Metal is established as a packaging material for preservation of perishable goods thanks to its superb barrier properties, which protect from food and beverages from microorganisms. Alessandra Lacaita looks at the properties of metal packaging and the most exciting innovations in the industry today.
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Sylvia Blömker, PR director of Ball Packaging Europe summarises the advantage of the beverage can: "They are absolutely light and oxygen proof, protect very well the quality of sensitive products such as beer and wine and keep them fresh longer. Thanks to the flat lid of the can and its compact size, they can also be stacked. Thus, a transport truck with canned drinks can transport twice as much as a truck loaded with bottles. This saves CO2 especially with long transport distances."
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Ms Blömker emphasises that using metal packaging also brings benefits in terms of sustainability: "The environmental performance of the beverage can has improved enormously. It requires less material for production: over the last 40 years, the weight has been reduced by about 50 per cent. At a thickness of 0.065 mm (for 33 cl steel cans), the can wall is now thinner than a human hair. In addition, beverage cans are infinitely recyclable without quality loss. Your metal is thus used only, not consumed."
The three metals commonly used in food and beverage packaging are aluminium, steel and tin. Each has a distinctive set of properties.
"Aluminium is a non-toxic metal and it is present in nature (it is the third chemical element in order of abundance in the earth crust)", says Pasquale Pollice, commercial director of Contital. "It doesn't alter the organoleptic characteristics of the food and it is, among the various materials used in packaging, the one that guarantees the best 'barrier effect' against the action of atmospheric agent, cause of food deterioration ." Moreover it ensures that the product preserves the aroma, as Andy Swaker, CEO of Alupak AG, points out.
Pollice continues: "Aluminium, unlike most packaging materials, can be used for a wide range of products such as frozen and chilled, fresh products, long shelf life, bakery and ready meals, thanks to its resistance to cold and hot temperatures (from -40°C to +230°C). Moreover, the range of applications in the industry is very large because the use of aluminium containers is suitable for different processes of transformation of food: refrigeration, freezing, cooking, preservation, modified atmosphere sterilisation and pasteurisation."
Aluminium containers have been successfully integrated into our daily life because of their versatility and simplicity of use: they can transport, ration, conserve, freeze and heating food in the oven even heating up foil trays with ready meals in the microwave. They cater to food industry, retail, catering (in canteens, government, schools, hospitals), wholesale disposable materials and airlines.
Valentina Ventrone, marketing Director at Alupack, says : "The opportunity to provide consumers with disposable products saves time and cleaning. These products don't pose limitations as they can be used in the refrigerator, in the freezer and oven. They are also environmentally friendly because the aluminium is 100% infinitely recyclable."
On the subject of recyclability, Mr Swaker points out that "production using recycled aluminium utilises only five per cent of the energy necessary for the initial production of the aluminium whilst the high quality remains unchanged. Aluminium can therefore be used for new packaging items as well as buildings or even car."
APEAL, the association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging, assigns seven range of benefits to steel packaging: safety, use, performance, efficiency, recycling, and versatility. As with other metal packaging materials, it is safe because it offers 100 per cent barrier protection against light, water and air and it also prevents from substances such as gas or solvents. Using steel packaging means preserving the equivalent vitamin content in food which has been prepared freshly, and avoiding the waste of food: steel packaging conserves the food properly even during transportation or storage because it doesn't need to be refrigerated.
The production of steel aims to reduce energy, emission and waste of materials so manufacturers have to think in always lighter packaging (today steel packaging is 40 per cent lighter than 30 years ago, according to APEAL). Recycling is also really important in manufacturing process because steel packaging can be achieved with 55 per cent recycled content. Steel packaging can be recycled easily because it is a mono-material - and because of its resistance it can be used infinitely without any loss of quality. At the moment it is the most recycled material in the world. With regard to its versatility, steel packaging can be created in a wide variety of original and unique shapes or sizes, and various print opportunities.
Tin is generally used to create a greater resistance against corrosion, preventing naturally the action of the oxygen. Tin is typically applied as an additional thin layer on steel used for packaging.
Stefano Liccardi, sales director of Arpack, company leader in tin packaging, talks about the importance of this material across different industrial sectors: "There is not a specific market which the metal packaging caters to. At the present day metal packaging is used in all commodities sectors from, for e.g., food to cosmetics. Moreover tin packaging has a low environmental impact, it is 100 per cent recyclable, safety for the quality of the products and also reusable."
