Today in Tedium: You know something I can’t do in 16.65 seconds? Drink a Capri Sun packet. (But I can quip that Capri Sun is watered-down Hi-C in 16.65 seconds.) That was something a 20-year-old dude named Declan Evans recently managed to do after noticing that Guinness World Records had set the benchmark for a record, but never actually tracked someone doing it. The Capri Sun, effectively a glorified ketchup packet, is a variant of the juice box, a paperboard-plus-foil product that has been produced in one form or another for nearly 60 years—specifically as juice boxes for about 40. And as Buster Bluth would put it, it was off the hook. Today’s Tedium ponders the lowly juice box. When you’re done reading, you’ll be thirsty for more. (Or maybe not. I don’t know your life.) — Ernie @ Tedium
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Today’s Tedium is sponsored by Quantum of Sollazzo.
How the grocery store Piggly Wiggly indirectly inspired the juice box
As we turn a corner around this pandemic, as infection numbers fall and vaccines become more common, cleanliness has become something of a defining message of how we’ll interact with the world going forward.
Which is understandable. And as we move past this pandemic, we’ll find new ways to keep things clean.
Issues of cleanliness have become sources of innovation in the past, and a great example of this came from the company that gave us the juice box.
But we’re going to take a couple of detours before we get to that specific innovation, because we have to talk about another innovation first.
This story starts with a Swedish business school graduate studying in the U.S. in the early 1920s and seeing something unfamiliar to him: A self-serve grocery store.
We take advantage of it these days, but there was a time when grocery stores required employees to directly package goods for consumers. In the U.S., goods were sold “over the counter” before the early 1920s, when a truly innovative concept, self-service shopping, came about thanks to a grocery store that’s still around today, Piggly Wiggly. As noted in a trade publication of the era, Piggly Wiggly was incredibly profitable right off the bat:
The first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis, Tenn., was opened in a building formerly occupied by one of a chain of twenty stores. For the six months immediately preceding the taking over of the building by the Piggly Wiggly concern, the sales of the former chain store had approximated $34,000 with an approximate expense of $5,200. The Piggly Wiggly organization retained the clerks formerly used in the other store and had the same management, but put into effect its self-service system and its own equipment. In the first six months of the Piggly Wiggly occupancy, $114,000 business was done at an expense of $3,400. The self-service system cut $300 per month from expenses, and showed a gain of $80,000 in sales. Under the old system the overhead had been 15 per cent; the Piggly Wiggly overhead was three per cent. For two months, June and July 1920, this store did an average of $6,000 per week, while it carries $8,000 worth of merchandise at all times, giving it a thirty-nine-time turnover yearly.
But while the concept quickly gained popularity with consumers in the U.S., it had yet to cross American borders in 1920 or so. Which is where Ruben Rausing comes into play. Rausing, then a graduate student at Columbia University who had spent time working in the printing industry, saw a self-service grocery store, and it made him realize something: packaging was about to become very important.
And this realization, by the time he died in the early 1980s, made him and his family incredibly rich. (When his son died in 2019, he was the second richest man in Sweden.)
The year that an American inventor, G.W. Maxwell, had invented the first paper milk container, which were shaped roughly like a standard drinking glass and used a clamp-down paper lid. A follow-up invention, the Pure-oak, was patented by John Van Wormer in 1915 and is still in use today.
What the juice box’s direct predecessor has in common with sausages
Rausing’s awareness of the importance of packaging would bring his family great fame and fortune, but while his name is on the various patents for his company’s most famous invention, it most likely was not his.
Nonetheless, Rausing certainly created the environment for that invention to thrive.
After Rausing finished his education and returned to Sweden, he spent nearly a decade at the printing company Sveriges Litografiska Tryckerier (SLT) before leveraging his contacts and knowledge to create a packaging company, Åkerlund & Rausing, with business partner Erik Åkerlund.
Starting with the packaging of dry goods such as sugar and salt, the company began to focus on liquids around the time of World War II, with paperboard the primary tool.
