Cans are king these days when it comes to packaged beer. Given ongoing disruptions in the supply chain, however, small breweries continue to face challenges in sourcing, pricing, and labeling those cans.
What’s less obvious is that many of these cans are not recyclable, even though sustainability and recyclability were major selling points for cans in the first place. However, an ongoing revolution in digital printing—affecting many industries, from beverages to cars to fashion—appears to be the key to keeping more of that aluminum in the recycling stream.
As recently as four years ago, just about 41 percent of packaged craft beer was canned, according to the Brewers Association. By 2021 that had grown to about 60 percent. As independent brewers became more interested in the format once linked to industrial beer, so too did makers of all sorts of other beverages, from soft drinks to ready-to-drink cocktails. Later, as brewers know better than anyone, the pandemic kicked demand for aluminum cans into highest gear, and their availability and cost have never really recovered. Everybody wants cans now, and there are fewer to go around.
A pivotal moment came late last year, when global can manufacturer Ball Corporation announced that it would increase the minimum order for printed cans from one to five truckloads. That change left a whole swath of independent breweries scrambling—with knock-on effects felt by even the smallest packaging breweries—even as material costs were going up across the board.
One effect of these disruptions has been that more breweries—now less able to get printed cans—have turned to shrink-sleeves and pressure-sensitive labels (PSLs). One company that provides both is U.S. Tape & Label; a regional sales manager, Nicole Giraud, told the Brewing Industry Guide late last year that her email was “blowing up” with interested brewers.
The Trouble with Sleeves and Labels
Shrink-sleeves and PSLs are a cost-effective solution for breweries that don’t package enough of any one beer to order pre-printed cans by the (five) truckload(s)—or even for larger breweries that plan to can smaller batches. Shrink-sleeve and PSL suppliers typically handle smaller orders. Shrink-sleeves and PSLs also provide flexibility, simplifying storage into one large stock of brite cans instead of pallets of different cans for each brand you brew.
There’s a complication, however. Whether brewers and drinkers realize it, sleeved and stickered cans often cannot be recycled, so they add waste that either contaminates the recycling stream or simply ends up in landfills instead. Thus, brewers and drinkers who believe they are recycling may in fact be contributing an incredible amount of trash.
Companies that provide shrink-sleeves say that recent advances in polymers have made some of them more recyclable. One recent innovation is polyester (PET) film, a lighter material that should be recyclable with other plastics. However, that only works for facilities that can separate those materials effectively or if customers bother to separate those materials in the first place.
It’s also become more common to have perforations that make it easy to remove the sleeves before recycling. Breweries can add language to their labels to make it clear that this removal is important, hoping that customers will see it and comply. However, such language isn’t common, and even many brewers are unaware that these sleeves hinder recyclability. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that many consumers know—or that they even bother to take advantage of the perforations to remove the plastic after drinking.
Much like the shrink-sleeves, PSLs and adhesives—which often are about 25 percent cheaper than sleeves—are also an issue for recyclers. Paper labels can create small fires that damage equipment when recyclers process them. Another problem is that packages with PSLs often are simply sorted out and wind up in the landfill. The abilities of recycling facilities to manage these residuals vary widely.
Toward the Digital (Printing) Age
Printed cans, meanwhile, are fully recyclable, and there is an emerging solution that doesn’t require orders of five truckloads—or even one. Major advantages of digital can printing include the ability to handle very small batches, rapid changes of artwork, and quick overall turnaround time. Anecdotally, the cost appears to be similar to that of shrink-sleeved cans bought through brokers.
What’s lacking, for now, is capacity. The technology is relatively new and requires considerable investment. However, the status quo with demand for printed cans has clearly made the investment worthwhile.
In North America, the province of Quebec has so far led the way in digital can printing with two of the leading companies, Solucan and Hart Print. One catalyst was a February 2020 ban in Quebec on the sale of aluminum cans with shrink-sleeves or PSLs, since they contaminate the recycling stream. A few months later, Packaging World was reporting on the “breakthrough” of digital direct-to-can printing, after Solucan installed a machine from the British company Tonejet that could print 60 cans per minute. For the can printer to work, Solucan needed a depalletizer at one end and a repalletizer at the other—for those, they turned to Ska Fabricating in Durango, Colorado, one of the only manufacturers that make them in a small enough size.