"The market is developing towards more convenience for consumers who are looking for products which are easy to handle and ready to use", says Mr Swaker. "A demand for smaller portions in single serve packs is noticeable as well."
"Moreover, the producers and brand owners are looking for higher differentiation of their product in the shelves, e. g. by a unique packaging shape, printing design or special colours. The fast moving market drivers are very well captured by developing new packaging shapes combined with additional features and benefits to differentiate the products. Alupak has been building up an extensive know how on designing new shapes allowing to develop a suitable packaging according to the customers' demands. The construction of the tooling and starting production of the packaging offers the customers a partnership to put their ideas successfully into reality."
Mr Liccardi also talks about the significance of appearance in metal packaging, highlighting an important difference between functional and promotional packaging. He says: "In the promotional metal packaging industry market trends are driven by more ephemeral inputs such as look, special shapes and material combinations to attract the consumer. This trend, however, met an obstacle in the European crisis and the need for more simple forms and reusable metal packaging is contrasting the rampant consumerism of recent years. Nowadays metal packaging is additionally adding value to the product through its environmental credentials. It is reused and not seen simply as an attractive object."
Pasquale Pollice and Valentina Ventrone both talk about a new market trend which is driving the food sector: smoothwall trays. Pollice says: "Such containers are made with special aluminum alloys with high thickness and therefore resistant to impact. They are particularly suitable for the transformation of food process, as they can be heat-sealed with a laminated film in a modified atmosphere and subjected to the process of sterilisation and pasteurisation. After they have been bought they can be used by the final consumer for heating in a conventional oven or in the microwave."
He adds: "A further innovation in the industry is the application of special paint coating the surface of the container, not only for aesthetic purposes - because you can customise them in different colours and / or prints - but improving the technical performance of container in terms of extension of shelf life packaged foods."
Key beverage segment
Metal cans have increased their share of the beverage packaging market, with growth in niches such as the energy drink segment. Drinking in cans is particularly popular among the 18 to 35 year-old demographic, meaning that drink producers are looking for new solutions to increase the sale of drinks like wine that has always been sold in bottle. Ms Blömker says: "This trend opens up whole new markets for wine farmers because they reach young consumers who are not traditional wine drinkers, but are open to new products. European sales of wine in cans is estimated to increase in 2013 to over 200 million cans. In order to give guidance to the customers in the growing market for wine in cans, Ball Packaging Europe has developed the 'Protected Quality' seal. Our latest innovation is the 20 or 25 cl aluminium Slim Can, with a special inner coating and a reinforced metal thickness, which is equipped with this seal and filled with a premium wine from certified bottlers."
Innovation is also driven by the growth of the different categories of drinks. According to the British market research company Canadean, the European consumption of 'ready-to-drink teas' (RTDT) increased in 2012 by about two per cent, and cans have captured eight per cent of the market share of RTDT. "Ball Packaging Europe offers a wide selection of sizes and specifications of cans to offer the optimal solution for various drinks," reveals Ms Blömker. "To make the character of the beverage visible at first glance RTDT are often offered in formats like the slimmer, or Sleek slim can. The 33 cl aluminum Sleek can for example was recently used by Acqua Minerale San Benedetto, a leading Italian producer."
Another important innovation in metal packaging for beverage is Rexam's groundbreaking FUSION bottle, launched in 2007, recently updated with the launch of the FUSION Contour. Bill Neilson, technical director at Rexam, says: "Producing a bottle has a number of environmental benefits, and for Rexam provides us with the opportunity to apply our lean methodologies. Our DWI technology used to produce our aluminium FUSION bottle has significant environmental (and associated cost) benefits, allowing us to create a sustainable light weight bottle. In addition, of course, FUSION applies the aluminium can's advantage of infinite recyclability to the premium beverage sector."
Kym Hamer, marketing manager at Rexam adds: "The aluminium bottle brings a number of marketing strengths. It appeals to the consumer because of its novelty and appealing shape, and its light weight makes it suitable for on-the-go consumption. From a brand's point of view, the clean look of the drawn aluminium and sharp graphics potential are attractive. The bottle comes into its own for limited editions and particular marketing campaigns. For instance, Canella Wine chose FUSION to package its sparkling 'Bellini' wine drink brand for a special on-the-go context after realising the bottle's truly iconic shape: a New Year's Eve party in St Mark's Square."
She concludes: "The FUSION contour bottle is suitable for a wide range of products, particularly as shape is an increasingly common discussion with our customers as they look for new ways to stand out. We are not the first shaped aluminium bottle but we are committed to exploring a range of applications for this shaping technology in our business."