This is where the cleanliness part comes back in. Prior to the refrigerator getting a global footprint, milk was notoriously difficult to store safely. To give you an idea, when Rausing first came to the U.S., the way that milk was often delivered in his native Sweden involved the use of metal containers that were owned by consumers who cleaned the containers themselves, then went to local stores to get them refilled. This was not a perfect system, and often led the milk to spoil. (Refrigeration was not really common even in developed countries until the 1930s or even the 1940s.)
Meanwhile, the dairy industry in the U.S. had landed on reusable glass bottles that manufacturers cleaned themselves, a more sanitary process than consumer-cleaned metal jugs, but one that relied on a delivery method that had allowed dairies to get monopolies over local markets. Unfortunately for them, paperboard had simply proven too efficient a delivery mechanism to ignore.
“Dairies preferred bottles because they effectively created a monopoly where they established their collection system,” writer Gordon L. Robertson wrote for Food Technology magazine in 2002. “Cartons extended the range beyond the 20–30 miles over which a dairy could operate effectively with bottles; enterprising companies saw the potential and moved to cartons.”
Much as with every other major packaging trend that happened in the first half of the 20th century, Europe got there second. But in the process, they may have built the most innovative model for packaging.
Rausing’s contribution was called the Tetra-Pak, and the corporate line was that he was inspired to have the idea after he saw his wife making sausages. While he may have had the spark of inspiration, it was another inventor, Åkerlund & Rausing employee Erik Wallenberg, who followed the idea through. Essentially, the packaging style was stored with the help of geometry. With the help of a couple of quick turns, the container could close with only three seals, minimizing costs of manufacturing with only a couple of twists. The only issue was that the final shape was non-standard—it was a tetrahedron, essentially a four-sided triangle.
This design nonetheless had multiple advantages, including (with the right packaging materials) the ability to store dairy in a sanitary way over longer periods. With the right packing materials, milk didn’t even need to be chilled in a Tetra-Pak.
(The credit for the invention is a bit complicated, as Beach Packaging Design notes, with Rausing getting his name on the patent despite not really doing much of the work.)
Soon, Rausing created an Åkerlund & Rausing subsidiary that was named for the innovative packaging method, Tetra-Pak. And that company, today, is the largest packaging company in the world—and it did so without the benefit of its original form of packaging winning over the U.S. market.
Nonetheless, a pair of follow-up innovations to the original Tetra-Pak get us closer to the juice box, which really took off in the U.S. In 1961, the company produced its first aseptic packaging, using a mixture of packaging (plastic, paper, and metal), manufacturing process (a modified form of the tubular packaging that the Tetra-Pak used), and chemical treatment (hydrogen peroxide, to be specific) to allow for a shelf-stable form of packaging that did not need refrigeration and could extend the shelf life of products without the use pf preservatives. This was an important innovation whose benefits linger today.
The second innovation came in the form of design, with the Tetra Brik taking many of the lessons learned from the original Tetra-Pak design and applying them to a more rectangular package, allowing for more standardized shipping.
The combination of sanitized packaging and a normalized design seemed like a surefire starting point for American success. But there was a problem—Americans were already used to their cartons that required refrigeration, and so were the companies that sold the milk.
“The major drawback to adoption by American companies is the tremendous cost of changing over from present systems of pasteurization and packaging,” one 1968 article explained of the Tetra Brik. “Since virtually every American family has a refrigerator, the need is not so great as in other areas.”
However, there was still a big world out there for the Tetra Brik, and its shelf-stable nature meant that areas where refrigeration wasn’t quite as quick to appear could get the advantages of having milk distributed in shelf-stable ways.
Americans would find their way to this packaging style through another path: the juice box.
Yes, I know that took a while. But we finally made it.
The year that Capri-Sonne, a pouch-based juice concentrate, was first sold on the German market by the food manufacturer WILD Flavors. These packets, named for the Italian island of Capri, took more than a decade to enter the U.S. market under the name Capri-Sun after finding success in Europe. By that time, there was a context for these packages, thanks to the sudden success of the juice box.
