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Posts Tagged ‘juice box

“Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.”*…

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 [see here]. As noted in a trade publication of the era, Piggly Wiggly was incredibly profitable right off the bat…

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…

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.

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. 

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.

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 of 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…

The estimable Ernie Smith (@ShortFormErnie) with the fascinating story of a lunch box staple, the juice box: “Tangential Juice Innovation.”

* Wallace Stevens

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As we poke in the straw, we might send shelf-stable birthday greetings to Reuben’s son, Hans Anders Rausing; he was born on this date in 1926. After many years in the family business, he sold his share of Tetra-Pak to his brother, Gad, moved to U.K., and became a philantropist. His daughter Lisbet, a historian of science at Kings College, London, co-founded (with her husband, UCLA history professor Peter Baldwin) one the the U.K.’s largest and most foresightful foundations, Arcadia.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 25, 2021 at 1:01 am

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