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Packaging Possibilities: Inside Absolut’s Paper Bottle 2.0

Image courtesy of Packaging Digest Absolut-paper-bottle-interview-ftd.jpg
I wanted to talk about shelf-life performance, and we did. But Absolut’s Director of Future Packaging veered into marketing and manufacturing — because they’re all connected.

With so many food and beverage companies exploring paper packaging — mostly to replace plastics — how are they adjusting to the different shelf-life properties of the more-porous material?

The Absolut Co., for example, announced development of a paper bottle in 2020. Louise Werner, Director of Future Packaging at The Absolut Co. — along with Tim Silbermann, Project Manager, Product Development at PABOCO (aka The Paper Bottle Co.), Absolut’s supplier partner in this project — took the time to answer our questions about the barrier performance of the paper bottle, which is slated for commercial launch in 2023 for the Absolut Mixt product line.

Werner and Silbermann reveal …

• the structures of Generation 1 (to be on shelves in 2023) and Generation 2 (with a significant reduction of plastic — from 30% to around 10%);

• how Absolut selected the product for the launch, based on usage occasion, growth potential, and filling line flexibility;

• how right sizing the bottle can cue consumers that the product has a different shelf life;

• And more about testing different materials and different barrier techniques.

 

PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES - Season 2: Episode 5

If you have a topic you’d like to propose for a future PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES episode, please email Lisa Pierce at [email protected].

 

TRANSCRIPTION IS AUTO GENERATED

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Hello, this is Lisa Pierce, executive editor of Packaging Digest, with another episode of Packaging Possibilities, a podcast that reveals what’s new and what’s next for packaging executives and engineers, designers and developers. In this episode, I'll be talking with Louise Werner, Director of Future Packaging at the Absolut Co., and Tim Silbermann, Project Manager for Product Development at PABOCO, which stands for the Paper Bottle Co.

As you may know, Absolut is developing a paper bottle with PABOCO and today we’re going to talk about Absolut paper bottle and specifically its shelf-life performance. Louise, Tim, welcome and thank you both for taking the time to talk with us today.

Louise Werner (guest)
Thank you, Lisa, for having us.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yes. Thanks so much.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much.

So Absolut is one of several beverage companies that are working on paper bottles and we’d like to know a little bit more about the barrier-performance analysis that is behind the decision. So, specifically, our assumption is that paper packaging doesn’t have the same high barrier properties as some other packaging materials that you have been using, are still using. First, I have to ask, is that correct?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes, I think definitely. If I start off from our point of view going into this partnership together with PABOCO, we can start off by saying that we didn’t really know what the barrier performance would be, but we had been looking at fiber technology for many years and really seeing such potential in this technology since it is the most, what you say, the most developed and the highest kind of recycling rate globally, for paper. So we felt that this is really an area that we want to explore and there was a … it was long talks with PABOCO, that was not even named PABOCO at that time. But we met PABOCO through the Swedish forestry company BillerudKorsnäs and going into it just to start off from … to set the scene since this is really a deep dive into the barrier performance. Starting from … as a spirits company, we have mainly glass in our packaging portfolio. And that’s true for Pernod Ricard as well, across the board. I mean it’s mainly glass packaging and it is a fantastic material for our product ’cause it is, for Absolut Vodka, is dissolvent pretty much, I mean it’s a tough, tough product.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
And that was your parent company, Pernod Ricard. I just wanted to explain that, OK.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes, exactly. So we are part of the Pernod Ricard group, exactly. We are looking at this partnership from a group perspective as well, we see great potential for many, many brands in our portfolio. And so that kind of the starting point for us was that we see this as a great compliment to our packaging portfolio. We did not have the expectation that the shelf life would be the same.

We don’t even have a shelf life on our glass bottles. It’s infinite. There is no shelf life.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
One of the benefits of glass packaging.

Louise Werner (guest)
Exactly. But, of course, you have to put that into context. So glass is a fantastic material if you’re buying our products and they might be standing on shelves, or in our consumers homes for years.