How the juice box took aseptic packaging mainstream in the U.S.—and fast
So the American public didn’t find the idea of shelf-stable milk in a box to be an amazing enough idea to stop buying cartons of milk from the refrigerated section. But perhaps there was another way they could get in on the aseptic packaging craze?
It turned out that the secret selling point was juice. Perhaps the first company to jump on the trend was Apple & Eve, which first started selling the shelf-stable boxes around 1982. Early advertising for the boxes explained that the boxes, complete with tiny straw, could stay in the cupboard for as long as six months without going bad.
Seven-year-olds finally found their perfect vessel for drinking juice. Its official name was the 200 ml Tetra Brik Aseptic, though Americans knew it as the juice box.
To give you an idea of how sudden the success of juice boxes really was, Minute Maid, the Coca-Cola subsidiary, had started selling its own variant of the boxes in 1983, just a year after Apple & Eve started advertising theirs in newspapers nationwide.
And not long after, brands such as Hi-C were hitting consumers with television ads that effectively turned the juice box into the de facto container of growing up.
The privately held Brik Pak, the U.S. version of Tetra Pak, had seen sales of its packaging jump to more than $100 million by 1983, and was spending tens of millions of dollars on factories to supply even more packaging. Analysts anticipated that things would get even bigger after products like milk moved to shelf-stable packaging.
By the late 1980s, juice boxes were everywhere, representing one-fifth of the juice market according to one estimate. The Tetra Brik had finally found its home in the American market.
There was just one problem—and a pretty big one, shared with Capri Sun and the like: the packaging model was seen as environmentally risky. A 1989 New York Times article laid out the concerns of environmentalists around the moves by manufacturers to combine packaging.
“This is a major issue. We have a situation where we are investing in recycling systems designed to handle materials as we have known them—glass, aluminum, traditional plastics,” explained Jeanne Wirka of the Environmental Action Foundation. “These new materials won’t plug into them.”
For its part, Tetra-Pak took the concerns seriously, noting that the packaging was the way it was for safety reasons in the piece. “Each layer has a specific technical function; there are no frivolous layers,” company official Edward Klein said.
Still, the issues with recyclability have yet to kill the juice box, which did in America what milk did for aseptic packaging basically everywhere else.
All of that is not to say that sustainability is not a concern of Tetra Pak. Actually, much the opposite.
The company has actually taken sustainability seriously. After all, as The Observer noted in 2003, the original tetrahedron design was put in place to minimize the amount of packaging needed. And its product helped to make food more sustainable over long periods.
After all, if you can keep boxes of juice or milk around for months on end, you’re likely being less wasteful than you might be if you’re buying a bottle of juice, leaving it in the fridge for a month, forgetting it, and letting it go bad.
“Packaging should save more than it costs,” Reuben Rausing was known as saying.
And there are some positives to the packaging; it has a lower carbon footprint than other similar types of packaging.
But the thing is, juice boxes don’t just live in a cupboard. They live in a trash can, or a landfill. They simply can’t be recycled as easily as other products which make food more shelf-stable. (This is also a problem with Capri Sun. And ketchup packets.)
Which means that the onus has been on Tetra Pak, now a massive company that makes billions of dollars annually, to fix this.
And, for better or worse, it seems to be working on it. In recent years, the company has invested heavily in new approaches to packaging that it hopes will allow all of its containers to be recycled, spending as much as 100 million euros per year on alternative solutions to its packaging.
“Plant-based materials such as paperboard can be replenished over time, however, we recognize the importance of finding packaging solutions that not only strongly contribute to a low-carbon economy but are also fully recyclable without ever compromising on food safety,” said Alex Henriksen, the company’s managing director of North Europe, in an interview with Packaging Europe last fall.
The roots of the juice box started with a triangle-shaped container that might have been a little awkward, but was built to minimize waste. The problem is that the demand for it, as well as successor products, was incredibly massive, and that turned a real innovation in the fight against food waste into a problem.
Tetra-Pak isn’t perfect—no company is—but it will be important to see if they can succeed. If they do, it could be a big deal for sustainability.
And juice boxes.
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