While Solucan worked with Tonejet, Hart Print in Montreal opted to work with the German firm Hinterkopf, a longtime specialist in package decoration and more recently in digital printing. The Hinterkopf machinery can do up to 94 cans per minute, with similar advantages in being able to handle small batches and quick turnaround. (Like Solucan, Hart Print also got its palletizing gear from Ska.)
Global packaging firm Ardagh Group recently acquired Hart Print, which is looking to grow quickly. Besides its two Hinterkopf machines in Montreal, Hart is planning to open a new plant with three more printing machines in suburban Chicago by the end of this year plus two more sites elsewhere by the end of 2023. In short, there should soon be a lot more capacity for digital can printing.
In fact, there are digital printers already established in the United States. DigiCan Printing in St. Charles, Missouri, just west of St. Louis, claims to have the first high-speed digital printer in the country. DigiCan recently told the Brewing Industry Guide that it had two printing machines running and was adding a third shift, with six more machines on the way. When that expansion is complete, DigiCan will be able to print 260 million cans per year—even for breweries that order as few as three pallets per SKU.
One of DigiCan’s customers is Logboat Brewing in Columbia, Missouri. Logboat cofounder and CEO Tyson Hunt says the company has been an “excellent resource,” both for their beers as well as for the ciders they produce under their Waves Cider brand. For one of their beers—the Stormin’ Norman Golden Ale, honoring retired University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart—DigiCan printed a uniquely textured can that represented fans in the stands.
“The cost of the cans is reasonable,” Hunt says in an email. “I’d always love to see a less expensive input cost into our packaging needs, but given the current situation around aluminum beverage cans, we will take what we can get. We’ve been very pleased with the quality of the prints as well as the minimum-order quantities. One of the great benefits on the Logboat side of packaging is that the printed cans cut down substantially on labor costs, because we don’t have to put labels on brite cans post-fill. And a fully printed can just looks better on a shelf, in my opinion. We still do label some of our seasonal cans at Logboat, but we are trying to place more orders with Digi for seasonal runs and larger-quantity special releases.“
Of course, there are also larger-scale versions of this technology. In October, Crown Holdings announced that it was partnering with the Israel-based company Velox to provide drink brands with “game-changing digital decoration technology.” Velox says its IDS-NC series can print 500 cans per minute.
The technology’s advantages—quick change of art, quick turnaround, and recyclability—are why Velox head of marketing Merav Sheffer told Packaging Digest that their product simply makes shrink-sleeves and labels “obsolete.” She also says that digital printing is more energy-efficient because sleeves and labels need to be stored under temperature control and because shrink-sleeves need a burst of hot air to apply them to cans.
Such strengths are why research firm IndustryARC predicts an annual growth rate of 12.1 percent per year for the global digital-printing market, forecasted to reach $17.5 billion by 2026.
Modular, Localized, Scalable
For context, the revolution in digital-printing technology is more far-reaching than beer cans—indeed, it goes well beyond consumer packaging of food and drink. It’s also become a way for the fashion industry, among other sectors—many of which have been dependent on China for manufacturing—to have a more localized, reliable, fully scalable solution to ongoing supply-chain problems. The brewing industry is simply facing its own particular version of those problems.
Yet, the technology is new, and capacity remains limited. Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, says that some have raised concerns about the quality and durability of the printing.
“I’d also add that the capacity is still much lower than other options, though that gap is closing,” Watson says. “So, while digital printing is a developing option, it will take some time before it is a widely available option. … The environmental piece is important to many brewers, but if there were significant cost advantages in addition to the recyclability benefits, I think we’d be seeing faster adoption.”
Given how popular cans have become as a package for characterful beer, there is obvious attraction in solutions that allow brewers to get their art onto small batches of cans, on demand. Shrink-sleeves and labels can do that—but the more promising option is likely to be one that better fulfills one of the original promises of the aluminum-can format: sustainability.