Passing the Baton: From Plastic to Metal Packaging

Shift represents increased importance of sustainable materials.

Tags: Beverage Packaging, Sustainability, Innovation

​​​The following article originally appeared in 'Coatings World.' You can also clic​k here​ to read it.

The public is getting serious about the negative environmental impacts of plastic waste.

That’s because, according to a study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced, 6.3 billion tons has become plastic waste, and only 9% of that is recycled. The majority is going to landfills or being littered into the environment.

As a result, consumer brands are starting to shift their output to more sustainable alternatives that produce less waste.

In fact, 75% of new beverages are now being launched in cans, as established brands like Bubly are making the move to the more sustainable solution, while new categories like seltzers also are opting for cans. Additionally, Nestle, the global consumer products giant, has set a goal to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025, and Unilever, maker of a broad spectrum of food, personal care and home care products, has announced a similarly ambitious plan that includes collecting and processing more plastic packaging than it sells.

Improving plastic recyclability is one way to address the problem, but there’s another solution that has the potential to have a much more immediate and sustainable impact: switching from plastic to metal packaging.

Coatings manufacturers are now tasked with supporting this sustainability trend by providing products that help lower costs, improve performance and exceed product safety standards, all while continuing to enable brands to differentiate their products on store shelves.

Metal Recycling Advantages

Metal packaging is the obvious choice for replacing plastic because of its dramatically superior recyclability and high recycled content.

Aluminum and steel are endlessly recyclable, as evidenced by the fact that 75% of the aluminum and up to 60% of the steel ever produced is still in use today, according to industry estimates.

In addition to being recycled at nearly twice the rate of plastic bottles, metal offers the longest shelf-life of any packaging material, which significantly reduces food waste – the largest component of the landfill stream.

Packaging container manufacturers and major brands are moving quickly to accelerate the switch to metal over plastic. Ball has introduced a line of aluminum cups for use at major sports and entertainment venues, and Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced plans to begin using aluminum packaging for their bottled water brands.

Such a major shift isn’t without challenges, however. Major consumer brands are keenly aware of shelf appeal as an effective driver of sales, and they are eager to preserve differentiation through shape, color and tactile qualities in metal packaging that replaces plastics.

Coatings Support Growth

Coatings manufacturers continue to deliver next-generation coatings that improve and preserve appearance as well as provide tactile experiences that appeal to consumers.

New coatings are more effective at preventing abrasion or damage during transit and support industry trends toward a wider array of shapes and customized printing options. Coatings manufacturers also continue to develop coatings for interior surfaces that are more effective in preventing beverage or coating component migration, preserving products and ensuring flavor stability. This requires extensive testing to ensure interior coatings perform well given all of the new products, such as ready to drink cocktails, wine and coffee-based drinks, being packaged in metal containers.

At the same time, it’s important to focus on developing innovative new products that support a customer’s business objective for increased efficiency and cost effectiveness. Lower costs have been a traditional advantage for plastics, and it’s crucial now for manufacturers to close the gap by providing fewer, more universally applicable coatings that reduce the product-specific complexity of coating materials while increasing the safety and durability of the metal package itself.

Safety Solutions

Another major focus today is the transition of the food and beverage industry away from packaging that relies on the use of bisphenol A (BPA) or other bisphenol starting substances, which have raised concerns in a range of adverse health effects.

Beginning more than a decade ago, nations around the world, as well as some U.S. states, began restricting BPA thresholds. As the global packaging industry transitions away from the use of BPA and other bisphenol starting substances with internal, food-contact products, coatings manufacturers are paying close attention to additional regulatory actions around the globe regarding other materials used in food and beverage packaging in order to prepare for the future.

That’s why it’s crucial for coatings manufacturers to consider not just starting substances, but also the potential extent of migration into food or beverages in order to validate alternatives for use. When consumers observe packaged products on store shelves, they can take comfort knowing that these stringent development protocols and substance testing regimens are employed behind the scenes to ensure the items they buy are safe, fresh and attractive.

Clear Choices

Increasing evidence indicates that consumers are clearly aware of the environmental impact of product packaging, and they are voicing their desire for sustainability by demonstrating a willingness to make product choices that produce less plastic waste.

The packaging and coatings industry has a clear opportunity – and obligation – to meet consumers’ expectations for sustainable packaging. As a leader in the packaging coatings space, PPG embraces our responsibility to develop and supply products that meet the industry’s need for safety, recyclability and shelf appeal. When PPG Innovel® coatings were introduced to the market more than 10 years ago, they were the first non-BPA internal coatings for aluminum beverage cans, and the technology has now been refined to lead the way in the industry.


Robyn McMillan, Ph.D. is the global beverage segment manager at PPG Packaging Coatings. She has earned numerous accolades over her 33-year career – ncluding five U.S. patents – and has played a leading role in the growth of innovative Packaging Coatings products such as Innovel. Available in 27 countries and manufactured in all four corners of the world, PPG Innovel products are the most widely used and brand-approved non-BPA internal beverage spray coatings. 

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