ATLANTA — A cold one packaged in PET thus far has gotten a very warm reception from consumers in the biggest test to date of beer in plastic.
But for the packaging to expand beyond the market trials and special events into mainstream retail will require dramatic cost cuts.
At least that's according to Bass Brewers Ltd., a Burton-on-Trent, England-based beer maker. The brewer introduced some of its brands in plastic about 15 months ago in limited markets where people are willing to pay extra, like outdoor festivals and sporting events.
``The key learning from the research was the absolute acceptance of beer in PET,'' said Bill Dando, director of packaging development for Bass. ``Unfortunately, we still have three major issues — cost, cost and cost. We've got to get costs down if we want to do anything with beer in PET.''
Dando, who spoke at the Packaging Strategies '99 conference, held March 22-24 in Atlanta, would not talk about how much Bass needs costs to come down. But he said that generally PET beer bottles are being sold at a 30-40 percent price premium over glass and aluminum cans, most of which is from higher costs for the brewer.
He said Bass does not want to penalize consumers who choose beer in plastic by charging more.
While cost remains a hurdle, Bass recently has determined its PET bottles will have a shelf life of at least six months, a ``very significant development'' because that is the minimum time needed to make the package practical for retail sales. Initially, shelf life was thought to be three months for plastic, compared with nine for glass, he said.
Other brewers conducting trials in Japan and South Africa told the conference that their trials were not far enough along to offer details on public acceptance.
But they said local factors could limit PET's growth, and both cited concerns about bottle recyclability. A recycler who has been testing Miller Brewing Co.'s PET bottle in the United States told the conference that so far it has proved to be recyclable.
The South African Breweries Beer Division in late 1997 began selling a 15-ounce PET bottle for special events at a 30 percent price premium. But the bottle has a short shelf life and may not work in broader uses because South Africa uses returnable bottles. Each glass bottle is reused about 40 times, said Gavin Duffy, technical manager of packaging for SAB in Sandton.
``We would only consider a major change in PET if we could achieve that same benefit,'' he said.
SAB, which has 98 percent of South Africa's market and is the world's fourth-largest brewer, is interested in plastic because it is easy to customize and offers marketing flexibility. Other brewers noted privately that plastic gives them a third packaging material to leverage against glass and aluminum suppliers.
Miller's test, the largest in the United States, has been getting very good acceptance from consumers, the company said.
In cities where the company promotes plastic packaging, consumers choose plastic, said Scott Bussen, spokesman for Milwaukee-based Miller. But consumers show no preference when advertising does not point out that plastic is available, he said at the conference.
In Japan, Kirin Brewery Co. Ltd. is exploring PET but is not sure when it will begin large-scale production, said Akira Shirakura, manager of the packaging research laboratory for Japan's largest brewer. The firm is using electricity to coat the bottles with ``diamond-like carbon'' as an oxygen and carbon-dioxide barrier, he said.
Aluminum seems to be the preferred packaging in Japan, accounting for 52 percent of the market. Some local governments and consumer groups oppose plastic beer bottles, Shirakura said.
In the United States, Miller's PET bottle has passed recycling tests, said Tom Bavaria, vice president of plastics technology for Environmental Products Corp., a Riverside, Calif., recycler.
``It does not impact our end users — sheet and bottle makers,'' he said. But he cautioned that beer makers will have to develop a market for their bottles because PET markets are very soft, and adding more material will hurt recyclers financially.
The conference also debated whether barrier layers in the bottle or coatings on the outside are better for performance and for environmental reasons. While Miller is using a multilayer package, the Australian brewer of Carlton's beer is using a monolayer PET with a coating from PPG Industries Inc., said David Church, general manager of packaging coatings-Americas for Pittsburgh-based PPG.
William Avery, chairman and chief executive officer of Philadelphia's Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc., said that putting barriers and coloring in coatings rather than in layers in the bottle is preferable.
Crown Cork has both exterior coatings and multilayer technologies, he said.
``We are looking at [coatings] as the least expensive and probably the most recyclable,'' Avery said. ``You can color it with coatings and you can do removal in the recycling process.''
But Bavaria said coatings have not been tested for recyclability, outside of laboratory trials. Coating layers are a ``major chemistry change ... we don't know what happens if you have blue coatings mixed with red coatings mixed with green.''