Clear is here. Transparent is apparent in plastic packaging.
Bad poetry aside, two plastic container makers are unveiling food and beverage products that they say could speed the conversion of containers to plastic from their metal or glass forebears. They are doing it by showing off see-through containers that they think will add consumer appeal.
The transfer to plastic containers in itself is not that new. Since the late 1990s, a rush of new plastic bottles and food containers has hit store shelves. The parade of new replacement products continues unabated, said Thomas Dunn, director of development, technology and marketing for Printpack Inc., a film extruder and converter based in Atlanta.
Examples include single-serve bottles and new shelf-stable barrier packages, Dunn said.
``There's a lucrative market right now for plastics,'' Dunn said. ``It's still a growth market.''
Two new products stand out for contributing to the growing interest in clear containers:
* Toledo, Ohio-based Owens-Illinois Inc. is launching a PET soft drink can that is clear. Imagine the vending machine of the future. You hit the button and out pops your can of bubbly in clear plastic. You can actually see the liquid in each can.
* Pechiney Plastic Packaging Inc. of Chicago is introducing what it claims is the world's first clear food jar made of multilayer, oriented polypropylene.
Now, your pasta sauces can be packaged in a commodity plastic that can be heated easily and made at a cost lower than with PET, the previous standard-bearer for plastic containers.
Both O-I and Pechiney are looking for development partners, namely high-volume end users, that can advance the technology that they have created in North American laboratories. But the companies believe they are onto something truly innovative for food and drink products.
The companies talked about their products during Pack Expo International 2002, held Nov. 3-7 in Chicago.
The plastic soft drink can draws parallels to the PET beer bottle, another product developed by O-I that turned heads when it was released.
Like beer, soft drink cans might not be headed for immediate market takeoff, because interest could take some time to grow, said David Andrulonis, vice president of O-I's plastics group for food and beverage products.
``It's something that's going to be different, for people who want a product that's really interesting,'' Andulonis said at Pack Expo. ``What could be the differentiator is the ability for us to add any shape or embossed logo to this can.''
The company is starting with simple-shaped cans that mimic their 12-ounce aluminum cousins. The prototype even had a metal flip-top lid. The cans can also be made with a plastic closure.
O-I first showcased the can in October at InterBev '02 in Atlanta.
The can design follows the path of clear-plastic beer bottles. It is made with the same blow molded PET construction, with two layers of the resin sandwiching proprietary barrier material that protects against the permeation of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The barrier layer keeps carbon dioxide in and oxygen out, helping to preserve the soft drink's taste, color and shelf life, Andrulonis said.
Another patented O-I technology, SurShot, precisely measures the amount of barrier material that goes in each can, he said. That keeps the pricey substance at a minimum, as low as 1.5 percent of the total package weight.
The product has possibilities for juices, sports drinks, isotonics and other beverages, Andrulonis said. In addition, the cans can be made with as much as 35 percent post-consumer resin.
The product was the first effort under O-I's reorganized product-development team. Last fall, the company pooled its research and development work in Toledo. It had been more splintered, operating at locations such as its Continental PET facility in Bedford, N.H.
``We wanted to pull together our development expertise in Toledo and see what we could come up with,'' Andrulonis said. ``You're seeing the first fruits of those labors.''
The company hopes those efforts will provide another spike to PET containers. Although the major companies are starting to commercialize plastic beer bottles, that market is taking time to develop.
Meanwhile, those same PET containers are being used for new flavored alcoholic beverages, such as hard lemonades and iced teas, Andrulonis said. PET soft drink cans could take acceptance another step, he said.
The company expects to have a soft drink product on the market by the middle of 2003, Andrulonis said. Several undisclosed companies are evaluating the product.
At Pechiney, hopes are equally high for its Gamma Clear container, made with two layers of OPP and an oxygen barrier resin. As with O-I, Pechiney's barrier material is made with ethylene vinyl alcohol.
But while O-I is gunning for the metal-can market, Pechiney wants to replace glass food containers and those now made with PET.
Three years in development, the containers have properties similar to PET but at a lower cost, said Martin Matushek, Pechiney director of marketing and strategy for global plastic bottles. While PET containers have difficulty with heat, the OPP jars can be heated to temperatures as high as 205Ã¸ F without losing their shape, he said.
``It's the first plastic jar that can get as hot as you want it to get,'' Matushek said at the Pechiney booth during Pack Expo. ``They have some performance advantages over PET.''
Meanwhile, Pechiney wants to take advantage of the continued conversion from glass jars to plastic. A major market exists for all sorts of products, including containers holding jams and jellies, pickles, salsa and pasta sauces, Matushek said.
Pechiney has been developing the containers at its preform mold facility in Bellevue, Ohio, and its stretch blow molding plant in Batavia, Ill., he said.
Pechiney has been working with several equipment suppliers to make the OPP bottles and, like O-I with its clear cans, has received commercial approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Now the company is seeking development partners to bring the PP product to market, Matushek said.
The company is boosting its bottle-manufacturing operations in North America and Europe. The company, part of Paris-based Pechiney Group, broke ground in August on a new bottle plant in Orange, France, that is expected to move to full production late this year.
That facility will focus on the French private-label condiment market, another possibility for the OPP jars, Matushek said. Ketchup containers could be especially appealing in OPP, he said.
However, PET is not going away, especially now that it has captured some of the glass and metal market. Some new choices seem clear.
At Pack Expo, Amcor PET Packaging - the world's largest maker of PET containers - unveiled multiserve, heat-set bottles in a variety of configurations. Products include new bottles with better ergonomic grips, now being used for Clearly Canadian flavored water, and those that can be heated to 190° F.
``We have a lot of potential customers that are using glass,'' said spokeswoman Becky Streby, based at Amcor's North American headquarters in Manchester, Mich. ``They'd switch to PET if we can make the containers like glass, with long-neck bottles and other features.''
And Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., is touting a ripening rigid-packaging product portfolio that includes PP resins for clear, multilayer bottles and PE materials with improved clarity.
``The [containers] are coming on strong for food-type applications, for shelf appeal and shelf life, and in drink cups,'' said Glenn Wright, Dow market manager for rigid packaging in North America. ``It crosses over to all segments with polyesters and polypropylene.''
O-I is taking an imaginative approach with its plastic cans, envisioning a day soon when a six-pack of PET-based soft drink cans is snatched by consumers during supermarket shopping trips.
``We're starting to see activity from our customers interested in this,'' Androlonis said. ``We may not see a big bell curve upward immediately with the [cans]. But the potential volume and size of the market is huge.''