Glass bottles could well become a thing of the past in pubs when the Licensing Act comes into force. Tony Halstead visits a packaging supplier who has already embraced the move to plastic
Poly-ethylene Theraftalate (PET) may not be an instantly-recognisable buzzword of the drinks world, but it looks destined to play a crucial role in the future of the UK's late-night pub and bar industry.
Demands by police and local councils for plastic bottles and glasses in nightclubs, discos and other high-risk venues is set to open up a growing trend for premium beers and ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages packaged in safe containers.
Sports ground bars and other big outdoor events have already witnessed the arrival of the plastic age, as public safety demands see the exit of glass containers at an increasing number of venues. Indeed, when the new Licensing Act arrives next year, it is predicted that many local councils may even insist on pub beer gardens becoming glass-free.
The trend is threatening to change the face of beer and drinks packaging, reflecting predictions that PET represents the future of bottling within the industry.
One brewer already reacting to the evolving world is Thomas Hardy Burtonwood which, 12 months ago, invested £3m in a state-of-the-art PET packaging facility at its headquarters in Burtonwood in Cheshire. Brewery boss Peter Ward says PET is set to dominate supermarket and off-trade drinks packaging. He predicts that much of the late-night bar and entertainment sector will be forced to follow suit as licensing requirements force club and bar operators down the safety-first route.
Ward admits that the industry has been reluctant to embrace PET, but warns that the climate is changing fast as licensing requirements demand greatly-increased safety conditions. "The off-trade is very much into PET packaging and now specific sectors of the retail trade are being forced to go the same way," he says. "The problem in the past has been the image and quality of plastic bottles. Both brewers and retailers have tended to resist the idea. But now decisions are almost being made for them, especially operators in the nightclub and late-night bar sector.
"I cannot say glass will disappear from supermarkets' and licensed premises' shelves, but PET does represent the future," says Ward. "It will never replace glass entirely, but I believe it will become the accepted clear drinking' vessel in a short period of time and will certainly replace cans as the accepted container for beer, lager and other drinks."
PET production at Thomas Hardy Burtonwood is clearly geared to the premium beer sector, hence the company's packaging contracts for brand leaders such as Stella, Kronenbourg, Carlsberg and Fosters.The brewery has produced 500,000 cases of 33ml 24-pack PET bottles during its first year of production and aims to increase this towards 3 million cases by 2007 with a long-term target of 4 million cases per year. "These growth forecasts are based very much on the way we see the PET sector growing in the future," says Ward.
The PET line installed by THB involves a Sidel blowmoulder, which is capable of producing 275ml, 330ml and 500ml sizes at speeds of up to 400 bottles per minute. The blown bottles are subsequently fed directly into a sterile filling line, along with tray/shrink multipack and carton packaging.
PET's constituent properties hold the temperature of beer lower than traditional glass, a vital commodity in the outdoor and YPV markets. Ward comments: "I think the product has won much of the battle to persuade the industry that it is a good enough alternative to glass in both feel and appearance."
The only remaining difficulty confronting PET producers is price, but even there Ward believes that considerable progress is being made. "A 33ml PET bottle costs between 1.5p and 2p more than its glass counterpart, but the gap is narrowing and we hope, in time, to reduce costs to an equal level," he adds.
The emergence of PET has produced other benefits for the industry, which has also helped to reduce costs. Its lightness compared to glass means that transport bills are very much reduced, especially as more PET can be trunked on one lorry. Environmentally there are also major benefits from the vastly-reduced breakage levels that have been an obvious problem with glass bottles for years.