Plastic bottles are moving into the last major untapped market in the dairy industry - schools.
Armed with studies showing kids will drink more milk when it is offered in plastic, the dairy industry is pushing plastics nationwide.
This year, 4,000 schools across the U.S. will sell milk in 8-ounce plastic bottles rather than the waxed cardboard cartons that have been the standard for generations.
"School really is the last bastion of the cardboard container," said Camellia Patey, vice president for school marketing at Dairy Management Inc., the planning and management organization that builds demand for dairy products on behalf of America's 80,000-plus dairies.
Two companies that collaborated in making the machine and molds that will be used this fall to make those bottles are showing off their final product at NPE.
Bekum America Corp. (Booth S1649) has built an extrusion blow molding machine on display that is capable of turning out 11,500 8-ounce milk bottles per hour and is headed for an undisclosed dairy immediately after NPE.
Mold maker MC Molds Inc. (Booth S1323) created both the mold - with 12 tandem cavities using a neck-to-neck needle blow - and an integrated spin trimmer that separates and trims the bottles in one single automated step, helping to cut production costs.
"Everything is about economics," said Gary Carr, general sales manager for Bekum in Williamston, Mich. "They're investing in this looking for increased margins in their milk sales."
Schools represent some serious potential business for plastics. Each year, school milk programs go through between 300 million and 400 million gallons of milk in the United States. That adds up to more than 4 billion 8-ounce bottles.
Bekum and MC Molds spent about six months in development on the equipment, fine-tuning the mold for fast release, downsizing the machine and auxiliary equipment to fit into the customer's existing footprint.
The final product forced MC Molds to make its most compact spin trimmer ever, according to MC sales manager Scott Howland.
The Bekum/MC Molds line can produce bottles that weigh 11 grams - saving 2 grams' worth of high density polyethylene per bottle. That resin savings adds up over the course of the contract, especially when you take into account the sheer volume of bottles the dairy will produce, Carr said.
Even with the savings, it may be difficult for HDPE to replace cardboard in school cafeterias. Cardboard already is in place, and it is inexpensive. Dairies pay less than 2 cents per carton.
"It's a major investment on their part to make this conversion," Patey said.
But the dairy industry expects students will consume more milk in plastic than cardboard - increasing overall milk consumption.
In a survey conducted for the dairy industry in 2005, 51 percent of school-age children said they would buy milk when it is offered in plastic, compared with 24 percent who said they would buy milk when it is in a cardboard container.
Real world pilot tests bear out those numbers, Patey said. When plastic milk containers were introduced at schools in 2001 and 2002, those schools saw a 22 percent boost in milk sales. Those numbers have continued to remain higher in comparison to cardboard packaged milk, Patey said.
Those numbers makes sense, she said. Plastic bottles are easier to open, easier to drink from, recyclable and do not leak. Students appreciate those same benefits - and she added that kids think milk tastes better when it is in plastic. That gives dairy products a better competitive edge against soft drinks and other beverages among middle school and high school students.
"With all of the other beverages that are out there, we felt we needed to offer something different," Patey said.
The dairy industry is promoting plastic bottles through a national campaign touting the "new look of school milk."
The industry has developed a "leadership in school nutrition" award to honor schools involved in making the switch to plastic, last year noting communities in Texas, Colorado and Massachusetts.
The push to plastic is only beginning, Patey said.
"This is probably our No. 1 priority in the school nutrition area," she said.