New designs for Unilever drinks
On 14 May 2008, Unilever Foods launched a R&D Centre of Excellence for Drinks in the UK, which includes a Packaging Technology Centre. Fifteen packaging technologists are gathered at the Colworth Laboratory site near Sharnbrook, UK, to focus on the company’s Lipton, PG tips, Flora/Becel and Slim-Fast ranges.
‘Unilever is concentrating its resources within this Centre to create packaging that fits on the shelf, looks good and also protects the product,’ says Wayne Morley, Packaging Group Leader.
Most of the work revolves around Unilever’s tea. At the end of 2007, the company launched a luxury tea brand in Russia that includes the pyramid-shaped bags used in its PG tips range, but made from polyester instead of paper.
‘All heat sealed tea bags use some polymers to allow the bag to be sealed,’ explains Neil Rogers, R&D Programme Director at the Centre. The premium-brand bag goes a step further. By weaving polymers together, a thinner tea bag is created that is also completely transparent.
‘Many consumers think that tea bag tea is not as good as loose tea, so we wanted to show them how good our [product] really was,’ adds Rogers. ‘We have developed tea blending, handling and dosing systems that allow us to put longer leaves and real fruit pieces into the bag, without including any dust.’
Unilever has also created ultrasonic sealing machinery that can create strong yet fine seals at high production speeds. It spent eight years developing this technology, and is considering launching the bag in other markets.
Packs that click
At the end of last year, Unilever also changed the caddy box for its Lipton Yellow Label Tea. The lid no longer folds inside the box, but folds over it, with cartonboard slabs locking it into place with a clicking noise.
The overwrap is shrunk onto the carton with an incorporated tear strip for easier opening. The company is investigating anti-counterfeiting tools such as microscopic dots or ultraviolet ink markings on this tear strip for use in markets such as Russia.
Meanwhile, for its Saga value brand tea sold in Poland, Unilever has adapted the flexible package to incorporate a metallised inner layer, which gives the appearance of keeping the tea fresher, while adding PET to the structure to provide greater strength.
Between the new packaging’s introduction in August 2007 and April 2008, sales of Saga increased in value from £5.4-6.4m.
‘Flexible packaging is definitely becoming more important in the industry, as is transparent packaging that lets you actually see the product,’ adds Morley. Ultimately, he says, innovations such as these or the use of biodegradable or recyclable materials is led by the retailers, and Unilever takes its cues from them.
The Centre is working to create more monolayer plastic packaging to make recycling easier, as well as lightweighting its bottles – such as the Slim-Fast Hunger Shots which are made from HDPE and were launched in February. ‘There is a real balance between protecting the product and making it environmentally friendly. And how recyclable they are depends on the local infrastructures in place – something we’re working with the Government to try and improve,’ says Morley.