But there are other contexts, where maybe you’re going out with friends, you’re going to a party, you’re doing cocktails for a group of friends, and then you don’t have that same need for shelf life that is infinite. So we felt that we wanted to explore packaging from a completely different point of view that has a completely different value proposal. Paper is tactile; it’s beautiful; it’s authentic; it’s light. And it has a good carbon footprint. That was our starting point.

Image courtesy of CanvaAbsolut-paper-bottle-Louise-Werner-quote-2-web.jpg

Lisa McTigue Pierce
That’s very interesting that you’re thinking of the usage occasion as a part of the marketing message. If I could be so bold as to say that, for this particular packaging format, that’s pretty amazing. Thank you for that. OK.

Louise Werner (guest)
I think it’s also interesting to see it from a system point of view. I might be going off too much now on around.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
No, no, no, not at all. Not at all.

Louise Werner (guest)
I think it’s just interesting to start off the conversation on barrier performance and shelf-life expectations to say how will we use the packaging.

So I also see great potential to use a paper bottle as an ecomm [ecommerce] format so we could have, you know, paper bottles and then maybe you have your glass bottle at home that you personalize. Then that really feels like an extension of you as a consumer, and that you can then refill, for example.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
From the paper bottle, uh using the paper bottle maybe as a refill? That is, again, a very interesting concept.

Louise Werner (guest)
So that was our starting point. And then I think I can hand over to Tim to give more kind of the where you are with the barrier development because it is a development. Lisa, should we talk about the different generations and kind of the journey that we’re on in this project or…?

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, please.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yes, please. So then a little bit from PABOCO’s perspective, or how have we approached this project, not only with the Absolut Co., but also with the other pioneers we’re working with: Carlsberg, and Procter [P&G], L’Oréal, The Coca-Cola Co.

A very open-innovation approach actually and as step-by-step journey, as we like to say. We are … we have started with this first generation of the paper bottle that can also be seen here behind Louise and in the background.

Image courtesy of Packaging DigestAbsolut-paper-bottle-interview-2-web.jpg

That has basically been shared and publicized a lot and talked about a lot — starting with making the paper bottle, applying barrier from recycled PET [polyethylene terephthalate], and then actually looking into how does this barrier perform, or this packaging perform for the products our pioneers would like to see this when and work here again. Like we said, what is the potential market? What can be a potential product then how does it behave to look for a good packaging-to-product fit?

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Tim, could I ask you? In early promotions about this development, the prototypes were 57% paper and 43% plastic. Is that still the generation that you’re working on now, or do you mind giving us just a little bit more insight? As we talk about barrier performance, it’s helpful to know what the structure of the package is.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yes. So for Generation 1, that is the case, roughly. Of course, it always depends a little bit on how much can we reduce the plastic content from the existing packaging. For example, based on design, our delimitations or other performance indicators we need to hit. But it’s a good, let’s say around 70% paper fibers to 30% plastic content.

The generation that we are now working on, our next generation of the bottle, we reduced that drastically down to, let’s say, around 10% to 15%.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
10% to 15% plastic.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Plastic. Yes. Of course, I don’t … Maximizing fiber content. However, we also don’t like to, or we try to avoid … actually, it gives a good understanding, but we want to avoid talking about percentages very much because that can easily be tweaked. For example, if you would make a 500-gram heavy paper part that it actually doesn’t need percentage wise, that would be amazing, with a thin coating.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Sure. Yes.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
But we want to actually give the packaging the weight that it needs and not more. But this is roughly where we net out. So we have huge potential and minimizing plastic, maximizing fiber content.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And in addition to that, do I also understand that there’s recycled content within those layers?

Tim Silbermann (guest)
For Generation 1, yes. We used 100% recycled PET, post-consumer recycled PET. For the next generation, we have not yet used recycled content because again … prototype to scaling up process, at the moment. And, yes, potentially that could be. But as they mature, that we’re using now, there’s not so much recycled mature on the market.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
The fiber itself is virgin always. That has to do on the one side with traceability for the FSC marking: Forest Stewardship Council. So sustainable forestry and overall limitations on what recycled paper can be used for food packaging actually.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. Thank you for explaining all of that.

