Two beverage companies in the US have adopted natural biodegradable packaging to help them differentiate their new products in what is a highly competitive marketplace. Anthony Fletcher reports.
Both BIOTA and Naturally Iowa are using Cargill Dow's NaturalWorks PLA, the first commercially viable biopolymer derived from corn. The chemical giant claims that the product performs equal to or better than traditional resins, and it is of course much more environmentally friendly.
"With an explosion of waters, juices, teas and other drinks crowding the beverage case, it's easy for new products to get lost in the clutter," said Brian Glasbrenner, business development manager with Cargill Dow.
"That's why these beverage companies sought a new path to innovation - a one-of-a-kind bottle."
The NaturalWorks concept shows not only how the beverage industry is responding to growing consumer concern for the environment, but also how important packaging is in differentiating products.
This point was raised by Tim Greenhalgh, managing creative director of UK-based design firm Fitch, who identified a major shift in the last 20 years towards packaging as the key brand communication tool. He said that the the public is both excited and saturated by brands, and that consumers think there is very little difference in the marketplace.
But NaturalWorks PLA packaging might resonate with the current trend towards ecologically sound production.
BIOTA is using NaturalWorks PLA to package bottled water, which is becoming an incredibly lucrative market. Per capita US consumption of bottled water has nearly doubled since 1994, and the company is aiming to capture a share of this market by appealing to consumer's concern for the environment.
"BIOTA water is the perfect combination of premium spring water and environmental respect," said David Zutler, chief executive of BIOTA Brands of America, Inc. "Our planet-friendly packaging clearly positions BIOTA to stand out as the best choice among bottled waters worldwide."
The film labels on the bottle are also made of NatureWorks PLA; and although the cap is still traditional plastic, BIOTA is investigating options to make the cap from a more "earth-friendly" material.
Naturally Iowa's dairy products and NatureWorks PLA both get their start on the farms of southwestern Iowa, hence the co-op dairy's slogan: "We milk the cows and grow the bottles."
What began as an endeavour by several dairy farmers to add value to their commodity by selling direct to consumers, has blossomed into a growing line of organic and natural dairy products, including fluid milk in an assortment of serving sizes and several flavours of "spoonless" yoghurt. Right now, Naturally Iowa packages its natural and organic milk in a half-gallon grip bottle of NatureWorks PLA, and is working with Cargill Dow to develop bottles for its single-serve beverages.
Naturally Iowa President Bill Horner credits NatureWorks PLA for helping its brand differentiate through packaging. "The natural bottle is our hook - without it, we would only have half the story," he said.
Horner says the payoff from using NatureWorks PLA comes not only in consumer visibility and sales, but helping overcome the distribution challenges of a smaller company.
"We're a 'David' up against giants with bigger marketing budgets and distribution. But we're getting tremendous attention for pairing our natural milk products with bottles that are just as natural," he said.
Both BIOTA and Naturally Iowa worked closely with Cargill Dow to perfect the packaging. Primarily targeted for short-shelf life applications that use cold-filling techniques such as water, fresh juices and dairy beverages, NatureWorks PLA has potential as a packaging medium because of its transparency, which allows the consumer to clearly see the product.
Like PET, the corn-based plastic permits a multitude of varied and complex bottle shapes and sizes that draw the attention of the consumer. Monolayer bottles of NatureWorks PLA can be formed on the same injection-moulding/stretch blow-moulding equipment used for PET, with no sacrifice in production rate.
In addition, sensory panelling of several foodstuffs stored in NatureWorks PLA bottles show the corn-based material offers comparable organoleptic properties to glass and PET - confirming the suitability of NatureWorks PLA for food and beverage bottling.
But what sets NatureWorks PLA apart is the range of disposal options afforded by the plastic's natural source.
"Most PET bottles end up in a landfill," Glasbrenner said. "NatureWorks PLA has the flexibility to be disposed of in several manners - including composting and recycling - which means it can play a key role in landfill diversion."
According to Glasbrenner, testing of NatureWorks PLA bottles showed that they degraded in commercial composting conditions in about 75 to 80 days.
Additionally, Cargill Dow has been following guidelines set by the Association of Post-consumer Recyclers (APR) in its Champions for Change program to ensure the successful integration of PLA into the US recycling stream. Recycling facility trials show PLA can be collected through current plastic recycling channels, and the technology exists to efficiently separate PLA from other commonly recycled materials.
"With increasing consumer demand for more environmentally responsible packaging solutions, we're expecting more beverage companies to look to natural bottles as a way to send a message about their brand," said Glasbrenner. "The experiences of BIOTA and Naturally Iowa show NatureWorks PLA packaging can provide a significant marketing advantage."
The concept behind NaturalWorks is relatively simple. Cargill essentially "harvests" the carbon from corn, which plants remove from the air during photosynthesis and store in grain starches. This is achieved by breaking down the starches into natural plant sugars.
The carbon and other elements in these natural sugars are then used to make plastic, called polylactide (PLA), through a simple process of fermentation, separation and polymerisation. Packaging made from NatureWorks is therefore 100 per cent nature-based.