The traditional Folgers metal coffee canister, a staple for 150 years, is poised to become the next big consumer product to move to plastic.
Folgers' parent company, Cincinnati-based product powerhouse Procter & Gamble Co., will introduce a blow molded coffee can to grocery shelves in September, said Folgers spokeswoman Tonia Hyatt. The company has set an internal timetable, which it would not release for competitive reasons, to move all its Folgers' roast and ground coffees to plastic jars, Hyatt said.
Coffee is big business at Folgers. The company boasts the top-selling brand of store-bought coffee in North America, and about 85 million cups of Folgers coffee are consumed on this continent each day, Hyatt said.
``We wanted to look at what would be the ideal canister for consumers,'' Hyatt said. ``For 150 years, the entire life of Folgers, we have been in metal cans. Over time, we think plastic is the best choice.''
The coffee producer claims to be the first company worldwide to convert coffee to the rigid plastic containers, Hyatt said. The package would join a pantheon of other products that have made a leap into plastic over the past decade.
The move could prompt a switch by other coffee makers, including other consumer-product giants such as Nestle SA, said analyst Ghansham Panjabi of New York-based Lehman Bros. In several conference calls last week, blow molding companies were asked about their plans to make plastic coffee canisters.
``I wouldn't be surprised if the whole industry switched to plastic,'' Panjabi said. ``We'll have to see what the success rate will be.''
Some potential downsides include a potentially higher price paid by consumers to get their caffeine fix from a plastic container, although P&G did not release pricing information. But with ground coffee from Starbuck's and others already running at more than $4 a can, a few cents more should not make a big difference, Panjabi said.
Some environmental groups could be alarmed by the difficulty of recycling the canisters, made of high density polyethylene, compared with easy-to-recycle steel.
Nothing is inherently nonrecyclable about an HDPE container, said Peter Anderson, head of the Plastic Redesign Project, a multistate coalition of state recycling officials based in Madison, Wis. But the short-term recovery rates for a plastic coffee can are expected to take a hit, he said.
The use of labels or in-mold labeling on the containers could pose another problem that recyclers will have to grapple with, he said. The use of different shades - especially the fire-truck red color used by Folgers - also could cause the recycled HDPE to become discolored, Anderson said.
``We certainly hope that the packagers would talk to recyclers first, before the product comes out,'' he said. ``You can't assume everything will work.''
The new Folgers can fits into a regular HDPE recycling stream and work well in those locations that recycle the material, Hyatt said.
The products offer other advantages over the squat, steel canisters now on the market. The new Folgers container will feature an easy-grip handle that is molded into the product and a peel-off seal for ease of opening. Consumers no longer will have to find a can opener to open the jar, or cut their fingers on the lacerated ridge of a metal can, Hyatt said.
The containers also include a recent innovation from Melbourne, Australia-based Amcor Ltd. The company's Amcor Flexibles unit of Barnwood, England, has prepared a one-way valve used with the canister that releases carbon dioxide and protects against oxygen penetration, said Amcor Flexibles spokeswoman Alison Hilyer.
The technology, not yet manufactured in North America, will preserve Folgers ``fresh, mountain-grown taste,'' Hyatt said. Amcor Flexibles is making the valves in Raackmann, Denmark, and shipping them to North America, Hilyer said.
Another coffee maker, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. of Waterbury, Vt., has used a version of the valve on its flexible film packages since April 2002, said spokesman Rick Peyser. Green Mountain's fractional coffee packets provide pregound coffee, already measured and ready to brew, for such places as offices and hotel rooms, he said.
``Instead of a hard plastic valve that we've used in the past, it's now built into the film,'' Peyser said. ``It's a great way to provide the oxygen barrier that maintains the freshness of coffee while not disturbing the materials in the package.''
Blow molder Liquid Container LP/Plaxicon Co. will blow mold the Folgers canisters at its Hammond, La., plant, said Mark Grant, Liquid Container marketing director. The company referred all other product questions to P&G.
Injection molder Erie Plastics Corp. of Corry, Pa., will make the snap-tight lids for the new canisters, Hyatt said.
Folgers will introduce the plastic canisters on its 39-ounce Classic Roast. Several news reports said P&G plans to switch all its metal cans to plastic over the next year, but P&G officials did not confirm that timeline.