746, to the first paper wine bottle in 2014, packaging has come a long way. Glass, PET, paper: the beverage bottling industry has had to invent, to adapt and learn to re-adapt at an ever higher pace to accommodate constraints set by regulations, economics and last but not least, the consumer.

The PET bottles that make you believe you are looking at a glass bottle

We are currently seeing a development towards unusual PET bottle designs in parts of the world, where design helps a consumer express his social attitude. On the European market there are cultural differences that partly explain the dominance of glass returnable bottles in Germany, non-returnable bottles in Italy and France, and the can in the UK.

What can be said about the environmental compatibility of PET bottles? The recycling rate in Germany is exemplary worldwide. The beverage industry has increasingly been producing PET bottles from recycled PET granulate and vegetable-based components, to minimise the use of fossil resources, responding to consumers’ demands for environmentally compatible packaging. PET bottle designers introduce customers to bottle designs that can contribute towards saving materials and thereby meet the demands made of high-quality PET packaging. Short-neck bottles, for example, can decrease the weight of preforms; steep inside walls enable us to avoid high blowing pressures and thus save valuable energy.

Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, spokesman for the German Brewers Association: "On the beer market, PET has reported an increase of 5.7% last year, but then the beer market cannot be compared to the soft-drink and bottled water markets; the returnable bottle still accounts for 86% of the German beer market today."

Sustainable solutions

Using less plastic resin during manufacturing of bottles is becoming more common. Water bottles are starting to show up that use paper along with the plastic to keep the amount of plastic minimal. This trend has been especially important when it comes to selling bottled water, as consumers may feel less guilty about buying bottled water if it features environmentally friendlier packaging. There are even companies whose packaging is certified as organic or fair trade. Bottles entirely from plant-based products can already be found on the shelves.

Compared to glass, PET material reduces the carbon footprint by 30%. PET’s affordability and lightness makes for valuable utilitarian purposes, until recently mainly used for bulk packaging with little aesthetic intentions. Nowadays, more brands manage to have their designers turn ordinary packaging designs into artistic yet economical better-selling items.

Today’s consumer has been influenced along the same lines as the packaging industry: by regulations, economics and a changing perception of his own role in a world that seems to grow increasingly out of his control. Consumers are getting both more environmentally and self conscious. Individuals who feel a bit lost by globalisation, embrace local brands that invite consumers to get back to their local roots. This feeling of finding oneself explains perhaps why sales of global brands are proportionally lagging behind the growth of locally produced ‘craft’ brands, as we will see further below.

The bridge between mainstream consumer brands’ special editions and local craft brands

Packaging has always been an important marketing tool to sell more of the same. Special editions such as Coca Cola’s Scottish limited edition aluminium bottle, or the Hennessy X.O. copper coloured non-transparent bottle, are doing well in the media.

September 2014 saw the launch of Absolut Vodka’s Limited Edition Andy Warhol bottle, "a new design celebrating the brand’s iconic collaboration with the artist Andy Warhol, embodying the brand’s commitment to supporting all things rooted in artistic expression and creativity." Sure, I’ll buy it. But collector’s items have never saved a brand from drowning, and probably never will.

The end of Big Brewer?

Special editions are always best sellers and the mainstream brewers know it. Luckily, an increasing number of brewers doesn’t need to create special editions to boost and support sales for their mainstream editions, for the simple reason that they are special editions themselves; they are the micro breweries spreading out all over the world.

The rise in number of micro breweries
Brewers are among Europe’s most dynamic entrepreneurs, contributing strongly to local communities and its local economy. Despite decreasing beer consumption in Europe, a number of new breweries have appeared on the scene, offering further perspectives for the sector itself and providing new experiences for consumers. European drinkers’ thirst for artisan and craft beers appears unquenchable as sales of local brews keep rising by an estimated 4% per year.

The revolution in beer the world over has been gathering pace for several years and the independent, local beer industry is in better health than the average mainstream brewer, the latter being confronted with declining sales. People seem to become far more experimental than they used to be and far less brand loyal.

A factor that distinguishes most craft beers from their mainstream counterparts is their element of creativity. Producers are breaking moulds on traditional brewing and adopting some interesting methods that combine wine and beer making techniques. Local ingredients used may sometimes seem a bit bizarre for beer production, but producers are saying it adds a local twist. Ingredients include chestnuts, prickly pears, flowers and grapes. In Italy, master brewer Teo Musso even plays music to his beers, because, he says, it helps his yeasts grow. In March 2014 Teo won the ‘Beer of the Year’ competition held in Rimini.

Italy has some 400 micro breweries alone, mainly in the north. In another major beer production country, the Czech Republic, 130 out of the 185 breweries are micro breweries. Austria has 270 breweries, of which 100 are micro breweries. In Spain 70 out of the 160 some breweries are micro breweries, with just 6 companies running the remaining 90 breweries. The UK is home to some 1400 breweries, up from about 500 back in 2000.

The importance of the European brewing sector can be measured by the number of jobs it creates in other sectors: for each brewing job, one job is generated in retail, two in the supplying sectors and more than 12 in the hospitality sector.

Design award winner: the paper wine bottle

Bottles that serve more than one purpose are a new trend, such as the wine bottle by Vino Solo/Singlz that includes a flute you can attach so the bottle immediately converts into a wine glass. Vino Solo/Singlz just won a Bronze Medal at this year’s Harpers Global Design Awards, in the special packaging category. Their plastic bottle is ideal for sports and concert venues that discourage glass bottles for safety reasons.

The Gold Medallist, Paper Boy Wines, decided to raise the stakes by putting their wines in paper bottles. The very idea of a paper wine bottle may seem ludicrous to many and sacrilege to wine lovers, but the idea has become reality for the UK based company Greenbottle, the company that developed the winning design bottle for Paper Boy Wines. The paper wine bottle is a moulded outer shell in the shape of a wine bottle, made from recycled cardboard with a plastic liner. The entire package is 85% lighter than a glass bottle, and weighs just 55 grammes instead of the average 500 grammes for a glass wine bottle. Its carbon footprint is 10% of a glass bottle’s. And the wine it contains? Paper Boy Wines are appellation-based, super-premium wines. The company believes that if the quality of the wine exceeds a customer’s expectation, then new, cutting-edge packaging will become more mainstream.

Dealing with new recycling regulations

Packaging is the largest outlet for plastics in the world and 65% of plastic packaging materials is used by the food industry. France and Germany are the largest producers of plastic packaging in the EU, with respectively 2 and 4 million tons per year.

In Germany, legislators have recently amended the federal packaging ordinance, forcing fillers and distributors to change their recycling policies. Despite being one of the leading European countries when it comes to recycling, the recycling quotas in the packaging ordinance were still considered too low. The German federal council for environmental matters has asked the federal government to draft a law on recyclable materials within the next six months, which will replace the current packaging ordinance.

Marc-Oliver Huhnholz adds: "The share of returnable glass beer bottles is with 80 percent in 2013 much higher in the beer market than in juices and bottled water segments. PET is gaining terrain: we see that ten years after the introduction of a mandatory deposit on disposable packaging in Germany the percentage of disposable PET-bottles has increased by 15% last year. The market share of beer cans is even lower than that of the PET beer bottle. The market share of the 0.5 litre beer can grew 12.8% in 2013, and has a market share of about 3 percent."

So will brands move away from heavy glass to glass lookalike PET bottles? Far more likely than moving from glass directly to paper, if you ask me. Collector’s items to stir sales? I prefer seeing mainstream brands move to introducing refilling stations in supermarkets.