Miller Brewing Co. became the first major U.S. brewer to take beer in PET beyond a trial, announcing March 9 a nationwide roll-out. While industry analysts praised the development as the first significant step toward a huge new market for PET, Miller said it initially views PET as a niche package and said it plans to use plastic in just 2 percent of its bottles.
Hoping to address concerns about recyclability, Miller also said its beer would be the first carbonated beverage to use post-consumer resin in the bottles nationwide.
Company officials, however, said they will bottles easier to recycle until summer.
Miller spokesman Scott Bussen said the company is committed to using post-consumer PET, but has not determined how much it will be able to use.
"We are optimistic based on tests that we can use a level we are all happy with," Bussen said. "Our objective is to use as much as we can."
The bottle is expected to have at least 10 percent and as much as 35 percent recycled content, said Ralph Armstrong, director of new markets for Continental PET Technologies in Florence, Ky. Continental is making Miller's five-layer PET bottles at its Rockwell, Texas, plant.
The recycled resin would go in the middle layer of the bottle, he said.
Miller's bottle has been criticized by recyclers for using an aluminum cap, instead of plastic, and a label that cannot be easily removed in the recycling process. The firm said in January it would address those problems if it went ahead with a national roll-out. But the initial bottles will have aluminum caps and the difficult labels. Bussen said it will take Miller several months to make those changes and the company wanted a roll-out for St. Patrick's Day.
Recyclers and environmental groups offered cautious praise for the approach Miller and Continental took in dealing with recycling issues. Initially, Miller was criticized by the GrassRoots Recycling Network and the Los Angeles City Council for not taking recycling into consideration.
Robin Cotchan, executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Arlington, Va., said there are many technologies that can be used for plastic beer bottles, and recyclers need to see what the cumulative effects will be.
"I think it's a wait and see until we have a critical mass," she said. "We can look at them individually and they'll look good, but we won't know until we can look at them collectively in the system."
For example, about 90 percent of Miller's nylon-based barrier material aspirates in the recycling stream, enough that the bottle does not cause problems for recycling, she said. But recyclers don't know how their processes will be affected when other barrier technologies enter the stream, Cotchan said.
Markets need to be developed for the recycled amber bottles, she said. Still, APR is grateful Miller and Continental worked with them on design changes, she said.
GRRN Chairman Rick Best commended Miller for using recycled content and making design changes, but he said major issues still remain.
"Miller's amber bottle will continue to impose substantial new costs on recycling systems for cities," he said in a press release. "Many communities cannot afford to subsidize costs to sort amber colored bottles — costs which many be as high as 5-6 cents a pound."
Continental is paying a nickel premium on bales of amber bottles above the cost of mixed-color bales, until at least the end of the year, Armstrong said. That will stimulate markets, he said.
Miller should make a binding commitment to continue a premium to reimburse communities for additional costs, Best said.
Still, recyclers and industry analysts are watching to see how much of the beer market converts to PET over time.
Edgar Acosta, polyester manager for Dewitt & Co. Inc. in Houston, said beer will consume 200,000-700,000 additional tons of PET annually in 10 years.
"Obviously it's a positive sign for PET and comes at a time when the PET markets are unbalanced," he said. Miller's roll-out is unlikely to move the PET market much because it is small, but one or two additional brewers following could have an impact, he said.
Over time, he said he expects PET resin prices to rise about 10 percent as a result of beer demand.
"The package beer market is huge," said David Smith, director of U.S. recycling operations for Schmalbach-Lubeca Plastic Containers U.S.A. Inc. "It really depends on where these big guys decide to go with it and in what volume."
Miller considers PET a niche package, particularly for special events and places where glass is not allowed, such as beaches.
"We are fairly confident this will not take over glass or take over aluminum," Bussen said. "You never know. If consumer demand is such, our job is to listen to what consumers are asking for," Bussen said.
The PET bottles have met with "overwhelmingly positive" consumer response, said Bob Mikulay, Miller's senior vice president of marketing, in a statement.
Miller said PET keeps beer cold longer than aluminum and as long as glass, weighs one-seventh of comparable glass bottles and is resealable. The PET bottles are for 16-ounce and 20-ounce Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite and Icehouse beers.
A Coors Brewing Inc. spokesman said the firm was evaluating plastic but has not had any trials yet.