Plastic “jugged” food gains ground

Packaging of tropical fruits and other foods in multilayer plastic cups and jars – a packaging form which imparts an extended shelf life and is in competition with steel cans – is gaining momentum throughout the world.

 

Furthermore, the technology to do this kind of packaging involves much lower entry capital costs then steel canning – although unit costs are higher.

Multilayer plastic cups entered the international market in the mid-1990s; fruit packed in plastic jars entered it in 2003.

The higher costs of plastic jars versus steel cans has retarded take-up of the new technology domestically in African countries compared with First World countries.

However, there are a number of applications of the technology which are bound to grow despite local price-sensitivity. These applications (replacing steel cans and glass packaging) include:

  •  Any tropical fruit export fruit industries.
  •  Packaging of fruit for the food service (catering and restaurant) market.
  •  Packaging of non-fruit products like baby food purees; sauces and salsas; soups; baby milk powders; coffees; and vegetables (like corn or baked beans for export).

Basically, the better-looking the product to be packaged, the more it gains from this kind of packaging. Tropical fruits for which this might be applicable are particularly tropical fruit salad, papaya, pineapple, leechies, granadilla and citrus. More are under investigation.

The costs of the packaging will obviously be a huge determinant of growth in future. The cost of the jar is driven by three issues: the cost of raw materials; the type of technology used to produce the jar (generally this is driven by the annual volumes required); and shipping costs.

However cups fit into each other and so shipping costs are less. Thus although neither jars or cups are likely to be made in many places in Africa soon, the cups at least have immediate potential application.

The jars and cups are offered in a variety of sizes.

Although the cost of steel cans has doubled in the past five years, their prices are still well below those of multilayer plastic packaging. However, at least in overseas countries (according to AC Nielsen figures), fruit packed in plastic compared to canned fruit attracts a price premium of over 60% on supermarket shelves.

Technology and infrastructure

 Another major issue is that while canning in steel cans is a simple process in which the fruit is put in a can, lidded and then retorted, with multilayer plastic cups and jars the process of ensuring that the product and the packaging is shelf-stable and is correctly sealed is more complex.

It involves more advanced expertise, particularly food technology.

Entry-level plastic ‘canning’ filling-sealing technology

Although unit costs of packaging in multilayer plastic cups and jars are generally substantially higher than packaging in steel cans, the initial barriers to entry for the former type of packaging are much lower because the packaging can be easily imported and because of low start-up costs for filling, sealing and overwrap technology – particularly if the process is begun on a primarily manual basis. An investment of only about $700,000 is required for trial-production filling-sealing equipment.

The development of competitive entry-level hand-filling South African filling-sealing equipment by Western Cape-based company HG Molenaar is already promoting the application of this kind of packaging in South Africa among companies which would not have considered steel canning.

HG Molenaar: Tel +27-21-868-2210.

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