How to Boost the Recyclability of Multipacks

New cartoning technology reduces plastic waste and enables more brands to package multipacks in eco-friendly cartonboard. Image courtesy of R.A. Jones

Cartonboard Secondary Packaging Bundles Sustainability and Shelf Appeal

By Jeff Wintring, Chief Technology Officer at R.A. Jones

Few topics live higher on the agenda for U.S. food producers today than sustainability, and the role packaging plays in planet health. With nine out of 12 top U.S. retailers committing to bold initiatives to move all plastic to 100% recyclable or reusable materials, manufacturers are catching up and making some significant packaging changes according to a study by Greenpeace.

For example, Giant Eagle, a major U.S. supermarket chain, is developing supplier guidelines to integrate environmental stewardship and sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. Alongside the businesses’ commitment to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2025, they have set milestones for their stores and their suppliers related to plastics, waste, carbon emissions, sustainable products and packaging.

Sustainable packaging impacts the bottom line

Environmentally savvy consumers now expect companies to care about more than revenue, to play a bigger role in protecting the planet and to contribute as much as possible to a circular economy, based on a recent consumer survey by The Shelton Group. Researchers found consumers care more about recycling and recyclability:

  • 60% are factoring recyclability into their purchasing decisions
  • 76% feel better about themselves when they recycle
  • 63% feel that it’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to address recycling concerns

R.A. Jones custom-built the Meridian XR MPS-300 multipacker to enable Bumble Bee to switch to cartonboard secondary packaging instead of shrink wrap. (Image courtesy of R.A. Jones)

How to switch to recyclable alternatives

The question is, how can manufacturers switch to recyclable alternatives without compromising on quality, production speed and shelf appeal? One of the areas where we see enormous potential is the shift from shrink wrap to cartonboard for multipacks of canned food products.

Bundling individual products or stock keeping units (SKUs) together into cartonboard multipacks gives consumers the recyclability they prefer, enables them to reduce packaging waste by buying in bulk, and in some cases, offers flavor variety.

Cartonboard multipacks also help producers protect SKUs’ primary packaging from damage and resulting waste, and the larger billboard format enables brands to prominently convey marketing messages.

New food product cartoning technology

Although beverage multipacks have long appeared in cartonboard, food products have traditionally featured plastic shrink wraps, outside of a few niche categories like pet food. These limitations were due to an inability of cartonboard machines to load certain can sizes and shapes into a box format — particularly when dealing with multipacks of smaller counts.

Now, with new innovation in cartoning technologies, more brands in other canned food segments such as proteins, produce, dairy products and sauces have the opportunity to switch to cartonboard for their secondary packaging and move away from landfill-destined materials.

Moving forward, this greater flexibility will enable brands to meet retailer and consumer demands, government-imposed regulations and corporate sustainability goals.

Cartonboard differentiates brands

With new capabilities in cartoning available, some food producers are making bold moves to switch up their packaging and create a new industry standard. Serving as the first to do so in the canned seafood space, The Bumble Bee Seafood Company is transitioning its multipacks from their original shrink-wrapped format to cartonboard.

Knowing its customers were becoming increasingly concerned about packaging and factoring material use into their purchasing decisions, Bumble Bee felt compelled to implement more readily recyclable packaging for its multipacks. The brand understood that making recycling easier for consumers not only contributes to environmental protection but also creates differentiation in an often-crowded marketplace, providing greater opportunity to outperform competition and appeal to a wider audience.

Transitioning to eco-friendly secondary packaging

Once the decision was made to switch to eco-friendly packaging, the brand faced a logistics challenge. They needed to find an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that could do the previously impossible, and package seafood cans in cartonboard.

It took groundbreaking collaboration to reconfigure beverage cartoning machinery to accommodate food cans and meet Bumble Bee’s needs. The result was a cross-industry, customized solution that the packaging market had never seen before.

Eco-friendly packaging resonates with consumers

A recent market survey by Bumble Bee confirmed its new cartonboard packaging outperformed their own shrink-wrapped multipacks, and provided a competitive advantage. Some 54% of consumers surveyed perceived the new secondary packaging solution to be demonstratively more environmentally friendly.

From the environmental point of view, gains are staggering. Consider a food supplier of Bumble Bee’s scale, producing as many as 26 million multipacks (165 million cans) annually.

In addition to being more eco-conscious, consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands that transition to cartonboard packaging solutions can also access superior product protection throughout the manufacturing process, as well as an easier-to-read packaging design for conveying product benefits to consumers on the store shelf.

For retailers, the new format allows product to be reconfigured to get more stock on the shelves. Finally, the ergonomic benefits of the cartonboard also assists in making the packaging more user-friendly and easy-to-open than shrink wrap.

Key production process considerations

Inspired by Bumble Bee and ready to make a meaningful packaging change? There are several considerations to first take into account when making a shift from shrink wrap to cartonboard secondary packaging. Important questions to consider are:

  • Is the required multi-packer machine compatible with upstream and downstream equipment?
  • Can the new packaging machine meet or exceed current performance and production speed, or will it become a bottleneck?
  • Is there sufficient expertise and technical support to implement and maintain the high levels of output?
  • What are the costs of the new material and how will it affect the bottom line?
  • Is the multi-packer versatile enough to meet potential future market needs?
  • Will it fit within the floorspace available?

For example, the market-first cartoner used for Bumble Bee’s transition can achieve speeds of up to 3,000 cans per minute (300 cartons per minute) versus an industry average of 250 to 280 shrink wraps per minute, while accommodating three to four changeovers per day to allow for SKU swaps.

It futureproofs production when the same machine accommodates different product types, diameters, heights and configurations. (Image courtesy of R.A. Jones)

Considerations to futureproof production

Another important consideration for any brand is the ability to futureproof production. It’s important for the same machine to have the technical capability to package different product types, diameters, and heights in various configurations. For example, multiple-lane infeed solutions with dual-pitch transport systems allow food and beverage producers to meet their current requirements as well as the ever-changing brand and consumer needs of the future.

Making the shift to cartonboard

As consumer demand grows for recyclable packaging, cartonboard is a sustainable solution for food and beverage manufacturers. Switching from plastic shrink wrap to cartonboard alternatives addresses businesses’ environmental commitments, while strengthening consumer loyalty and trust.

However, finding the right solution provider is paramount. Brands are best supported when their new sustainable packaging can offer the same convenience and value as their previous plastic shrink wrap format.

It is important to partner with a supplier that has cracked the code on a technical level, and also offers comprehensive expertise around the entire production line. This involves the ability to anticipate the brand’s current and future needs, identify problems in advance and develop appropriate solutions, every step of the way.

The right partner and technology are out there — it just requires a clear vision and a critical eye to find the right partner.

About the Author

Jeff Wintring leads the innovation group at R.A Jones and strategically directs the portfolio of machine technologies. His team of innovators has close to 150 years of combined experience collaborating with partners and developing customer-focused packaging solutions. Learn more about sustainable packaging solutions and R.A. Jones Industry 4.0 resources at

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