FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - The makers of plastic beverage containers have been circling the beer industry like a pack of wolves for years, but the breakthrough that would allow beer to be packaged in plastic has not come. Some bottle makers at the Bev-Pak '96 conference in Fort Lauderdale said they are interested in the possibility that polyethylene naphthalate might be a breakthrough material for beer, but Superex Polymer Inc. is working another angle.
Interviewed at the conference, Richard Lusignea, president of the Waltham, Mass.-based company, said he has been investigating the use of liquid crystal polymers in combination with PET in a multilayer beer bottle.
``We have been working in a consortium, including with a major brewer, and several bottlers, to see if we can use LCPs in a rigid container for beer,'' Lusignea said. ``We feel that there are real possibilities.''
The advantage, he said, would be that the materials have as much as five times the barrier capabilities of ethylene vinyl alcohol or other frequently used barrier resins.
They can also be applied to the main bottle resin in a much thinner layer, reducing the final bottle's weight and thus, the cost of the package.
``We are not there yet,'' Lusignea said. ``We have tried this on several test bottles, but so far we haven't been able to develop exactly the right combination.''
Lusignea said one of the problems with LCPs in beer bottles is that they are opaque, and that brewers favor clear or translucent colored containers.
``We feel the secret is to make the LCP layer as thin as possible without losing the barrier qualities,'' he said. ``We feel if we can get the layer thin enough it would be nearly clear or translucent enough to work in an amber-colored bottle, for instance.''
He said the company's consortium partners are primarily from Europe and Japan, and that Superex is open to participation by North American companies interested in developing the LCP application.
The company has developed applications for LCPs on food trays and other food-related containers.
Although LCPs cost substantially more than traditional packaging material, he said product costs can be reduced through the use of less LCP.
``We're hoping that within 12 months we will be able to come up with the right combination,'' he said.
A representative of a major North American brewer who attended the conference and asked not to be identified, said his company was very interested in using plastic for beer containers because of the versatility it would have over traditional glass and aluminum packaging. He noted that plastic beer containers would be desirable for places like stadiums, where glass and metal are banned, and would also have advantages in shipping, breakage and manufacturing costs. He conceded that several problems remain.
``The oxygen permeability of PET and other plastics is crucial to us,'' he said. ``PEN has possibilities and better barrier properties, but it is limited in supply and is expensive. Our understanding is that LCPs would require less material than even EVOH, and would have superior barrier, but it really is a question of cost and finding the right combination.''