Before deciding on cardboard toppers, Heineken came close to using glue, but felt it wasn’t right for the company ©Heineken
Before deciding on cardboard toppers, Heineken came close to using glue, but felt it wasn’t right for the company ©Heineken

Holding out for the best six-pack solution

Cross-functional project to lose plastic rings took time to find a solution without compromise 

By removing the much-maligned plastic rings used to link six-pack cans together, Heineken UK says it will eliminate 375 tonnes of plastic per year. It is also getting rid of printed shrink wrap, knocking out a further 142 tonnes per year. The move means that 530 million cans a year, covering Heineken, Kronenbourg 1664 and Foster’s brands, will be free of plastic packaging by April, with the rest of the brand portfolio to follow by the end of 2021. The brewer is replacing the plastic with 100% plastic-free recyclable and compostable cardboard toppers, designed to be robust and easy to grip. 

The project, backed by a multi-million-pound (£22m) investment, has benefited from a cross-functional approach, with the procurement team involved right from the beginning, says Kimberley Campbell FCIPS, UK category buyer, sustainable production services. It has seen the procurement team working across disciplines, she explains, whereas their involvement might usually come “at the last minute to put a contract in place, but now it’s more at the front end as well as working in advisory roles”. 

The cross-functionality of the project teams gives different perspectives and viewpoints, meaning it’s inclusive of other people and other departments, says Campbell. “It’s probably one of the biggest projects I’ve worked on that has been so cross-functional – with procurement, supply chain, marketing and the corporate affairs team – and actually moving at pace, which is not that common in a business the size of ours,” she adds. 

The procurement team has been involved from the conceptual stages, looking at plastic ring alternatives, to going out with the quality teams to audit products, while reviewing potential suppliers’ standards in sustainability and ethics, explains Campbell. “And that was not just in terms of the capital expenditure that was put in for the new machinery and the site investments to house it, but also for the packaging that we are using for the new topper.” Procurement has been engaged in both capital expenditure and operational spend, which covers maintenance elements and servicing, involving a good deal of contract work. 

Because it’s a new supply chain for Heineken, the brewer has had to qualify new suppliers and “adopt them into Heineken’s culture”, says Campbell. These include Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer BillerudKorsnäs, supplier of cardboard for the topper solution, while Spanish packaging company Alzamora provides the machinery to print and utilise the cardboard topper – and this is where the major part of the investment has been. “We are the first UK company to work with them, but they have also worked with Estrella in Spain,” says Chelsey Wroe, senior partnerships and sustainability manager at Heineken UK. 

The right fit

There were many months of quality tests, explains Wroe, to ensure the toppers would withstand production, transportation, being managed, stored, people putting them onto shelves and then customers taking them home and perhaps getting them wet. There was a lot of testing, she says, because Heineken “wanted to be really certain that this was something that we wanted to move forward with. We wanted to find a solution that didn’t make any compromises. Some brands have removed plastic, but they’ve made full cardboard cases, so you’re then increasing CO2 in production. We didn’t want to compromise on quality and we wanted can multipacks to be kept together as they were intended to be. People should be able to pick them up and handle them in a way that they would do with Hi-Cones [the brand name for the plastic rings].”

And testing has continued at the company’s Manchester brewery in the UK, the first site where new machinery was installed. “Once the machinery is in place, we do about three months’ worth of tests to make sure everything is running correctly,” explains Wroe, who says official production will start in April 2020. It will be followed, says Wroe, by commissions of machinery for the Tadcaster and Herefordshire sites, home of the company’s cider brands including Bulmers and Strongbow.  

Wroe and Campbell agree the changes have been largely driven by consumer pressure to leave plastic behind. “The UK and indeed global response to Blue Planet has driven a step-change in procurement and the way procurement think. I think it shows that every small step can culminate in a big change,” says Campbell.

Campbell also attributes the changes to competitor pressure, for example Carlsberg’s September 2018 move to glue-dots to hold their cans together, one of the first moves away from six-pack rings by a large brewer. After researching the technology and coming “very close to going down the road of gluing our cans together”, Wroe says Heineken realised it wasn’t right for them. 

“We wanted to eliminate plastic from our supply chain, but with glue dot there is still some plastic within the glues keeping the cans together. If there is one thing we stand for here at Heineken it’s doing things right – when it comes to sustainability it’s definitely not about greenwashing. And so it was back to the drawing board,” says Wroe. 

There had been other suppliers, says Wroe, who made cardboard toppers, but nothing seemed scalable or sturdy enough to keep the cans together. It took until the beginning of 2019 for Heineken to find a workable solution that didn’t involve plastic. “And at that point it was all systems go, let’s get testing,” says Wroe. “But meanwhile, a lot of our competitors and businesses were coming out with their own solutions to replacing plastic rings. Every morning I would wake up, saying ‘oh gosh who’s going to be in the news today, please don’t say that they’ve got the same solution that we have.’”

Although Heineken didn’t announce its solution until almost a year later, it was worth the wait, says Wroe, because it allowed the company to thoroughly research the developments and watch for the option that is best for the environment. Other competitors have encased the tops of cans or fully encompassed their cans in cardboard boxes, while Corona has introduced stackable cans that screw into each other. “We could have implemented something earlier on, spent a massive amount of money and then realised that a better solution was down the line,” explains Wroe. 

Although it has been a “massive investment” says Wroe, “the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the investment we’ve made and the beneficial effects to the business. Heineken took an informed decision that to spend this money wisely will impact on our environmental targets, and also consumers, and what the consumer wants would far outweigh any cost reduction that we could have by sticking with Hi-Cones.”  

Sustainability drive

Heineken’s move to eliminate plastic is the latest in a series of pro-sustainability moves from the brewer over recent years, which have included cutting waste at music festivals where its drinks are sold by trialling deposit return schemes. Its Brewing a Better World sustainability review sets targets in six areas: protecting water resources, growing with communities, reducing CO2 emissions, promoting health and safety, advocating responsible consumption and sourcing sustainably. “It covers our entire value chain. We are working with farmers who grow the barley that goes into our beer, the apples that go into our cider, to build sustainable businesses,” explains Wroe. “We’re also looking at ways to be able to save water and reduce energy during production.”

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