Glass matters28 September 2015
Although often seen as an inflexible 'legacy' packaging material, glass continues to be popular with designers, brands and consumers alike. Dave Howell reports.
According to the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE), 87% of Europeans prefer glass as a primary packaging material. Glass is also massively recycled, with 70% of all glass bottles recycled every year. Glass technology has only improved over time, with glass bottles becoming 30% lighter over the past 20 years and production increasing by nearly 40% over the same period.
FEVE reports that in the EU-28, production of glass containers increased by 1.6% in 2014 alone, with more than 22 million tons - or some 50 billion glass containers - sold to customers inside and outside EU markets.
The data - referring to container glass for food and drink, perfumery, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products - revealed that Poland posted a 7.4% increase: the highest in the EU region. Growth in the South Eastern area (2.9%), the North-Central area (2.1%) and France (2.2%) was also above the EU average. Outside the EU zone, Turkey recorded a striking 14.8% growth compared to the previous year.
"These figures are even more remarkable when we consider the EU consumption shrinking and the deflation risk in most of EU countries," comments Vitaliano Torno, president of FEVE. "Glass packaging remains the preferred choice for customers who want to add value to their product, to communicate its quality and safety to consumers."
Glass inspiring creative flexibility
As a basic material for innovative design, glass still holds its own. A good example is the glass closure developed by Masters of Malt for their 12-year-old Bruichladdich single malts. The issue of cork taint with these premium ranges drove the development of a glass closure. "Screw tops are viewed by many whisky enthusiasts as 'cheap' and aesthetically unpleasing," explains the company. "Our new glass closures are both attractive and functional."
Glass, of course, can be used to reinforce a brand image and to evoke a past era, which was the aim of the bottle designed for a new gin from Thomas Dakin Distillers. Created by Here Design, the heavily embossed, square bottle, and its use of red as a primary colour (frequently used in the Georgian period) clearly support the brand and powerfully call back to the 18th century, when Dakin founded the distillery.
Sharon Crayton, head of marketing at Ardagh Group, glass packaging Europe, tells Packaging Today: "Creativity and sustainability are not always comfortable bedfellows when it comes to eye-catching packaging... But with consumers placing increasing value on environmental factors, brands will now always seek to incorporate sustainability into their products and packaging. Glass is very well placed to cater to this trend... it ticks many of the sustainability boxes without having to compromise on design or functionality."
A Canadean report into the Japanese retail packaging market concludes that, "a demanding population has created a spike in the use of plastic packaging for items such as beauty, drinks, luxury cosmetics, and health and beauty products." So, plastic my have been innovating over recent years - but this has not dampened enthusiasm for glass.
Development of glass-like products can be seen increasingly in the market, such as in shatterproof silicone bakeware that has the appearance of traditional glass, yet is flexible. This innovative design clearly illustrates that glass still holds its place as a design and consumer favourite, and can influence the creation of new drinkware made from plastic to meet today's demanding environment, in which glass is not always appropriate or safe to use.
Regarding drinkware, Canadean also highlights, "while use of rigid plastics for beer products will remain low, innovations such as Carlsberg's  PET bottle highlight how lighter weight materials will be used to innovate in new product categories."
However, Fiacre O'Donnell, marketing manager at Encirc Glass, says, "while flexible packaging does have certain advantages over glass, brands choose glass packaging for very specific reasons, so it is unlikely to have a big impact. For example, plastic may be cheaper and easier to transport, but glass preserves products better and for longer. Glass is also seen by many as more of a premium option: a perception that certain brands will be unwilling to compromise on... Glass has always endured, and given that it is currently enjoying a sustained period of growth, it's doubtful that it will fall out of favour in any impactful way."
A PET future for glass?
There is little doubt that PET will continue to dominate the beverage packaging market into the future. The move by some wine brands to use PET bottles, for instance, is a development driven by the need for more lightweighting, yet glass continues to hold a perceived advantage over PET form factors that still need barrier technologies - none of which are required with glass.
On environmental consequences, O'Donnell concludes, "while [packaging's circular economy] is still considered detrimental to many non-glass packaging businesses, it is something the glass industry has been doing very well. And while the weight of the final products and associated transportation costs may be cited as a reason to choose plastic, it is imperative that the industry considers the entire lifecycle of a container, and the environmental consequences of the manufacturing methods required to create it, rather than simply looking at one area of the process."
Phoenix Group's Ben Guy also comments: "If [glass] can be set it up right, it's no worse to handle than plastic - and in many ways, it's more flexible. It can handle hot filled products, it's easier to stack in-store and it has greater structural integrity... Over the next decade, anything that can move to plastic as a mainstay will. I predict a steady transfer of commodity products to plastic, leaving room for glass to emerge as the high-end option for well-branded products."
Glass, then, does have a clear future. Consumers continue to prefer glass to PET alternatives, as health risks persist; and for brands and their design partners, glass continues to deliver the premium packaging forms that are in demand. With a well-developed recycling environment and continued innovation to make glass more lightweight and malleable into new form factors, it seems glass will continue to be a preferred packaging material.