Viktor Puzakov, Global Marketing Manager at Videojet Technologies, looks at how beverage consumers are leaning more and more towards natural and organic products and how ‘healthy’ packaging options that reduce food and packaging waste can mean changes to coding and marking operations.

According to a recent report by research giant Mintel , packaging is set to play a vital role in the reduction of global food and product waste. Packaging has long been seen as simply waste to be discarded, but attitudes globally are changing rapidly as awareness is improving in terms of the damage it can do if not recycled, and also the carbon footprint it creates when processed. A move towards the circular economy, where packaging is recycled and effectively returned to producer from consumer, is gathering momentum, and creating awareness and greater understanding of best-before and use-by dates via packaging is helping to change consumer mind-sets and habits. The materials used to create packaging have also evolved, and consumers are increasingly turning to those products that use sustainable, natural and often organic materials in their composition. 

The beverage industry has a key role to play in the fight against wastage. One global beverage manufacturer, for example, sees more than 50% of its carbon footprint coming from packaging, therefore to minimize the effect this has on the environment, several initiatives have been introduced. First, it tries to use less packaging material by making its containers lighter and thinner. Second, it integrates recycled and renewable materials whenever possible - for example, some of its PET bottles are made with up to 30% plant-based materials. Finally, it encourages consumers to recycle packages after consuming the products. 

To improve its environmental sustainability, another major beverage manufacturer constructed a PET blow-molding production line at one of its production facilities, which makes a bottle from blow-mold pre-forms. This eliminates the entire process of shipping, storing and sterilizing of premade bottles and reduces its environmental impact in terms of transportation by more than 600,000 miles annually for that facility alone. 

Additionally, a recent study , conducted by professor Lorna Harries from the University of Exeter, suggests that Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical compound commonly found in plastic, can cause changes to the expression of oestrogen-responsive genes and the regulation of hormones. This serves as evidence that exposure to the chemical may be associated with poorer health in both men and women. Hence, going green is a great way to address a number of issues with a single approach. Eco-friendly beverage bottles can not only make production more sustainable and green, but also potentially reduce the chance of developing diseases such as breast or prostate cancer.

Packaging types

Plastics have been a contentious issue in recent years, particularly with the realization that the levels of discarded plastics making their way into the world’s oceans has reached a critical point. As a result, a number of environmentally friendly plastics have been developed, which fall into three different categories.Bioplastics are made from natural materials such as corn starch. To make bioplastic bottles requires one third the energy needed to produce a P.E.T. bottle. Interestingly enough, some forms of bioplastics look and feel almost identical to petroleum-based product, and despite visual indistinguishability, this type of plastic breaks down without leaving any harmful residues.

Biodegradable plastics are traditional plastics made from petrochemicals but designed to decompose faster. Although this type of plastic does break down faster than traditional petrochemical versions, it leaves behind some harmful deposits, which ultimately means it is not 100% eco-friendly. Recycled plastics, as the name suggests, are made from recycling old plastic. Recycling old plastic is a good thing in itself, however, it poses two major problems. Firstly, recycled plastic bottles will not be recycled to make more plastic bottles due to the loss of properties as a result of the recycling process. Instead they will be converted into other products that require lower grade plastic – such as public “wooden” benches or playground equipment.  

The coding and marking challenges

There are two major challenges associated with coding and marking on eco-friendly beverage packages. Firstly, eco-friendly PET bottles have much thinner walls than traditional PET bottles. When using a Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) printer there is no issue, as the printer simply adds a layer of new material, ink, to the bottle surface. It does however dramatically change the way laser marking technology would operate. Since a laser removes a layer of substrate to create a code, the chances of burning through the bottle increase significantly. To solve this problem and to avoid deep engraving, Videojet created a new laser tube that delivers a beam with a wavelength of 9.3µm, “9.3 micron”, rather than conventional 10.6µm. In addition, the company created a specific non-crossover font that prevents the laser from burning through the same spot twice. An example would be the number 8 and the letter X. Instead of passing through the centre twice, it would jump over an existing line.

Secondly, new bottle formats made from a sustainably sourced wood fiber or paper pulp are imminent. When they enter circulation, this format will almost certainly generate new coding challenges both for CIJ and laser marking machines. Ink can bleed into the fibers of the substrate, making a sub-standard code, whereas laser coders could very easily burn through the fiber. In order to combat this, it will be essential for those manufacturers adopting this packaging type to work closely in partnership with coding and marking experts in order to achieve, via testing, the optimal coding solution.

Inks and fluids

The need to use natural materials in so-called ‘green’ products can extend as far as the inks used to create the necessary coding and marking required for compliance – such as lot, batch and use-by dates, for example. Methylethylketone (MEK) is frequently used as a solvent in inks, as it carries both the dye and the resin. MEK has many advantages, including fast drying time and the ability to carry the resin, and is not classified as a hazardous air pollutant or an ozone depleting chemical. However, there are some applications when MEK-free inks are preferred, such as the food and beverage sector. 

It is important to be able to offer inks and fluids that enable those customers that require chemical-free materials to choose from a number of options. It is also important that the quality of codes produced by MEK-free inks is not affected as a result. By working tirelessly to develop new inks and fluids that meet the stringent quality guidelines required – both by customers and in-house – it is possible to do just this. 

The key is to work closely in partnership with an expert coding and marking supplier, who will test packaging materials extensively under laboratory conditions in order to provide solutions that will never fall short on quality. This is particularly important where new products are concerned, as getting coding and marking configurations correct first time will ultimately save time and also minimize the risk of wastage on the production line.