Milk is one of the most consumed beverages in the US and Europe with a growing popularity in emerging economies. It has been proclaimed as being healthy from the moment it first evolved in dairy farming communities in central Europe around 7500 years ago.
Recently some scientific studies have found that contrary to popular belief, drinking milk may do more harm to our bodies than good. Well, firstly for the record, I love milk and its derivatives. Secondly the problem with many a scientific study is that they often have the financial backing of some lobbyist and particularly in nutrient cases they are not always trustworthy. So, let’s nicely stay with drinking milk till there is hard proof.
Why do I talk about a foodstuff, while I’m not a foodie writing a food blog? Because milk as a staple, a commodity, is a packaged good product, and I will regret the day that milk will disappear from the supermarket shelves, as the product has been a pioneer in packaging in many a way. It moved from the simple, but perfect glass bottle to the variety of packaging formats it’s using today. That’s why I want to have a look in this article at the latest developments in milk packaging. Not its derivatives (yoghurt, cream, ice, cheese, butter etc.), but simple plain and pure milk.
Some years ago I wrote about milk in a pouch. At that moment the 1 litre pillow-pack, which needed a jug to handle the bag, and the Greenbottle, a bag-in-box made from paperboard pulp, were becoming popular in markets as the UK. But that was 2009 and in particular the consumer lifestyle and the market demographic changed significantly. Consequently the offerings of packaged milk changed, not in the least because supermarket chains remainder milk to attract consumers into their shops. The result, of course, is that the milk packaging has to be as basic as possible as it can’t afford any luxury. More or less two packaging formats survived the battle for the penny: the beverage (milk) carton and the flexible (stand-up) pouch.
Before we have a look at the recent novelties, let’s see how the consumer market is composed and what that means for packaged milk.
The consumer market
Busy schedules and the distinctive needs of different generations are influencing the packaging sizes consumers want and need. Packaging size variety mirrors the changing profile of a household. US Census Bureau concludes that fewer people live in the average home. The number one-person households rose from 17% to 27% from 1970-2012. This means smaller packages with fewer servings meet their needs.
Family sizes are also shrinking. The number of one-parent households with children rose from 11% in 1970 to 18% in 2012. US families headed by a single parent, according to a 2013 Pew Center report, have tripled since 1960.
In addition to changing households, generational differences are impacting shopping behaviour and product sizes.
Millennials, the youngest heads of households, are more likely than older shoppers to reach for convenience products, according to research from Brand Amplitude. Only about 25% of Millennials have children; many live alone. They choose single-serve packages, heat-and-eat foods and other items in smaller packages, a trend that plays into their need to have exactly what they want without having to compromise.
Generation X, the group between Millennials and their Boomer parents, cooks an average of 10 meals a week, often augmenting homemade fare with packaged broths, vegetables, sauces and other goods. They appreciate multi-serving packages, with recloseable tops that preserve unused portions for later. This cohort now has children, from babies and toddlers in Generation Alpha to Gen Z grade-schoolers. Their carts are filled with a mix of container sizes, including single-serve packages for school lunches or snacks and products like soup and dairy products in larger sizes.
Baby Boomers becoming the older shoppers and downsizing to smaller households will shift in preference from massive “family-size” packages designed for economy to smaller multi- and single-serve sizes. To reach these greying shoppers, producers must offer grippable packages, easy-open caps and other senior-friendly packaging features.
Although grab-and-go currently is the most dynamic packaging size trend this doesn’t mean that manufacturers must eliminate the series of multi-serve larger packages, as for budget-minded consumers, economical multi-serve packages could hold greater appeal.
A consumer, who reaches for a single-serve packaging of chilled milk from the convenience store on her way to work, is likely to grab a larger pack of the beverage on the way back home.
(Note: The above market analyses I have extracted from the article “Sizing up success: Consumers crave packaging size variety”, written by Suley Muratoglu, vice president, Marketing & Product Management, Tetra Pak Inc. You can find his further industry insights here. Effective April 6, 2015, Suley joined Owens-Illinois, Inc. as chief marketing officer).
With this in mind (I know it was a long story) we have to look at the new developments in milk packaging. We will see novelties from Ecolean, and Tetra Pak. We start with Ecolean.
Air Aseptic pouch
With the recent developments of the Air Aseptic Clear and the SnapQuick from Ecolean for its stand-up pouch packaging, the company claims that the format could become the standard for milk.
At Anuga Foodtec held at the end of March in Cologne/Germany Ecolean exhibited its lightweight transparent Ecolean Air Aseptic Clear pouch in small and resealable larger formats. The format is said to be popular in Russia, China and Pakistan, where Ecolean works respectively with Danone, Bright Foods and Engro Foods.
In contrast to packaging companies centreing round dairy products in the large developed markets, Ecolean focusses on the emerging markets.