So, could you tell us a what are some of the shelf-life considerations of moving from … as you were saying, Louise, the vast majority of the products are in glass. So what are some of those shelf-life considerations from glass to this paper bottle? And the version that you’re working on now is no longer the prototype? This is the commercial version?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes, you could say that this … the bottle that we have shown before has then … the next step for us is to put that on a shelf, basically. So to sell it to our consumers and that will be the same version.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Louise Werner (guest)
And then the next step will be where there is the maximized fiber content and minimal liquid barrier, which is in plastic. And that will be pretty much a year after. But we are looking to put this version on shelves in 2023.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
How exciting.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes, it is. It’s very exciting.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I know we’re still just in first quarter for 2022, but 2022 is just speeding right by. So before you know it, we’ll be in 2023.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yep. For sure. And I think that’s also an interesting conversation around how we need to educate our consumers, because this is the first time ever that we’ve had plastic in a packaging from Absolut’s point of view. So that’s also where we need to kind of show our consumers the journey that we’re on and the … and why we believe that this packaging is really something that will really contribute both to our planet but also to them, you know, to consumers’ delight when using our products.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, so let’s explore that just a little bit more. Is there going to be … and I know you’ve got a lot of information on the website … But is there going to be some on-pack messaging to explain the paper bottle? And again, you know, as we’re focusing here on the shelf life, they kind of need to know that this is not … you know, if it’s not glass, it’s not an infinite shelf life. So how are you going to be communicating all of that to the consumer?

Louise Werner (guest)
That’s a very interesting question and that’s … for example, the Mixt, Absolut Mixt, which is a ready-to-serve cocktail. They are … the shelf life is … there is a defined shelf life and I think it’s a year on these products or even less now. Not completely sure. But it’s, let’s say, it’s around a year, and so there we kind of have a different starting point. Were we to explore for our Original, Absolut Vodka Original, then a natural step, for example, would be to have smaller packaging size then we usually … like our standard size is 700ml actually, not in the US it’s 750 right? But in Europe it’s a bit different, but around 700 or liter. And there, for example, it would feel more natural to start with smaller packaging sizes and to communicate that this is more convenient packaging proposal; this is more for when you’re going to a party with friends, you know.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Louise Werner (guest)
And so on.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
And that fits perfectly with them using it faster as well. If they don’t have as much volume of product, hopefully they’ll go through it faster and, you know, that is kind of like an intuitive way of communicating a shorter shelf life, at least to me, it just makes total sense.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes. Well, as long as they drink responsibly.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, definitely.

Louise Werner (guest)
But it’s something that we’re very aware about because we are putting vodka in this bottle. So we have to be very aware that the packaging size and also the communication is very clear to our consumers.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Was the plan all along to start the commercialization of the paper bottle with the Absolut Mixt product line?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes. We’ve always had parallel tracks. So we’ve always looked at the paper bottle and, you know … For Mixt, for example, we don’t have it in that many markets and it’s not a large SKU [stock-keeping unit] for us. So, therefore, we’ve always looked to that … we are, we want to … Our goal is, of course, to do this for our Hero product. So for our Absolut Vodka Original. But we felt that it was a really great starting point, both due to the fact that the alcohol level is lower — so it’s four point … is it 375 or around 4% ABV [Alcohol By Volume]. So it’s much, much lower in alcohol content. And, also, we had a very flexible filling line within the Pernod Ricard network. So that was actually a large contributing factor why we chose Mixt, because we knew where we could bottle it in a very flexible way. Cause you can imagine that the filling lines for Absolut Vodka, where we fill 600 or 700,000 bottles per day — that’s a completely different setup. It’s huge. I mean, everything is so high tech and so automated and so on.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Louise Werner (guest)
So we felt that to do this on a different filling line, where we had then Mixt, that was a better starting point for us.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, that makes total sense again, through the business lens of making this all work. One thing that I am hearing from several people in the industry is that there are a number of brands who are switching to paper, primarily for the environmental advantages that they feel that gives them — because it’s more recyclable, especially compared to, maybe, a plastic package. But what they’re finding is, on high-speed packaging lines, the paper … you know, there’s a different coefficient of friction between a paper package and let’s say, a plastic and/or glass package, which is a lot … can I use the word slicker maybe? … and runs a lot faster on the packaging line.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yeah. Ha ha.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
So that consideration that you had on the brand and the facility that it’s all going to run on … very smart, very smart from a business point of view.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yeah, but it felt important to … even though we are still in the stage where we are taking baby steps … that we wanted it to be on a proper filling line.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Louise Werner (guest)
So that was important to us to really get a proof of concept that you can feel that a paper bottle on a filling line. And we have, even though it’s … we’ve had bumps in the road … let’s be honest about that. But I mean, I’m quite amazed at how well it’s gone, you know.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Louise Werner (guest)
Exactly from the reasons that you started off saying.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, you know, it would be interesting to hear about the production aspect of all of this, but maybe we’ll come back to that once the product is commercialized in 2023 and you have some experience in running this on the line. So wonderful.

