New technologies have made small PET bottles good enough and cheap enough to compete with aluminum cans - the dominant soft drink package - but do not expect them to rock the market right away.
At least that's according to Robert Tremblay, president of Western Container Corp. in Midland, Texas, one of the prime suppliers of PET containers for Coca-Cola Co. in the South and West.
Better barrier and molding technologies have put 12-ounce PET bottles in the same cost range as aluminum cans, Tremblay told the NovaPack Americas 2004 conference, held Jan. 26-27 in Miami. But soft drink companies will not be abandoning cans to plastic any time soon, because the different packages serve very different needs, he said.
The 20-ounce PET bottle had a dramatic impact on the soft drink and beverage industry when it was introduced in the 1990s, becoming very popular, but Tremblay downplayed thoughts that 12-ounce PET bottles will repeat that success.
``Can PET replace cans?'' he said. ``No way, not going to happen near-term.''
The 12-ounce soft drink market still has the potential to be significant for PET, he said, because even switching over 10-20 percent of the aluminum can market is a big growth opportunity. The soft drink industry sold about 63 billion aluminum cans in the United States in 2002, compared with 17.4 billion PET bottles of 20 ounces or smaller, and 9.3 billion PET bottles 24 ounces or larger.
PET and aluminum have very different uses, he said. Aluminum packages are made to be taken home and consumed later, with low margins for bottlers. Aluminum is used by beverage companies when they want to gain market share.
But PET, with more possibilities for bottle design, is considered a premium package, with higher margins for bottlers, and is designed to be consumed immediately, he said.
Most likely, PET will become a supplement to the take-home aluminum can market, he said.
``There's more to it than just meeting an economic number,'' Tremblay said. ``It really has to do with marketing, sales [and] consumer preference.''
He also noted during his presentation that the recycling rate for aluminum cans is much higher than PET bottles, which is a negative for plastic. And he said that any new PET soft drink bottles with barrier layers to maintain the carbonation must not contaminate the recycling stream.
``I don't see a broad commercialization that upsets the whole recycling apple cart,'' Tremblay said in an interview. ``That's one of the criteria for selecting the technologies.''
Tremblay reviewed cost models for 12-ounce PET bottles for two barrier technologies, each of which would provide the 20-week-plus shelf life the package would need.
Assuming PET costs of 60 cents a pound, a multilayer bottle using Kortec Inc. technology would cost $67.20 per thousand containers, while Group Sidel's Actis internal plasma coating technology could be delivered at $66 per thousand, he said. Aluminum ranges from $65-$70 per thousand, he said.
Tremblay said his conclusions are not based on any special knowledge of Coke's plans.
``I'm a converter and I don't talk with the marketing people on the beverage side,'' he said. ``I try to read the tea leaves like everybody else. I just happen to have a perspective that says PET grows and grows and every market niche it gets into, it enjoys tremendous economics.''