Ecolean is finally making its way to the United States. The Helsingborg, Sweden-based company’s eye-catching, lightweight, sustainable, aseptic flexible packaging has been popular in Asia and Europe for the last 20 years. Now Ecolean is preparing for its U.S. debut. Akron, Ohio-based Country Pure Foods will use the Ecolean packaging to rebrand its line of juice drinks in the fall in an effort to differentiate its products on the retail shelf and grab the attention of consumers with the packaging’s unique shape and environmental benefits.
In September, Country Pure Foods, which primarily manufactures and distributes about 40 types of juices nationally, will launch Essential Pour, its rebranded line of ambient, high-acid, ready-to-drink fruit juices and juice concentrates, which includes orange, grape and apple juices, in the 1 L Ecolean Air Aseptic packaging.
Switching from aseptic brick cartons, Country Pure Foods was drawn to the Ecolean Air Aseptic for its bold design and low environmental impact. The stand-up pouch features a distinctive pitcher-like shape with an air-filled handle that stands out on the shelf. In addition, the lightweight, flexible packaging uses 50 to 60 percent less raw materials than conventional liquid food cartons and bottles and is recyclable. The Ecolean Air Aseptic also flattens completely, which takes up less space in the recycling bin and allows consumers to squeeze every last drop of the product, helping to reduce food waste. All of these traits will help the Essential Pour line resonate with consumers, according to Joe Koch, vice president of marketing for Country Pure Foods.
“What intrigued us was that it’s unique in the United States. The design is certainly interesting and appealing. It challenges everything that’s out there in packages today,” Koch says. “It’s also got an environmental story that’s appealing to us as well. We understand that taking care of the environment and being responsible with our packaging is something that’s not only important, but it certainly becomes more and more important each year to our country and to our customers. We felt that between the uniqueness of the package — the feel, the touch, the look of the package — combined with the lightweight and the environmental aspects, that it just seemed like a good opportunity for us to give this a try.”
Even though the Ecolean Air Aseptic is light and thin, it is made up of a multilayer co-extrusion film that protects the product so that it can travel long distances, handle harsh environments and withstand long-term storage. The packaging consists of up to 35 percent calcium carbonate (chalk), a widely available natural resource that provides the strength, stiffness and white color to the Ecolean Air Aseptic. The remaining 65 percent includes polyethylene and polypropylene. Ethylene vinyl alcohol is used for the gas barrier, while carbon black provides the light barrier. Food and beverage manufacturers have the option of integrating the SnapQuick reclosing device, which is made of PET. Once a package is opened, SnapQuick allows a consumer to reclose the package simply by folding the top and pressing the two plastic buttons together.
To fill and seal the Ecolean Air Aseptic packaging, Country Pure Foods will use the Ecolean EL3+ filling machine. The packaging arrives at the plant preformed, sterilized and hermetically sealed on reels. The operator places the reels in the unwinding unit and positions the packaging for the splice.
Even though the Ecolean Air Aspetic packaging is sterilized before it gets to the plant, the outside of the packaging may become contaminated during transport. Therefore the package surface is sterilized with a 1 percent peroxide spray and UV light. “The peroxide that we use for this step is low concentration,” says Marcelo Ferrer, director of business development for Ecolean. “Most other technologies need to use peroxide at 35 percent concentration to sterilize the entire container. We don’t have to do that because the inside of the package is already sterile and hermetically sealed. To achieve the sterilization of the outside, we can use lesser amounts of hydrogen peroxide.”
Servo-driven individual grippers transfer the ready-to-fill packages to the sterile filling zone, indexing them three at a time. Vacuum suction cups pull open the packages. Flow meters and dosing valves measure and dispense the product into the packages. A heating block then seals them by pressing the top of the packages against a back plate. HEPA-filtered air is inflated into the handle, which is a key design detail that adds stability to the package, before it is heat-sealed.
According to Ferrer, the EL3+ is designed for efficiency and ease of operation. Unlike most aseptic packaging, which must be assembled and sterilized in the forming and filling machine, the Ecolean Aseptic Air packaging arrives preformed, sterilized and hermetically sealed from Ecolean’s converting factories. Therefore, the EL3+ doesn’t have to assemble the packaging or sterilize the inside of it — eliminating a level of complexity to its operations. It also keeps the footprint of the machine compact and helps reduce energy costs, using only 10 kWh on average. The EL3+ has the capacity to fill and seal up to 7,500 packages per hr.
“Making the seals and sterilizing the package are critical steps of aseptic packaging. The big advantage of the Ecolean system is we deliver a pre-sterilized package that’s pretty much finished and completely sealed. The only resealing we have to do is resealing the top where it’s open so the machine can fill the packaging with product,” Ferrer says.
These benefits have prompted Country Pure Foods to consider how it can use the Ecolean Air Aseptic packaging now and for the future. While it will initially use the packaging for its institutional foodservice clients, such as nursing homes and schools, Country Pure Foods says the packaging is ideal for its customers in the fast food restaurant market and big-box club stores before ultimately hitting retail venues like grocery stores.
“We’re trying to differentiate from the me-too world of brick cartons in the large sizes. We’re also trying to have an environmental story to tell our customers,” Koch says. “Between the uniqueness of the look and the environmental story that we want to tell, we feel that the Ecolean Air Aseptic will be a good choice for us.”