Packing IT IN

Not content with using glass or recycled plastic, supermarkets are now stocking milk in bags or bottles made of papier mâché.

But the foodservice sector should think twice before jumping on the milk packaging bandwagon, says Nick Hughes.


There can be few products that have exercised the grey matter of packaging design experts as much as the humble pint of milk. From the bottle to the HDPE carton and most recently the milk ‘pouch’, the white stuff has been repackaged more times than The Beatles back catalogue.


The most recent iteration, a papier-mache/plastic hybrid bottle currently being polled out across Asda stores, is being billed as the greenest innovation yet. But as the supermarkets continue to engage in a game of one-upmanship over eco milk packaging, the foodservice industry has been less willing to embrace new milk packaging technologies.


Steve Kelsey, Strategic Innovations Director at pi global branding consultancy, believes there are several reasons for this, not least among which is the different supply chain demands facing retailers and foodservice operators.


“In the retail environment everything is focused on efficiency to the extent that the racks that reach the store are the very same racks that were loaded in the dairy. Foodservice cannot reach this level of sophistication, as it’s a more complex chain, from dairy to warehouse to wholesaler to final distribution, with many parts of this chain being owned by different companies. It’s therefore easier for foodservice to focus on reducing unit price via negotiations that seek to optimise packaging to meet their more complex distribution model,” he explains.


Practical considerations at point of use have also reined in innovation in the foodservice sector. Take the coffee shop chains: “They use a hell of a lot of milk,” says Steve Gotham, Project Director at consultancy Allegra Strategies, “hence the pressure to service customers with large quantities of milk in double quick time means innovations such as milk pouches are simply not practical in that kind of environment.”


Robert Wiseman, which supplies milk to both the retail and foodservice sectors, says its customers in the latter tend to find milk bags too “messy” (incidentally, Waitrose customers felt the same, whereas in Sainsbury’s the pouches flew off the shelves). However, they do buy milk in pergals, which are essentially giant pouches containing three gallons of milk which can be placed in a chilled dispenser unit. The other popular format remains the staple two litre HDPE polybottle – cafés and coffee shops where large volumes of milk are used prefer these.


For smaller, ready-to-drink formats consumer demand, more than anything else, influences the choice of pack design. The most common format is the 200/250ml Tetrapak carton which Wiseman says is “very popular” with food on-the-go outlets where people want a manageable pack size that can be consumed on the move. “This pack size in particular marks a step forward for the industry which traditionally sold milk in glass bottles by the pint,” says a Wiseman spokesman.


The final decision on which packaging to source has traditionally depended on a combination of environmental, financial and social factors, says Jenni Donato, packaging design expert at AEA. In the current climate, however, one factor has taken precedence over the others. “At the moment it’s the financial aspect that dominates,” says Donato. “Working with businesses, you’re always going to have to have a cost reduction focus because of the recession. Environmental improvements for the sake of environmental improvements have gone off the agenda because there are more important things to focus on.”


Part of the reason the retail sector embraced emerging milk packaging technologies was the focus given to light weighting in the first Courtauld Commitment. “It was an easy sell to businesses because light weighting does mean cost reduction,” says Donato. With phase two of Courtauld moving the emphasis on to carbon impact, Donato believes that newfangled packaging concepts, such as pouches and papier- mâche, will be subject to greater scrutiny.


“A lot of the data that these companies provide to say they’ve reduced packaging is only focused on the primary packaging. So, for example, they only look at the milk pouch itself and it doesn’t take into account that everyone who buys pouches has to buy a plastic jug to go with it. If you take that into consideration you have to use the jug a large number of times before it actually becomes more environmentally beneficial than the traditional HDPE milk carton.”


Donato is similarly unconvinced by Asda’s new papier mâché design, which the creators boast will decompose within a couple of weeks of going into landfill. “If you put plastic in landfill it will just get squashed down and not do very much. If you put biodegradables into landfill they create methane which is far worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. It’s giving consumers the impression that putting disposable stuff into landfill is OK, which is the wrong message. We need to get decomposable material out of landfill and into recycling.”


Rather than put all its energies into sourcing lightweight packaging, Prêt A Manger has made recycling its number one environmental priority and has in- store recycling facilities for products such as milk cartons. Prêt is contributing to an upward trend. A recently published milk bottle recycling study from Recoup (RECycling Of Used Plastics Limited) found that 72 per cent of HDPE milk cartons consumed and collected in the UK during 2009 were recycled. HDPE cartons currently contain up to 15 per cent recycled material and plans are in place to increase the recycled content up to 50 per cent by 2020.


Prêt also stresses that “the integrity of packaging during transportation” is key to its sourcing decisions. Here again the gulf between the demands of retail and foodservice is important to consider. The complex chain of supply in foodservice, where up to four or five different operators can handle the product before it reaches its final destination, means product integrity is crucial if efficiencies are to be maximised.


“If pouch milk packaging gets more damaged in transit, which I suspect it does, it is actually wasting the product which is 100 times worse than creating extra packaging for it,” says AEA’s Donato.


What is clear is that although it’s far too simplistic to suggest that the retail sector’s focus on packaging reduction is a red herring, it’s also too simplistic to chastise the foodservice sector for not keeping up with new milk packaging technologies. In standing still, the industry may be moving forward quicker than we think.