The question was a succinct one asked of Ed Marra, president and chief executive officer of Nestle Canada Inc.: What noncomposite materials do you see having the most growth for your business?
Marra, who had just finished speaking at Packaging Strategies in Atlanta, answered just as clearly that he prefers plastics.
``Because of consistency and quality problems, glass is losing to plastics,'' he said. ``Our consumers are saying the same thing. We see a continued trend more to plastics.''
The plastics industry can take some solace. While manufacturing has not been kind to anyone during much of the new millennium, plastics has held continued attraction for food and beverage packaging producers.
Mainly at the expense of other materials such as metal, glass and paper, plastics has been the fastest-growing segment in the packaging universe. It continues to be a darling of the industry, judging by comments made by end users, processors and consultants at Packaging Strategies, held March 31 to April 2.
First, the facts. Ernst & Young Corporate Finance Inc. compiled trend data for 2001 on the global packaging market, broken down by materials. While corrugated packaging accounted for the single largest share, with about $80 billion in sales, flexible and rigid packaging together accounted for about $135 billion, or more than 11/2 times the value of corrugated.
Throw in caps and closures, many of which are injection molded from plastics, and you have a huge market for resin, said Ken Brooks, Ernst & Young senior vice president in Montreal.
In the food area, plastics is growing at a rate more than twice that of metal, the second-place material. In beverages, the growth rate of plastics is 6 percent annually, while metal and glass both are growing at a punier 1 percent clip. In personal care, plastic closures, tubes and dispensing systems account for much of that segment's growth.
``Plastics will continue to be where a lot of the growth will take place,'' Brooks said. ``There are a lot of products converting over to plastic.''
The evidence also can be taken anecdotally. At the conference, several companies specializing in materials competitive to plastics made a point to acknowledge the competitive pressures.
Patrick Moore, president and chief executive officer of Chicago-based paper giant Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., said the rise in plastics packaging partly could be a matter of better marketing.
``The plastics packaging industry has done a far superior job to paper-based industries to promote products over a number of years,'' Moore said. ``Paper producers need to do a better job.''
And Bill Barker, president of Rexam Beverage Cans America in Chicago, said PET bottles have taken their share of the market. But he also said metal still is the preferred package for cans in North America, holding 75 percent of that business.
And he took some shots at plastic soft drink cans, a concept under development by Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Illinois Inc. and others. The cans have added costs that make them difficult to sell to consumers, he said. And plastic beer bottles never have taken off in the market, he said.
``There's always vulnerability to change on the part of consumers,'' Barker said. ``Frankly, the can is still cool.''
But so is the plastic container, according to other conference speakers. Marra at Toronto-based Nestle Canada spoke of the advent of yogurt tubes, Dutch Boy pourable paint cans and pocket packages of Listerine mouthwash. Consumers will pay more for a premium product, especially ones that look good and are easier to use.
At Nestle, the concept has been a success with several products. Those include Coffee-Mate creamers and NesQuik chocolate milk, both of which previously were packaged in boxy paper and metal containers. Both now are sold in curvier, easy-to-hold plastic containers with sharper graphics and caps that turn readily.
And its Carnation Instant Breakfast brand now is sold in smaller, retortable pouches, a far cry from the rectangular steel cans of days past.
Innovation in packaging remains a key, especially with competition from private-label brands on store shelves, Marra said. The return of Coffee-Mate is an example. In the United States, the product has a 67.5 percent market share of the creamer market, Marra said.
``Nestle Canada has launched this product, making Coffee-Mate relevant again,'' Marra said. ``It allows us to be seen in the refrigerated section, not on a dusty shelf somewhere.''