SIG India: Offering aluminium-free material for packaging

India’s per capita beverage consumption levels are far below the world average. Thus, there’s a lot of headroom for aseptic liquid packaging to grow. The Covid-19, meanwhile, added a much-needed boost, Vandana Tandan, country manager, SIG India, tells Rahul Kumar

25 Mar 2022 | By Rahul Kumar

Rahul Kumar (RK): How far has aseptic packaging come?
Vandana Tandan (VT): In India, packaged food hasn’t always been very popular. Consumers largely preferred fresh food and believed that aseptic beverages also contained preservatives. However, over the last few years, with much consumer education, the market has evolved, and consumers have accepted the benefits of aseptic packaging. They are increasingly aware and are accepting cartons as a safe option and free of preservatives, leading to much higher adoption. 

Today, aseptic cartons are offered as the packaging of choice by several brands in varied product categories. From milk and juices to ethnic products like Jal jeera, coconut milk, cooking pastes and purees, aseptic cartons are now commonly found in almost every Indian home and every kitchen, a long way from where it was even 10 years back.

RK: The aseptic packaging market was USD 49.15-billion in 2020, projected to reach USD 72.15-billion by 2026 at a CAGR of 9.5% from 2021-2026. What are the India numbers?
VT: The Indian aseptic liquid packaging market is still maturing, and there is a lot of headroom to grow. We expect strong double-digit growth in the next few years, with strong potential in all the categories that we operate in, whether it be dairy or non-carbonated beverages. So, we look forward to helping brands ensure greater safety and deliver nothing but the best for our consumers.

RK: What precautions does a company take to ensure aseptic sterilisation?
VT: In aseptic packaging, the food product, as well as the packaging material, are sterilised, and the product is filled in a sterile environment to prevent microbial growth. The product is usually sterilised using UHT technology and SIG’s filling machines use H2O2 in vapour form for sterilising our packaging material. The material itself is structured to protect the sterilised food stored inside from light, oxygen, and spoilage due to microorganisms.

RK: Since aseptic packaging deals with ensuring the products are sterile how did it manage the Covid outbreak?
VT: Before filling any food product, we sterilise the product with UHT. This kills all the microbes that are in the product, and this process is a standard part of every product we pack. So, food safety is never compromised in aseptic cartons. This was a huge boon throughout the pandemic, as the necessary steps were already a part of our existing processes. Thus, the Covid outbreak did not pose any additional challenges from a product perspective. The challenge, rather, was largely logistics, because of the movement restrictions and lockdowns in place.

Since people could not trust the sterility of fresh products, aseptic packaging products ended up being the safer alternative. We saw this reflected in the uptake in sales in several product categories. In addition, consumers were also making healthier choices, resulting in a significant uptake in milk and juice consumption globally.

RK: What all steps did the company take to deliver results and maintain hygiene in such tough times?
VT: We always maintain hygiene and quality at the highest standards and continued to do so during the Covid period. As such, we were confident that the products that we pack would be safe for all consumers. We made sure that all the people working on the production line were tested daily, and anyone exhibiting symptoms or suspected to have contracted the virus was not allowed to be anywhere near any production facility.

All our customers also took the utmost care to make sure that everyone involved in logistics and transportation from their facilities was tested to prevent any possible exposure or contamination. That way, the products that reached the consumers were safe.

To ensure that the production and supply chain for our brands would not be impacted, SIG also helped customers with logistics and warehousing support to minimise delays or logistical challenges. 

Vandana Tandan, country manager, SIG India

RK: Since the 2020 pandemic, were there any extra measures enforced by the government for the aseptic packaging industry?
VT: While there haven’t been any extra measures enforced by the government specific to the aseptic packaging industry, it has introduced several updates to food processing and packaging guidelines. This includes the new Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020, aimed at helping consumers make informed choices about their food purchases while disposing of several redundant statutory declarations regarding packaging dimensions, display fonts, and more. The other one is the Plastic Waste Management (Second Amendment) Rules, 2021, which provides a moratorium of 10 years to companies for phasing out single-use plastics and allows the use of recycled plastics for packaging food products.

RK: How does a company ensure aluminium-free full barrier packaging materials for aseptic carton packs?
VT: In most aseptic cartons, aluminium is used as a protective barrier against light and oxygen exposure. It is usually about 4% of the packaging material.

Replacing aluminium with other materials has been an endeavour for SIG, and we have recently successfully launched the SIGNATURE EVO, which is an aluminium-free material for packaging all kinds of products. We also offer combibloc ECOPLUS for products that aren’t oxygen-sensitive, which has been adopted by many dairy brands. In addition, our innovative heat-and-go packs use a special non-aluminium barrier, which makes them microwavable and therefore offers brands a chance to offer warm beverages in SIG cartons.

Apart from options for replacing aluminium, SIG also offers ASI (Aluminium Stewardship Initiative) certified aluminium – this ensures that the aluminium used is responsibly sourced.