Louise Werner (guest)
Exactly.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Before we hear more about the shelf-life research of the Absolut paper bottle, let’s take just a short break for a special message.

 

Lisa Pierce here. Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. I’d like to invite you to the upcoming WestPack in-person event in Anaheim California April 12-14. Held at the Anaheim Convention Center, WestPack serves the entire packaging community — from design engineers to distribution leaders. The event helps packaging professionals find creative solutions and efficient automation systems. Sign up today at WestPackShow.com.

Now, let’s get back to our Packaging Possibilities podcast.

 

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, Louise and Tim, let’s finish up with one last question, very specific about the research that you guys have been doing into the shelf life of the paper bottle. What kind of research have you been doing and what are the results of that research? What has it been showing?

Louise Werner (guest)
So we’ve done stability testing on Mixt, which is a sparkling ready-to-drink cocktail with a 4% ABV and also our original Absolut Vodka, which is roughly 40% ABV. And we tested with rPET [recycled PET], with PEN [polyethylene naphthalate], with the … Tim, what else did we do?

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yeah, PEF [polyethylene furanoate].

Louise Werner (guest)
PEF exactly. PEF. Because that’s also a large part of this project, of course is to find a good biobased barrier. However, PEF right now is a bit challenging because the supply isn’t really what we would need it to be to explore it fully. So that’s what we’ve done for this first generation.

Then for the second generation where we completely actually change the technology … So we go from blowing the plastic inside the bottle to coating the bottle and that’s how you can reduce drastically the amount of barrier material and also get the paper, the paper neck that you may be seeing. Have we sent you, Lisa, the … there’s a little video that just came out that shows the next generation? We’ll share that with you.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, wonderful. And I’ll include the link on the page.

Louise Werner (guest)
So we’ve mainly been working on the first generation. We’re just starting to work on the second generation and the barrier materials will be different since in … for the first generation, they need to be flexible so that you can blow them into the bottle. Whereas for the next generation, we don’t, no longer have that consideration. So we’ll have a larger, larger palettes to choose from, which will be exciting. But for our products, the PEN material has been the most successful. So that’s where we’ve seen good stability results.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And if I recall, this is going back a-ways, but I do recall that the cost of PEN is significantly higher though of PET. Maybe and maybe some of the other … And as you’re talking about these plastics, you’re talking about just the liner within it?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
When you’re doing the stability tests, are you doing it actually with the liner already inside the paper bottles, so you do have the full structure of the package?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yep. So we’ve been doing it in exactly the bottle that is on the picture there and … but to confirm results for our Absolut Vodka, we would want to do a proper paper bottle prototype, of course, to have the same closure … you know, exactly the same conditions.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Excellent.

Louise Werner (guest)
So that’s the work we’re starting now.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And are you doing real time stability tests? Or are you doing some accelerated aging tests? Do you mind talking a little bit more about the test that you’re … the actual tests that you’re doing?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes, they’re being done both in room temperature and then at more extreme conditions.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Louise Werner (guest)
So two different temperatures. So I think … I don’t have exactly … don’t remember. Now I think it’s maybe 35 degrees or 40 degrees, but you know a higher temperature and then even higher than that, so more extreme as well.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And Louise, Absolut is the one who is doing these stability tests?

