Inconvenient packaging is friendly to the environment.

Costco is among the retailers stocking spoutless milk jugs to take advantage of the container’s shipping and handling advantages. A large opening is needed to equalize pressure when the container is tilted to pour. 

The case(less) for inconvenient packaging

An Ohio dairy has suffered some false starts in the last decade while promoting a squared-off milk jug. If the container now succeeds, it will signal a values shift away from convenience and toward environmental and cost tradeoffs.

Managers at family-owned Superior Dairy in Canton, OH took pains years ago to emphasize the consumer input they received for their first “rock and pour” pitcher in 1998. In reality, the design was engineering driven, and the first-generation jug flopped. Fishers Foods, a seven-store Canton area chain, debuted a 101-oz. (3-liter) container and soon pulled it from shelves, citing customer complaints. Superior licensed the patented design to Valley Rich Dairy, but the Roanoke, VA processor was liquidated a few years later.

Undeterred, Superior’s development team, headed by Vice President Greg Soehnlen, reworked the design and, more importantly, enhanced its cost-reduction potential. Engineers partnered with Serac Inc. to develop a filling system that combines two 16-valve rotary fillers to simultaneously generate whole and skim milk. Cincinnati palletizing specialist Aidco International was commissioned to design a robotic system that uses suction grippers and a reciprocating table to layer mixed assortments for in-store display. The dairy’s square containers allow the palletizer to form two stackable layers before a tear sheet has to be inserted, according to Salh F. Khan, Aidco’s president. The completed pallet is then stretch-wrapped.

The key advancement is the production software that interfaces with the order-fulfillment system. It customizes the filling and palletizing operations to determine the whole/skim mix on each pallet layer. Warehousing of finished goods is eliminated, allowing immediate shipment of orders.

More than time, labor and transport expenses are saved by not having to retrieve and wash empty crates. Both the dairy and retailers benefit from 50% more product in a given cube. In a New York Times report, Sam’s Club officials claimed a four-layer pallet with 224 gallons occupies the equivalent cooler space of 80 crated gallons.

Last fall’s introduction of the squared-off gallon at Sam’s Club outlets in the Southeast represented a revival of Superior’s early licensing plans. Gustafson’s Dairy, a unit of Southeast Milk Inc. in Green Cove Springs, FL, began shipping to Sam’s after installing Superior’s system, including the second Aidco palletizer in production. A third palletizer was commissioned at Western Dairy Specialties, a new plant in Yerington, NV, which came on-line in May. The jug also has been licensed to Seattle-based DariGold. The co-op declined to say when distribution would begin.

Seven months into the national rollout, the square pitcher was available at 189 Sam’s Club locations, about a third of the chain’s stores. A corporate statement claimed the jug reduces the cost of a gallon of milk 10-20 cents, and merchandisers at both Sam’s and Costco stores are promoting the eco-friendly aspects of the stackable container. Lifting and pouring is a prescription for spills, and in-store demonstrations on proper pouring technique are ongoing.

Western Dairy Specialties installed Videojet ink-jet printers to imprint a “tilt and pour” instruction at the top of the jug. More detailed instructions are included on a panel.

For more information:
Gregory Soehnlen, Superior Dairy, 330-477-4515
Salh F. Khan, Aidco International, 513-253-0375

Clamshell containers that can be palletized and shrink-wrapped without corrugated boxes were judged to be more sustainable than flexible pouches by Earthbound Farm. Source: Earthbound Farm.

Opinions mixed on recycled and plant-based PET

Natural and organic food companies would seem like a natural constituency for plant-based polylactic acid (PLA) resins for plastic packaging. But many of these firms are avoiding PLA as if it was a GMO-laced loaf of bread, preferring instead to stick with petroleum-based plastics.

Canadian cereal manufacturer Nature’s Path went so far as to boast of “petroleum-based, recyclable plastic” in a package conversion last year, and other firms have echoed the same GMO suspicions of films made from the converted starch of corn. But petroleum polymers raise concerns of a customer backlash, and some organic firms are converting to recycled PET, despite higher costs and uncertain supplies.

Earthbound Farm started packing its bagged salads in PET clamshells five years ago, and recently began shifting to R-PET from converter Packaging Plus in nearby Hollister, CA. Retail sales of organic salads in clamshells grew 47.5% in the 12 months ending in May, reports Samantha Cabaluna, communications director at San Juan Bautista, CA-based Earthbound, and prepared salads are the stars of the organic galaxy, accounting for 11.9% of category sales. Earthbound’s converter will need 1 million lbs. of R-PET a month to meet the company’s needs, and until it is confident an uninterrupted supply is secure, the company is reluctant to “make any kinds of claims” about packaging content, Cabaluna explains.

Both the bottle and shrink label of Noble Juice’s natural and organic juices are made from PLA, with corn sugar replacing petroleum as a monomer. Source: Noble Juice Co.

About 1 billion lbs. of re-usable PET is available annually in the US, with half of it moving offshore, principally to China, for its polyester fiber. Most of the remaining supply is made into pellets for bottle fabrication, and rising petroleum prices have made R-PET for beverages and direct food contact more competitive. But major bottlers have locked up most of the supply, and those firms’ opposition to bottle deposit laws is likely to keep the ratio of re-used PET at or below 26%, experts says.

“Curbside recycling only isn’t good enough,” points out Nadim Bahou, owner of Perris, CA-based Global PET Inc., one of the nation’s largest R-PET suppliers. “Until they pass bottle-deposit laws, we’re not going to have the availability to meet demand.” 

Lack of recyclability is the biggest negative with PLA, Bahou believes, and PLA suppliers are lobbying the Society of Plastic Industries (SPI) to create a distinct symbol to help sort and re-use PLA. Unfortunately, makers of petroleum-based plastics dominate SPI, and they are in no hurry to help an alternative material.

Currently, PLA shares SPI’s No. 7 grade with plastics such as bisphenol-A, the compound currently under review by FDA because of toxic concerns in humans, particularly infants. “We had a lot of consumers who were concerned because of the 7 on our bottles,” says Wade Groetsch, general manager of Noble Juice Co., a natural and organic drink company that converted to PLA from PET because it viewed it as an eco-friendly alternative. “Our bottle probably deteriorates in 100 years in a landfill, but we know the petroleum bottle doesn’t,” Groetsch says.

For more information:
Nadim Bahou, Global PET, 951-657-5466,