See-Through Soda Cans : Plastic drink containers may make inroads with consumers if recycling concerns are resolved

Associated Press

A California-based soda maker hopes consumers will get a kick out of its new see-through, plastic cans and expand its share of the $40-billion soft drink industry.

Original New York Seltzer Co., which traces it roots to the streets of Brooklyn but is now based in Walnut, Calif., is testing 12-ounce plastic cans this summer in the Detroit area.

"We feel it's a package that shows off the character and quality of our products," said Bruce Sweyd, chief operating officer for New York Seltzer, which had sales of about $100 million last year.

The test is also important for Petainer Development Co., the Atlanta-based concern whose pilot plant can produce up to 100 million cans per year with polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic also known as PET.

Petainer wants a better reading on its chances for denting the $6.5-billion market that metal dominates in soft drink and beer cans.

Lars Emilson, chief executive for Petainer, said he is hoping for "peaceful coexistence between packages," but expects a reaction from aluminium can makers if plastic proves popular with consumers.

Plastic cans are, at the moment, more expensive to produce than metal cans, and concerns have been raised about whether they will be recycled effectively.

Emilson said he expects the cost of making plastic cans will fall as production moves past the pilot stage and into mass production.

Petainer and New York Seltzer have taken steps to assure that the plastic cans are recycled. One of the reasons they chose Detroit for the test was because Michigan has a container deposit law. Container Recycling Co., based in Romulus, Mich., near Detroit, has agreed to handle the plastic cans.

Critics, however, ask what would happen if plastic cans were sold in states without deposit laws and question whether there are enough uses for recycled PET plastic to make recycling economically viable on a larger scale.

They also point out that although the Petainer cans have plastic bodies, they have aluminum lids that may complicate recycling.

Public Isn't Ready

"Recyclability is a big issue," said Louis Umsted, vice chairman of American National Can Co., a Chicago-based container manufacturer that claims it is the biggest supplier of containers to the soft drink and beer industries.

"It's fine that they have a recycler to participate in the test run, but what if they put 6 billion cans in there?" he asked.

He said American National has developed a plastic can-like container but has "no desire to take it commercial" because the company doesn't think the American public is ready to deal with how to dispose of more plastic.

This isn't the first time that a soda company has tested a plastic can.

Coca-Cola Co. tested a plastic can made by Petainer starting in October, 1985, in Columbus, Ga., and said the five-month test showed "consumers liked the can, the feel of the can and the idea of being able to see the product in the package."

But the Atlanta-based soft drink maker said it would not use the plastic package on a broader scale until "key recycling issues" were resolved such as finding workable collection methods and uses for the recycled materials.

Ron Coleman, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, said the company's examination of recycling issues continues.

Petainer's Emilson said plastic recycling capabilities have improved, in part because of their experience with plastic soft drink bottles, which have grown more popular in the past five years.

New York Seltzer launched its test at the beginning of August by selling its raspberry and peach flavors in plastic cans. Vanilla cream, black cherry and root beer flavors are to follow.

Sweyd of New York Seltzer said initial feedback has been positive, but added: "We'll continue to test until we feel we have a real handle on it."

The Can Manufacturers Institute said there were 72.9 billion beverage cans produced in 1986 and about 95% were made of aluminum.

Recycled for Other Uses

The trade group estimates that 50% of all aluminum cans shipped are recycled, melted and made into new cans.

Emilson said while plastic cans are not melted down for use in cans again, they are recycled for use in other products such as fiberfill for ski jackets and sleeping bags and fiber for carpet backing.

He said the recycling rate for plastic cans in the 1985 test in Georgia was about the same as for metal cans in that state. He declined to specify how many cans were sold or returned in the test.

Sweyd said up to 6 million plastic cans could be used by the end of the year in the Detroit test.

Despite uncertainty about the recycling and cost issues, Timothy Burns, a container analyst for Prescott, Ball & Turben Inc. in Cleveland, said he expects "you will see some inroads" by plastics into the beverage can market in the next few years.

Emilson said Petainer is talking with other soft drink companies and at least one brewing concern about plastic cans, but he declined to identify them.

"One of our biggest obstacles," he said, "is that the aluminum can producers have tremendous resources on their side. We expect we'll see some very tough competition."

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