The evolution of bulk packaging

by Lynn Petrak
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Good things may come in small packages, but for many snacks and baked goods, good things also come in big packages … not to mention the smaller packs within them.

On one hand, the ongoing desire for versatility, combined with a drive for value and, in some parts of the country, larger family sizes, are fueling greater use of multipacks for a variety of products, from chips, pretzels and other salty snacks, to bread loaves and rolls, to cookies. While not traditionally defined as bulk packaging, multipacks are nonetheless higher-volume packages designed for quality, shelf life and, often, resealability.

On the other hand, true bulk packaging remains common in the institutional and foodservice businesses, in addition to some club, bulk and retail stores that tout value, choice and convenience for consumers — not to mention the perceived “greener” attributes of buying in bulk.

To meet those diverse needs, packaging suppliers that design machines and materials for food companies, including those in the baking and snack sectors, are creating packages that reflect the diverse marketplace trends including multipacks and bulk packaging.

Multiple choice

From a shelf-life perspective, multipacks offer flexibility for users. “In our business, enhanced shelf life is mainly being offered by providing larger quantities of small portions in a single carton. A customer can purchase a pound of product, but it is provided in a number of individual portions that are each wrapped separately,” said Vince Tamborello, vice-president and general manager at Pro Mach, Inc., which recently acquired Benchmark Automation.

Likewise, Mark Lozano, national sales manager for TNA North America, Inc., indicated that multipacks are a way to deliver both large quantities with convenient attributes like enhanced shelf life and recloseability. “For us, bulk is a lot of little bags in a big bag,” he explained, adding that the marketplace is dictating the desire for such packaging. “Moms, for example, are looking for alternatives for their kids. Instead of a big 1-lb bag of chips, they can get multiple individual bags of chips in one package,” he said. Among other solutions, TNA offers its Robag series, suitable for a variety of applications and bag formats.

In addition to individual grab-and-go bags within larger boxes and bags, multipacks are changing in other ways, based on factors including shelf life and resealability. “The most recent innovation we have been working with is in the cracker industry. Manufacturers are requesting equipment the can provide a full-length, traditional slug package, which normally measures approximately 8 in. in length, or a half-length slug, which measures approximately 4 in.,” Mr. Tamborello reported, adding that although consumers are still purchasing 1-lb cartons of saltines that hold four 8-in. wrapped slugs, new offerings include cartons that weigh slightly less with eight 4-in. wrapped slugs. “The end user has the value and quantity but has gained the flexibility to use smaller amounts of product without unwrapping larger quantities,” he added.

The material used for the wrapped slugs can also help boost shelf life. “An alternative to providing two 4-in. wrapped slugs in lieu of a single 8-in. wrapped slug is using a new material to wrap them,” Mr. Tamborello said. “Packaging films with increased memory allow a customer to use a portion of the product but twist the end of the package down on the product to keep the remaining product closed. The memory in the film keeps the package closed instead of unwinding,” he added.

As busy lifestyles continue to spur product and package development, Mr. Tamborello said that the value and green attributes of bulk packaging take a slight back seat for now. “Consumers are always seeking to reduce waste when purchasing products, but convenience seems to be winning over a reduction in waste,” he observed.

Turning up the volume

While multipacks and smaller-portion packages influence retail package design, packages for foodservice, institutional and some retail applications likewise are constructed around multi-occasion usage with the end goal of enhancing shelf life and maintaining quality.

Mr. Tamborello said that Pro Mach/Benchmark Automation’s PowerPouch horizontal form/fill/seal machine produces packages that include a recloseable zipper seal. “Larger portions can be purchased, and product that was not consumed in a single setting can be sealed and kept fresh for the next use,” he said.

He also pointed to changes in the way cookies are packaged and presented: “As an alternative, larger trays are now being offered with films that have a die-cut opening with a press-to-seal closure to provide access to the product but allow the package to be closed to keep product fresh.”

In addition to seals and closures, large-volume package design is evolving in other ways. At AMF Bakery Systems, Larry Gore, director of sales and marketing, said that customers are asking for packaging that allows them to maximize shelf life and reduce waste. “In the traditional bulk-pack arena, more customers will bag products in a way that consumers can take some out and reseal them, whereas in traditional bulk packs, they stayed open until the product is sold,” he said. “Now, you can have two ‘three-by-fives’ — each opening isn’t affecting half the package or a third of the package.” To do that, Mr. Gore added, a pillow pack is subdivided using cross seals, creating one package with three subsections.

Brandon Woods, director of sales at LeMatic, Inc., has seen a similar trend. “On the non-retail side, some customers are interested in products packaged in smaller compartments that are more sealed,” he reported. Because the bulk 30-count six-by-five package comprises multiple compartments, the customer need only open one section to pull out two buns. The rest stay sealed and fresh.

The market-driven push for variety is also spurring AMF to offer a wider range of packaging options. “There is demand for different types of buns. There used to be two or three types of buns, and now there are 10. Operators end up having 10 partially opened packages,” Mr. Gore observed, citing global quick service chain McDonald’s, which used to have three buns on its menu and now has closer to nine.

In response, AMF offers capabilities designed around greater variety. “We’ve worked hard to develop a flexible variety bagger for buns, just now available. It can do higher speeds and has flexibility in its design to address the marketplace need,” Mr. Gore reported. 

Finding the way

Another way to enhance shelf life for larger-volume and bulk packaging is to work with modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) or different kinds of films. “Because the manufacturer still wants to get the supply out and doesn’t want the rate to change, it challenges suppliers to come up with the next big thing, and that’s what we’re looking to do more with exotic films,” Mr. Woods said of LeMatic’s recent efforts.

MAP in the form of gas flushing is an option for some types of bakery bulk packaging, although it can require the use of costlier seals and closures, and heavier, less gas-permeable films.

According to Mr. Lozano, TNA North America offers some MAP options. Recently, TNA teamed up with a company that makes equipment that uses nitrogen to purge the bag, preventing oxidation that can lead to rancidity. “Nitrogen doesn’t stop food from spoiling — it just gives it more time,” he pointed out. TNA incorporated that capability into its bagger with a probe that can “sniff” nitrogen into a bag used for typically oily products such as potato chips.

Mr. Lozano agreed that package integrity is essential with MAP. “It’s really important that the bag seal is the best it can be. If oxygen leaks into a bag all that, it’s a waste,” he said, noting that TNA has focused on creating the best seal quality through a design that features a rotary jaw.

For bulk packaging and other larger-volume packaging of bakery and snack products, solutions for enhanced shelf life and resealability will continue in step with demand. “We’re always asking what we can do better for our customers,” Mr. Lozano said.

As demand for variety, versatility and freshness continue, bakers and snack manufacturers can use bulk packaging options to meet them.
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