Ecolean’s stand-up pouch is an unusual and innovative approach to putting liquids in a stand-up pouch and that needs some detailing.
This package is made up from a flexible multi-layered polymer film, baptized Calymer, consisting of 60% polyethylene and polypropylene and 40% calcium carbonate (chalk). Calcium carbonate is a chemical compound with the chemical formula CaCO3. It is a common substance found in rock, and is the main component of shells of marine organisms, and eggs.
The Calymer material should not be confused with bio-degradable plastics on the market as they follow a different life-cycle. Ecolean’s website states, that a disposed Calymer package can either be recycled as a traditional plastic or “recovered as energy by incineration”.
According to the manufacturer, the package weighs just 16 grams, which is a 40-50% reduction on a conventional liquid food carton or bottle.
Although flexible material, the bag-pack stands up steadily, thanks to the flat-bottom design and the air-filled handle that works as a spine. The air-filled handle of the pitcher shaped flexible package makes it easy to get a grip and the spout makes it easy to pour.
Let’s first look at “pouring”. We know that when the consumer has cut the corner of a stand-up pouch or a pillow-pack to pour the liquid, the packaging is and stays open and the process of deterioration of the product is accelerated.
Ecolean developed an elegant solution: the SnapQuick. SnapQuick is an easy-to-use reclosing device that is integrated with the package. It consists of two male buttons, two female buttons and a hinge. When the consumer has opened the package and wants to reclose it, he simply folds the top and gives it a light pinch. Then he will hear the typical “snap” and knows it is sealed.
SnapQuick is available in 500 and 1000 ml, and in the new 750 ml size.
Before they enter the sterile zone where aseptic filling is done, the pre-formed pouches pass through a special module that attaches a SnapQuick reclosure feature, also supplied in a roll, to the corner of each pouch. The mandrel module that picks one SnapQuick, heat-activates a pre-applied adhesive on the PET piece, and presses the piece against the pouch.
The first to use the SnapQuick is Bogota-based dairy Alquería. The company acknowledges that the Ecolean stand-up pouch with its SnapQuick feature costs about twice as much as the aseptically filled pillow pouches that are currently used by some 95% of the Colombian dairies, but expects that convenience will overcome that problem and consumers gladly pay a premium.
The Colombian launch of the SnapQuick, and the Ecolean stand-up pouch in general, is of utmost importance to Ecolean as it marks its entry into the South American market .
Besides the development of the SnapQuick, Ecolean also introduced (not for milk) the
Ecolean Air Aseptic Clear, a transparent version of the Air Aseptic pouch. Air Aseptic Clear is available in 200 and 250 ml. The new packaging makes the product visible for the consumer. It is a one of a kind transparent and aseptic package, which gives it a unique position on the market. Suitable contents are all non-carbonated soft drinks like lemonade and ice tea.
We go from the stand-up pouch as milk packaging to the beverage carton for milk.
Fully Renewable Carton Package
Frequently there is something new to tell about Tetra Pak beverage cartons. Often small modifications and alterations, but in this case a significant step is set into the “green” world.
Some months ago Finnish dairy producer, Valio became the first company in the world to sell its products to consumers in carton packaging made entirely from plant-based materials. The one-litre package, a Tetra Rex Bio-based with a TwistCap OSO 34 opening, is manufactured solely from a combination of plastics derived from plants and paperboard. It marks a world first, and signals an important milestone in Tetra Pak’s environmental performance.
After its initial three months trial with Valio Eila lactose free semi-skimmed milk in the Tetra Rex Bio-base, the fully renewable packaging is now being rolled out to Tetra Pak customers worldwide.
Tetra Rex Bio-based is now available in a range of sizes, from 250ml to 2000ml, for all chilled milk specifications.
In Tetra Rex Bio-based cartons, the low density polyethylene used to create the laminate film for the packaging material and the neck of the opening, together with the high density polyethylene used for the cap, are all derived from sugar cane. These plastics, like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paperboard, can be traced back to their origin, affording the package the highest category of bio-based certification from Vincotte, the internationally-recognised assessment body.
The bio-based plastics used by Tetra Pak are produced by Brazilian chemical company, Braskem, which sources all of its feedstock from sugar cane grown on degraded pastures.
In the marginal market of milk these two packaging formats will be, in my opinion, the standard in the future. The Ecolean Air Aseptic pouch is an ambient packaging with 75 days shelf life. The 75 days isn’t enough in comparison to the 180 days of the ambient beverage carton (Tetra Pak, SIG). Ecolean has to do some more research to realise an extension of the shelf life.
The Tetra Rex Bio-based is for the chilled milk segment and it will be interesting to see if Tetra Pak will be able in the future to develop a bio-based version for the ambient sector. That means, of course, that the alu-layer has to be replaced by some bio-based alternative.