Plastics: Bye-bye bottles and cans, hello pouch packaging

Published May 26, 2012

Ever notice some bottled water comes in plastic so thin the bottle crushes when you try to twist off the cap? The plastic cannot get much thinner without losing its status as a bottle.

That has prompted packagers, ever on the hunt for lighter, less costly options that take up less landfill space, to move more consumer goods into pouches, which can be made from far thinner plastics.

Some pouches have caps, some require squeezing and many of them even stand up on shelves just like the cans, plastic bottles and cardboard drink boxes they are starting to replace. Indeed, pouch packaging has quietly turned into one of the fastest growing categories of new products.

In 2011, 1,210 new products debuted in pouch packaging, up from 885 in 2007, reports Mintel International. That's 3.3 percent of all new products unleashed annually, almost double five years ago or about $8 billion in sales.

St. Petersburg resident Arnold Lawner, a 62-year-old veteran of the packaging equipment business who is vice president of marketing for PouchFill at Daytona Flexible Packaging, explained how and why these packages are sweeping across grocery stores.

How thin is bottled-water plastic getting?

So thin some water bottles are not even strong enough to be stacked. The only thing that enables them to be stacked on pallets now is nitrogen. It's naturally occurring in nature, so they pump it in the bottle while filling to keep it from collapsing. The nitrogen escapes when you open the cap.

Pouches only microns thick have spread to everything from pasta meals to frozen entrees, bacon bits, raw sugar, 50 microwavable Campbell soups, Heinz Ketchup, pet foods and even Mahatma rice. They've also invaded the laundry detergent aisle, including cheap detergent refills and premeasured dissolving plastic capsules from Tide and All packed in a plastic pouch. I have yet to see bottled water or carbonated beverages come in pouches. Why?

Carbonated drinks still need a very thick plastic or they permeate the material. But thin pouches are getting common for energy drinks, fruit drinks, and we're starting to seeing a lot of small containers of portable water made for athletes like runners and cyclists and people exercising. They fit better in a purse or fanny pack. You just rip off the top and drink it, or it has a pull-up sport cap. Gatorade now comes in a single-serve pouch shaped like a bottle. Pouches are very common in baby food now thanks to Gerber, Earth's Best and Beech-Nut. They have a choke-proof cap, can be resealed and babies seem to like sucking fruit puree and vegetables from them instead of spooned from a jar. There is one baby food coming with a built-in spoon. Squeeze the pouch and it fills the spoon. We're seeing an explosion of premixed cocktails like frozen daiquiris, pina colada and margaritas that come in multidrink pouches from all the big-name spirits brands.

Some products that come in pouches are cheaper, while others cost more. Are pouches cheaper?

Not necessarily. The cost of plastic resin, for instance, has risen even faster than oil prices. The real savings is in shipping and handling. They are lighter than metal cans or thick plastic bottles. Empty pouches can be shipped and stored flat, so they take up a fraction of the space in a truck, which means a lot at $1.50 a mile per truckload. Nine truckloads of quart-size pouches weigh the same as a truckload of quart-size cans or bottles. Once filled, their changing shape needs less space than round bottles or cans. Plastics are dramatically cheaper than metal. A major part of the appeal is you can print a much more appetizing graphic on a pouch.

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Is there an environmental case to be made?

Yes and no. There is less plastic used, and they are flat when empty, so pouches take up much less landfill space. Much of the plastic like clear polyethylene can be recycled, but not all. We are still developing processes to separate as many as five layers of different types of plastics and aluminum foil we laminate together for some pouches. So many cannot be labeled as recyclable.

Why do some people say the pouch version of Starkist tuna tastes better than the can?

Because the canned product is cooked twice at more than 212 degrees: once before canning and again after it's in the can. In a pouch you only cook it once and it does not take as long, because the product is exposed to more surface area.

What got this trend rolling?

Pouches have been around for decades, since the little ketchup and mustard packets at fast-food restaurants and single-use sun-tan lotions. Canadians and Europeans have been buying milk in pouches for decades. You just put a half-gallon pouch in a pitcher or frame in your refrigerator and cut off a top corner. But as we learned how to better laminate together thin sheets of sealing plastic, aluminum foil and plastics best for printing high-resolution graphics, the possibilities exploded. Capri Sun drinks — the younger generation grew up stabbing a straw through the foil pouch — helped spread acceptance. Another development was a Sarasota company called Bartelt that years ago helped pioneer the first generation of the gusset, a heat-welded and glued-together plastic base that enables pouches to stand up straight on shelves rather than just lie flat.

What's coming next?

You're about to see high-end wines with beautiful graphics and wine-in-a-box come in pouches fitted with a spout that costs much less than a box. Restaurant size food pouches like 96-ounce soups and baked beans are coming. Today, small contractors make most pouches and ship them to manufacturers for filling. Our machines make about 250 pouches a minute. When more of the big guys like Coke and PepsiCo start putting pouch equipment in their 1,000-unit-a-minute production lines like the baby food companies did, the cost will drop dramatically. I think in five years stores will be filled with as many pouches as other packaging.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.