Beyond Metal: How Can the Plastic Industry Develop Innovative Alternatives to the Tin Can?
When you open your pantry and look inside, what do you see? If it’s well-stocked, chances are you’ll find canned food of some sort. Fruit, vegetables, meat, beans—many types of food products are packaged in cans for longer shelf lives. Good thing, too. Otherwise, what would the characters in our favorite post-apocalyptic, disaster movies eat?
Outside of fiction, however, the metal can comes with a few downsides despite the convenience. For one, if the price of metal goes up, food companies are placed in a tough position. All of those food products still need to be packaged. As a result, fluctuating prices put financial pressure on them by cutting profits. In addition, consumer demand for healthier food has inadvertently put canned products in disfavor. You can’t see what’s inside a metal can, after all. What does the food look like? Is it good quality? Given a choice between a can of green beans and a frozen bag of the vegetable, a lot of today’s shoppers are going to choose the latter.
This is just in regard to basic staples, too. When we start moving into products like canned soups, the criticism rises even more. There’s a growing perception that products like canned soups are unhealthy due to added sodium and preservatives. Because of this, Heinz launched a line of healthy “soup in a tube” alternatives a few years ago.1 The plastic containers resemble toothpaste tubes, out of which consumers squeeze a puree that’s then diluted with water to form the soup. The product took inspiration from milk bags, which were introduced as a green alternative to traditional bottles and cartons.
Milk bags are considered eco-friendly. Soup-in-a-tube products are labeled better for you. Both traits directly appeal to today’s consumers. Is there any way to transform the containers used to package products for long shelf lives to do the same?
Recent Food Container Advances in the Plastic Industry
A few plastic industry firms have been working on clear plastic containers geared toward replacing the metal can. One is an injection-molded can that’s designed for a two-year shelf life.2 Another more recent innovation is a clear plastic can made from an extruded tube. Because these plastic cans are cut from a tube rather than molded, they’re sealed with metal ends that then allow for ease of opening.3
You might be wondering why we haven’t tried to make clear plastic cans before now. The main reason is that we haven’t been able to design such high-performance materials until recently. Any viable metal can replacement must be able to withstand the retort systems used to package food without succumbing overpressure. They also have to do well in high-temperature and high-pressure environments. After all, that’s why canned foods are so convenient. Not only can they be stored for a long time, but they’re also not particularly sensitive to external factors.
The plastic can made from an extruded tube, however, has all those desirable traits. The manufacturer can even adjust the wall thickness. Because of this, the containers can be customized to suit specific applications and needs. Now imagine a grocery store shelf lined with these clear plastic cans. Buyers will be able to see the contents, which is a first step in allaying their skepticism. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll find colorful plastic containers on the shelves! It’s no different from the tinted flavored waters so popular these days, and they certainly are eye-catching.
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- “Soup in a tube: Heinz launches green alternative as tin feels the squeeze,” July 8, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2012678/Heinz-launches-soup-tube-green-alternative-cans.html ↩
- “Setting the pace at interpack: notable firsts in plastic and one remarkable servo application,” May 11, 2014, http://www.packworld.com/trends-and-issues/pmmi/setting-pace-interpack-notable-firsts-plastic-and-one-remarkable-servo ↩
- “Clear, Retortable Plastic Can Made from Extruded Tube,” January 2016, http://www.ptonline.com/articles/clear-retortable-plastic-can-made-from-extruded-tube ↩