“The most affordable option for grouping six bottles together in a single pack.”

As Head of Order Processing for packaging technology at Krones, Wolfgang Huber is confronted every day with the task of translating the stipulations and wishes of beverage producers into fit-for-purpose packaging and line solutions. In an interview, he talks about the challenges, but also the opportunities he sees awaiting us in the field of packaging.

The plastics debate is raging all over the world. In the search for alternative packaging solutions, the PET container is a primary focus. But what about the secondary packaging?

The secondary packaging for non-returnable containers is currently a major issue of contention. Here in Germany especially, of course, we have a very high take-back ratio, thanks to the deposit system. This, however, applies solely for PET bottles or cans. The packaging, particularly the film, ends up in normal plastic refuse. Here, however, there is already an observable shift towards more sustainable forms of secondary packaging. The principal drivers here are indubitably the big corporations, who have set themselves appropriate sustainability goals for completely eliminating the use of plastics in the near future, for example.

However, it’s not only the major beverage producers, but also the European market as a whole that is playing a kind of pioneering role, presumptively not least because here the plastics discussion is quite generally at its fiercest. Once consumers have accepted these alternatives, I believe smaller bottlers will follow.

Let’s take a look at packaging materials in general: what is the current ratio between film and cardboard?

When it comes to secondary packaging, you have to distinguish between the different types of container involved: glass bottles are (apart from countries with a deposit system and returnable crates) mostly packed in cartons. For cans, shrink-film and cardboard account for roughly equal portions of the packaging material involved. For PET containers, by contrast, shrink-films are quite definitely the favoured type of packaging.

Has this always been the case?

Generally, the trend over the past ten to 15 years has really been towards film. This was because our clients wanted to minimise their costs for packaging material – and there film has always been definitely the most affordable option. But now we are observing (presumptively driven not least by the plastics discussion) a transformation: in the case of cans, particularly, demand is moving away from shrink-packs and back to cartons.

What does this mean for machinery vendors like Krones?

When it comes to new developments and design enhancements, we always design our technologies in response to our customers’ requirements. Out of this motivation, we have in the past created solutions that use our machine technology to minimise film thickness and packaging weight, for example – and ultimately the costs for packaging materials as well.

So nowadays the big challenge for us is not simply to develop alternatives to shrink-film, but to design these so as to approach as closely as possible to the cost structure of traditional film packaging.

In 2011, in the shape of LitePac, Krones launched a form of secondary packaging that minimised the consumption of material and resources. Was this already a response to requirements that back then simply did not yet exist in this combination?

You could put it that way. Ten years ago, however, our development driver was not primarily sustainability, but the endeavour to reduce our clients’ ongoing production costs. The result was LitePac, a form of packaging for PET bottles that holds the containers stably together merely with two strips of plastic. Back then, and indeed today, this packaging solution was and still is the most affordable option for grouping six bottles together in a single pack.

But the concept didn’t take off on the market?

Although we placed a few machines in the market during subsequent years, a breakthrough success failed to materialise. What’s more, back then there was no plastics discussion that would have smoothed the path for an alternative packaging solution of this kind.

So can it be said that Krones was actually ahead of its time?

Yes, because since last year, in particular, we observed that demand for this technology has risen steeply again. However, the principal motivation nowadays is no longer reducing the operator’s costs for energy and packaging material, but the search for a sustainable form of packaging. And thanks to LitePac, we at Krones now, of course, have a genuine trump up our sleeves: we can simply skip the protracted development processes, since we already possess a fit-for-purpose technology, which we can now, so to speak, pull out of the drawer, and thus underline our leading role in terms of sustainability.

What are things looking like for LitePac in 2020?

We’re still offering the original version of LitePac with the two strapping bands. After all, this is the ideal solution for all those who want an affordable, and at the same time very sustainable solution for secondary packaging. Eliminating a shrink tunnel, for example, by itself reduces the energy consumption for a LitePac pack by 90 percent compared to a traditional shrink-pack.

But the calls of the market for a complete elimination of plastics are becoming progressively more urgent. Which is why we have set ourselves to develop an alternative on the basis of existing technology that is firstly sustainable and secondly is located in an affordable price range. The result is LitePac Top, where we have replaced strapping by a cardboard clip – and extended the spectrum of containers to include cans as well.

In your estimation: will packages like LitePac Top or the traditional carton replace shrink-film in the long term?

I don’t believe that film will ever be completely superseded. Because if in future we opted entirely for cardboard solutions, the world would be facing a problem: namely that there is currently nowhere near the requisite quantity of raw materials. There is indeed an option for using waste paper, but this doesn’t work for all container sizes. For a sixpack of 0.5-liter bottles, a certain proportion of recycled cardboard in the LitePac Top Clip is definitely possible. In the case of heavier packs, however, this would not offer the strength that would be necessary for assuring product stability.

Quite generally, too, it has to be said that film is not a bad thing in itself. As a form of logistical packaging, in particular, I believe it will survive. After all, for transporting the packs and pallets to the point of sale, there isn’t a more affordable form of packaging than shrink-film for assuring stability and providing protection against dirt. As a sales package, however, the proportion of film packaging will decline in future.

Could it be said as a preliminary conclusion that the container size or the pack weight are determinant for how sustainable a package I can design?

I would not go so far as to claim that in the case of large or heavy packs you always have to accept compromises in terms of sustainability. After all, LitePac Top is also suitable for packs comprising 6 x 1.5 or 2.0-liter bottles, though this necessitates a more stable cardboard made of primary fibres. So it’s definitely possible to dispense with plastics entirely, but not at the same price as for a comparable shrink-pack. The key question that then arises is: at the end of the day, what are consumers prepared to pay for sustainability?

Exciting prospects that Wolfgang Huber describes for the future of secondary packaging, wouldn’t you agree? Well, you can look forward to the second part of the interview, which focuses primarily on the associated machine technology.

By the way: you will find the complete interview in the upcoming Krones magazine, which will appear in mid-May.