Louise Werner (guest)
Yes, we have all that in house. We have a fantastic R&D facility in Åhus, where all the Absolut vodka is produced. So it’s a one-source concept where everything is both distilled and filled at the same small little village that has 19,000 inhabitants in Sweden. Yeah, no, it’s a beautiful story. Yeah.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wonderful. Tim, is there anything from your point of view, as far as the shelf-life testing goes, that you’d like to share?

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yes, maybe then just to touch upon and go a little bit deeper on what Louise said. It’s for us important … So we come up with a solution basically and of course have also done studies for us with just basic similans, water, etc. But it’s … This is why we chose to partner with our pioneers to actually test their product because they know their product best.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
So they can tell us also what do they need and where can we go. And it’s very fascinating actually that, when looking at barrier performance, especially now, for example, for the Absolut Co., that with the glass bottle in an infinite shelf life and well, nothing goes bad … since we are now, a little bit, like we are separating the packaging performance — like stability, design that would put all to the paper wonderful material, strong, durable and nice to shapeable — and the barrier performance to actually just give the packaging the performance we actually need.

We see this also with the other pioneers. A lot of packaging currently on the market is actually, let’s say, over-engineered. Because, of course, we have maybe a mono material and you want to have it withstand drop tests, top load. You want to feel it a certain way — haptic feedback. And that goes with weight and that gives a certain barrier, which might not even be needed. And we have this unique opportunity to say, well, we only give it what it actually needs — again [taking] product and use-case into consideration. But that helps us overall as well, in making the packaging as efficient and as sustainable as possible.

Image courtesy of CanvaAbsolut-paper-bottle-Tim-Silbermann-quote-web.jpg

Lisa McTigue Pierce
You know, it’s funny that you bring that up because I had a conversation with another gentleman … specifically, we’re talking about sustainability, and this is Bob Lilienfeld. He’s been a packaging sustainability guru for decades and decades, and we were just talking a little bit about, you know, maybe what some of the changes are … the broad overview changes might be because of the consumers’ new reality after COVID. And one of the things that we came up with was exactly what you talked about here, Tim … is that most food and beverage companies had the idea that they never had enough barrier. They were always interested in hearing about new materials or new structures, and how it’s going to increase their barrier so that gives them the flexibility of storage and distribution, and all of that from a business case, as well as still delighting the customer with a quality product — that goes without saying. But he and I both had a similar thought that if we can educate consumers, if that’s the right word — and I think they’re learning a little bit of this on their own — that if you’ve got a product and you’re going to consume it in a month, you don’t need to over-engineer, as you’ve already said, the package. And I’m so glad that brands are maybe using that as a base for packaging development these days and, you know, fingers crossed that the consumers understand that and are on board with all of that.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
True words.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yeah. No, it’s an interesting collaboration with the consumer because we all want this now. We will all want meaningful change and to create that at scale, that won’t be achieved overnight. So we have to do these iterations, we have to take these steps. We have to work together. And I think that’s maybe one thing that would also … that I always like to bring up is how we also share in the Pioneer community. So we had some great insights from Carlsberg, where they were like, no, we’ll share our stability results with you. So you know …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wonderful. Yes.

Louise Werner (guest)
… and we’re like, yeah. So it’s been really nice and we’ve shared other things. So it’s nice to see that it’s not just, you know, a pioneer community on paper, but that we’ve actually … we are in different, in completely different industries. And I think that makes sense. That’s a good thing of course. But that’s, I think, really the future of … as partnerships. And creating these meaningful partnerships where you can share so that you can advance the technology that we can really create that impact.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. And as you mentioned, it does take time to do this development, but you are well along the path to get there for 2023 commercialization. How exciting.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yes.

Louise Werner (guest)
Yep, Yep.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Any last thoughts before we finish up?

Louise Werner (guest)
I don’t think so. Just thank you for having us. We, both Tim and I, were … this is like our baby, you know? So we love to talk about the paper bottles or we could go on for hours, I think, to talk about it.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Yeah. Absolutely.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wonderful. Well, it’ll be fascinating to see your baby, when the baby announcement comes out.

Louise Werner (guest)
Exactly.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Louise. Tim, thank you so much for your time and for talking with us about this amazing development. Thank you.

Louise Werner (guest)
Thank you, Lisa.

Tim Silbermann (guest)
Thank you.

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