DUSSELDORF, GERMANY — Beer in plastic? Ignore the hype. It won't happen commercially for several years.
Despite the mushrooming wave of publicity about beer in plastic, some packaging experts say it will take time for brewers to popularize the new bottles.
We're talking years, not months.
Akira Shirakura, manager for research and development at Kirin Brewery Co. Ltd. in Tokyo, predicts it will take more than five years to commercialize plastic beer bottles.
Shirakura blamed the delay on the high cost of polyethylene naphthalate and various barrier resins.
Pieter Hein Timp, a packaging engineer with Heineken Technical Services, agreed: ``Cost, of course, is one of the main drivers in the end.
``We're very serious about it, but we're also very conservative about it,'' he said in a late-October speech at Nova-Pack Europe '98 in Dusseldorf. ``I think technically speaking ... there is enough knowledge to get this started. How fast it will take off, it's very difficult to say.
``I think within the next five years, there will be more and more tests going on,'' Timp said. Heineken Technical Services is the engineering arm of Heineken NV of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
But Heineken, which currently sells most of its beer in green glass bottles, knows it has to adjust to changing consumer tastes.
``As the younger generation becomes the consumer of tomorrow, it is very clear that plastic needs to serve their needs,'' Timp said. ``Young people, under 30, look in their refrigerators and all they see is plastic and cans. Very little glass.''
Ronald S. Schotland, president of Schotland Business Research, the Skillman, N.J.-based sponsor of the Nova-Pack conference, agreed. ``I think the development of a plastic beer bottle will accelerate within the next few years, and will come to pass,'' he said.
Recent headlines suggest that plastic beer bottles already are speeding to local grocers' shelves. Miller Brewing Co., for example, announced Oct. 30 that it would start offering beer in 20-ounce and 1-liter plastic bottles in six U.S. markets in November and early December.
Milwaukee-based Miller touted its plastic bottles as suitable for locations where consumers can't take glass bottles, like concerts, beaches or stadiums. ``And we're able to do this at a retail price that's competitive. That's a critical factor,'' said Virgis Colbert, Miller executive vice president.
Miller's bottles use a proprietary multilayer design developed by Continental PET Technologies Inc. of Florence, Ky.
Paul Swenson, president of Kortec Inc. in Beverly, Mass., says the technology to make commercially successful multilayer beer bottles is available today.
``The equipment and resin economics are there to produce a container that is in the ballpark of a glass container,'' Swenson said. ``Is plastic ready for beer? I think the answer to that is yes.''
Kortec sells turnkey systems for coinjection molding — a handy technology for making multilayer PET bottle preforms. At Nova-Pack, the company revealed the results of tests it had commissioned on PET beer bottles using a variety of barrier layers, including nylon, ethylene vinyl alcohol and oxygen scavengers.
Swenson said Kortec had ``recently signed an agreement to provide our technology to one company exclusively for malt beverages.'' He did not identify the customer, but added that the agreement does not prevent existing Kortec customers from serving the beer market.
Another pioneering U.S. player in the multilayer PET beer bottle market is American National Can Co. of Chicago. ANC last month won the DuPont Gold Award for packaging innovation for a bottle it introduced nearly a year ago for Bass Brewers Ltd. in England.
But PET beer bottles existed prior to 1997. In fact, nearly a decade ago PET accounted for 3-4 percent of the Japanese beer market. But brewers phased them out because of distribution problems and laws that discouraged small-sized PET beverage bottles.
Kirin's Shirakura said PET now is used only for niche products in Japan, including 1- to 3-liter jumbo bottles sold by microbreweries.
Packaging in the beer market varies widely by geography. In Canada, for example, 78 percent of beer is packaged in refillable glass bottles, and the remainder in disposable cans.
Yet Pet-Pak Containers, a Mississauga, Ontario, blow molder, doesn't think the glass bottle portion of the market is ripe for a takeover. Instead, it's taking aim at the metal can segment, said David Lloyd Batten, vice president for technology and development.
The firm is working on a 100 percent PEN bottle, which could be returned, cleaned and refilled — just like glass bottles. Batten said the project warrants further marketing and development work.
But he said it still is dependent on a much lower price for PEN resin — something that resin makers have hinted will happen once demand picks up.
``It really is dependent on the price of PEN at this point. Based on the current price of PEN, this would not work,'' Batten said.