Plastic is just too expensive, no matter how you look at it.

wnpbbThat’s what leading U.S. brewer Anheuser-Busch found when it experimented in the summer of 1998 with bottles made from polyethylene naphthalate (PEN). The biggest advantage of the PEN bottle was that it stayed rigid under heat, which allowed for in-bottle pasteurization.

“You can pasteurize the bottle with beer in it, and if you get it to the place where it’s going to be drunk fast enough, it’s a quite excellent bottle,” says Allan Silverman, a vice president with the Constar unit of Crown Cork & Seal, Philadelphia, which blowmolded the bottles.

Time was the major problem. Although PEN has a tighter molecular structure than PET, its barrier still is insufficient, meaning it doesn’t yield a good enough shelf life, Silverman says: “You could have given it away or charged a million dollars – it wouldn’t have worked. The barrier isn’t good enough.”

To make plastic bottles with a sufficient barrier requires a multi-layer structure. These designs tend to push the bottle’s price significantly beyond glass and aluminum.

The price ain’t right

Price was the reason Anheuser-Busch recently terminated another trial of a plastic beer bottle: a test market in Dallas and Phoenix, Ariz., convenience stores. The three-layer bottle comprises a layer of oxygen-scavenging copolyester between two layers of PET, with more oxygen-scavenging material in the closure liner.

Anheuser-Busch concluded the test market after six weeks because of disappointing sales, says Norm Nieder, senior director of packaging technology. The bottle, from Twinpack Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, protected the product well, but its extra cost led to a price of $1.29 to $1.59 per unit, compared with $1.09 to $1.19 for cans and glass bottles (although the more established packaging benefits from economies of scale). Consumers “were not prepared to pay a premium for the package,” Nieder says.

But there’s one type of outlet where plastic bottles have special advantages and their higher price isn’t as much of a drawback: outdoor events. Consumers are more comfortable with plastic beer bottles than with open cups, and the bottles’ lighter weight removes the need for cups.

That’s why several big-league ballparks are experimenting with beer in plastic bottles. Fans of the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks, among others, can buy Miller Brewing Co. products in PET bottles.

In Baltimore’s Camden Yards, fans have been able to buy 16-ounce bottles of Miller Lite since May 18. Customers must walk to portable locations in the stands to buy the bottles, while vendors continue to deliver beer poured from cans into paper cups to fans in their seats.

The vendors turn over the bottles to consumers minus the caps, insuring that fans won’t be able to throw the bottles onto the field, says David Haines, assistant concessions manager for Aramark Corp., which handles concessions at Camden Yards. Tests showed that even a full bottle, when thrown without a cap, usually won’t travel far enough to reach the field, Haines says.

Bottles of beer at Camden Yards cost $4.75, the same as paper cups. Although the bottles are more expensive than aluminum cans, the money saved on cups makes the end cost even, Haines says.

“Customer reaction been very good,” he says. “People tell us they feel like they’re at home. They’re able to walk around with the container, and they like it a lot.”

A hit in Phoenix

At the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Bank One Ballpark, vendors have been delivering 20-ounce bottles of Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite to fans in their seats since the beginning of the season. “The Miller products have been a real success here,” says Bill Cutler, concessions director at ProDine Inc., which handles the park’s food and beverage sales. The vendors, who also handle other brewers’ products in glass bottles, like the Miller bottle as much as the fans do, Cutler says: “The case of glass bottles probably weighs about 12 pounds more than the plastic.”

The Miller bottle, blowmolded by the Continental PET Technologies division of Owens-Illinois, consists of two layers of oxygen-scavenging polymer between three layers of PET. The idea is that the oxygen-scavenging layers will be able to absorb the small amounts of oxygen that make it through the bottle’s PET component. The bottle is advertised with a four-month shelf life.

This technology is the subject of litigation, however. Crown Cork & Seal filed suit in April against Continental PET, claiming that the Miller bottle infringes on Crown patents for oxygen scavenging. (The discontinued Anheuser-Busch bottle, which uses a different kind of oxygen-scavenging material, is not involved in the suit.)

Overseas, some brewers use other technologies for plastic bottles. England’s Bass Brewers is using a bottle blowmolded by the Pet Plas Packaging division of the Pechiney Group. This bottle consists of a layer of ethyl vinyl alcohol (EVOH) between two layers of PET; the crystalline structure of the EVOH polymer provides a sufficient barrier for six months of shelf life, the company claims.

Another barrier-based PET beer bottle is being used by Australia’s Carlton & United Breweries. Blowmolded by Australian converter Containers Packaging, the CUB bottle uses a spray-on epoxy amine coating brand-named Bairocade, produced by PPC Industries Inc., Pittsburgh. CUB is advertising a three-month shelf life for its bottle; John Lewis, PPG’s marketing specialist, calls that claim “conservative,” saying that the company’s own tests have shown shelf life of up to 10 months with certain container factors. One of the biggest advantages of the Bairocade coating is that it washes off during ordinary recycling processes, leaving the recycler with clear PET, Lewis says. Other plastic bottles are being used by brewers in Germany and Switzerland.

The multiplicity of plastic-bottle structures is one of the reasons plastic beer bottles are slow to catch on with brewers, Lewis says. Part of the problem is that proper shelf-life studies can take up to eight months.

“The biggest hurdle in terms of major launch in the U.S. is that the water gets really muddy every time there’s a new technology,” Lewis says. “Every time someone comes out with something new, someone says, ‘Oh, let’s take a look at that.”‘

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