Taking Stock

Where does glass packaging stand?

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000 years ago but the first real boost to large scale usage of glass containers and its transformation from a luxury item to a commodity came with a revolutionary invention in1903 by Michael J. Owens – the automatic glass bottle-making machine.
Glass is one of the earliest packaging materials used by man and has rendered yeoman service to the packaging industry. The making of glass started with the invention of the blowpipe more than 3,000 years ago but the first real boost to large scale usage of glass containers and its transformation from a luxury item to a commodity came with a revolutionary invention in1903 by Michael J. Owens – the automatic glass bottle-making machine.

Owens had been a glassmaker since he was 10 years old (child labour was extensively used in glassmaking) and moved to Ohio to join a start-up glass company founded by Edward Libbey in 1888. Glassmaking was America’s first industry. Owens’ lifelong dream had been to develop an automatic glassblowing machine and Libbey was prepared to finance this project. Owens successfully realised his ambition in 1903 with the invention of an automatic machine that could manufacture glass bottles quickly and cheaply. This development led to the foundation and growth of a host of industries that bottled everything from foods and beverages to household chemicals. It was a truly landmark invention. Not only did it “industrialise” and revolutionise glassmaking, it helped to eliminate the child labour that had been rampant hitherto and helped create thousands of jobs in both glassmaking and end-user industries. Owens also went on to develop mass-production techniques for window glass and initiated research that led to the production of fiberglass.

The Owens glass bottle-making machine led to the formation of the Owens Bottle Company. In 1929, the Owens Bottle Company acquired the Illinois Glass Company and the merged entity became known as the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. In 1965, it changed its name to Owens-Illinois Inc. to reflect its broader scope of operations and, in 2005, it rechristened itself O-I. O-I are the world’s leading manufacturers of glass containers and specialty closure systems. With 2006 sales of US$ 7.4 billion from over 100 manufacturing facilities in 23 countries, it is one of the world’s largest packaging companies and has pioneered many technological innovations in glassmaking and closures.

On the third of April this year, Michael Owens was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a non-profit foundation set up by the US Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Association to honour significant inventions that have contributed to human, social and economic progress.

Earlier on, in 1983, the Owens Bottle Machine had already been declared an International Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, only the thirteenth such landmark in the world.

Glass Packaging
Glass has some outstanding properties (barrier, transparency, strength, temperature resistance and chemical resistance) that make it technically one of the best packaging materials available. This helped it practically rule the roost until aluminium cans and plastic containers, both rigid and flexible, came along. However, since it is heavy, breakable, difficult to print or decorate attractively except by using externally applied labels, energy intensive and relatively limited in mouldability as compared to plastics, it is an expensive packaging system. It has, therefore, lost significant ground in recent years to other systems. It has managed to hold on only because of technological developments that have effected lightweighting of bottles by over 20 percent in the last two decades through increased strength, changes in shape and better material distribution enabling downgauging of wall thicknesses and energy reduction; there are also some application areas like highly carbonated beverages, wine and low-acid foods, where there is limited competition from other systems.

The global consumption of glass packaging is currently estimated at slightly below 300 billion units valued at around US$ 35 billion. 75 per cent of this is accounted for by consumer beverages and food accounted for about 75.2 billion units valued at US$ 6.7 billion in 2006. However, growth will be very low and projected numbers for 2010 are only 319 billion units valued at US$ 36.5 billion. Packaging accounts for about 60 per cent of all glass production.

Glass Technologies
Traditionally, the strongest bottles were produced by using blow and blow manufacturing, where the bottle is shaped with air. Press and blow technology can also produce strong bottles but it tends to impart small particles from the surface of the plunger used to press the glass into shape before it is finally blown out. The latest developments are based on O-I’s narrow neck press and blow technology; this produces bottles that are taller and have narrower necks which lead to less glass being used per bottle and lower costs. Following successful initial trials, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in UK has initiated a new project it calls GlassRite in collaboration with R & D specialists and several leading glass manufacturers like Allied Glass, O-I, Rockware Glass, Beatson Clark and Quinn Glass. This project is aimed at developing innovative lightweight glass containers for food products, soft drinks and flavoured alcoholic beverages and leading retailers and brand owners have also been invited to participate in trying them out.

Threats
he greatest threat to glass packaging comes from plastic containers and flexible packaging systems. Two bastions that have been breached recently are wine bottles and low-acid foods. So far, plastic containers did not provide more than 12 months’ shelf life for wine, a product that usually requires longer storage. But, newer developments in plastic bottle-making using nanotechnology have extended shelf-life and, in keeping with their pledge to reduce packaging, major retailers in the UK like Sainsbury have test-launched wines in enhanced-barrier PET bottles (that weigh one-eighth of their glass counterparts) for cheaper varieties. As it is, PET bottles continue to make large inroads into the carbonated soft drinks segment.

In the area of low-acid foods, the move is towards aseptic packaging of pre-processed products in plastic containers and pouches to replace the conventional glass bottle system and the recent approval accorded by the USFDA to the use of peracetic acid-based sterilants is expected to spur this shift.

The recent Sustainable Packaging movement is expected to further undermine glass packaging as its major emphasis is going to be on reducing package weights, energy reduction and better cube utilisation (see the Environment section of this issue).