RK: What type of processes are being deployed to preserve quality and process low or high acid products?
VT: SIG as a company works with food packaging, and our customers work with multiple UHT processing suppliers to ensure that the high quality of their products is maintained. Our filling machines are equipped to fill both low or high acid products and we offer maximum flexibility to brands to safely fill the products they wish to bring to the market, with the highest quality standards.

RK: How the product and packaging are sterilised separately and filled within an aseptic chamber?
VT: For the first part of product sterilisation, our brands work with various food processing suppliers to manage the UHT sterilisation of the products. Our aseptic filling systems are flexible and allow us to partner with any processing supplier chosen by our customers. Once we receive the sterilised product from the UHT system, the product enters our aseptic filling machine and is buffered in a small aseptic buffer tank.

The packaging material is formed into cartons in our filling machine and then sterilised with H2O2 vapour. The packs are dried to remove any H2O2 residue and once sterilised, they enter the over pressurized aseptic chamber where they are filled with the sterilised product which is in the aseptic buffer tank.

RK: What are the tech specs of the machines (speeds/sizes/formats, etc)?
VT: SIG’s filling machines are on the cutting edge of technology, and we offer a unique blend of volume flexibility and high speed. This combined with our low waste rates offers our customers great operational performance and maximum flexibility in their operations. 

In India, our most popular filling machine for portion packs has been the CFA 1224-37 which offers nine different volume sizes of combiblocXslim cartons ranging from 80 to 200-ml and runs at 24,000 packs per hour. We also recently launched our premium portion packs with closures, combismile small, which are produced on CFA 1724-37 filling machines, which also operate at 24,000 packs per hour and offer the flexibility of four different volume sizes from 180 to 250-ml. 

Our family pack filling lines also give the flexibility to move between 500, 750 and 1,000-ml. We offer a range of different shape options with our CFA 312-35 and CFA 812-35 filling machines. Both these fillers operate at 12,000 packs per hour. We have also recently globally launched the SIG NEO filling machine, which further enhances the speed and allows us to fill family packs at a speed of 18,000 packs per hour.

Tandan: We aim to source all our key materials from certified sustainable sources

RK: What QA is done before and after you outsource your packaging material?
VT: We do not outsource our packaging material. We produce them in our eight paper converting plants, operating around the world. The quality management and environmental management systems of our facilities, production sites and research centres are certified as being in conformity with ISO 9001:2015 and ISO 14001:2015 by Intertek. Product safety management systems in accordance with the internationally established HACCP principles are in place. 

This ensures the safety of the packaging material and the packaging system in line with food safety legislation; and a high standard of hygiene within production and storage areas. 

All production plants are certified in accordance with BRC GS packaging and must have FDA approval. Furthermore, all production sites and sales organisations are certified in accordance with the standards of the FSC for a continuous chain of custody. 

SIG is also a member of Sedex, the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, and all our factories are audited in line with Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) guidance.

RK: What is the future for aseptic packaging in India?
VT: India’s per-capita beverage consumption levels are far below the world average. We believe that there’s a lot of headroom to grow, especially in categories like dairy and juice, both of which are under-represented in our diets. Key categories like dairy and juice will continue to grow, and we believe aseptic packaging is adding and will continue to add a lot of value to people’s lives, offering great nutrition, more convenience and making products cost effective and accessible to more people.

Many more brands will enter the market, and we will be seeing growth not just in the large brands, but also in a plethora of smaller brands adopting aseptic packaging. We also see the government encouraging dairy co-operatives to look at aseptic packaging so that the shelf-life of milk is extended, and wastage is minimised. This is just the beginning. We expect to see strong growth for the next many years.

RK: How does aseptic packaging deal with sustainability and growing consumer needs?
VT: We believe sustainability is a collective responsibility of all stakeholders and we are committed to it. At SIG Combibloc, we take our responsibilities to people and the environment seriously. And we’re going Way Beyond Good by striving for a net-positive corporate footprint. This means contributing more than we take from society and the environment.

We aim to source all our key materials from certified sustainable sources. Recognised certifications mean customers and consumers can be confident that the goods they buy were produced in a way that respects the people involved and minimises risks to the environment. All the energy we use to make our packs comes from renewable sources and we apply strict social, environmental and ethical standards to every supplier we work with.

All the materials in our cartons can be recycled and there is a market for reusing the materials to make new products. We’re working with others to promote this circular economy. In India, we run three carton collection and recycling projects and are closely working with our recycling partners and the urban local bodies to promote used carton recycling 

Aseptic cartons offer proven environmental benefits compared with other alternatives. We also work with our customers to reduce the impact of their factories with expert advice and fast, efficient filling machines. Our high-speed filling machines are flexible and efficient and boast industry-leading low waste rates.  

Overall, we see that consumers are increasingly concerned about the environment and sustainability. Many consumer choices are now driven by these considerations, aseptic cartons with their proven environmental benefits are now at the right time and right place to make this journey with consumers.