Hot Cup Combos

Trends in the disposable paper cup market indicate they are the preferred choice for drinking on the run. The grip of today's financial crisis impacts our way of life, yet an urge for hot coffee keeps the packaging sector healthy, and paper cups for hot drinks (hot cups) dash away from supermarket and price club shelves daily. Constantly rising demand for hot cups led to the creation of heat-insulating techniques developed by major market players and delivered by specialized companies supplying commercial cup machines.

Traditionally, hot cups were made out of thicker-caliper paper layered with polyethylene (PE) inside, leaving the outside of the cup uncoated in order to vent moisture generated by heat. However, this approach does not work well with hot coffee; consumers often use a second cup stacked outside of the coffee-carrying cup to prevent finger scalding. (In the fast food industry, this is called “double cupping.”)

New technologies that use the approach of creating a reliable heat barrier came from Japan, where consumers use disposable containers for all kinds of hot soups and stews. In the mid-1990s, Dixie Cup company (currently part of Georgia-Pacific) developed the PerfecTouch cup based on a Japanese patent. This concept improves heat insulation while keeping the one-wall cup structure and avoiding double cupping.

However, the PerfecTouch paper cup is subjected to a costly heat treatment process when moisture in paperboard captured between the inside (high-density PE) and outside (low-density PE) plastic layer is being vaporized. Steam foams up the outside PE layer due to its lower melting temperature, increasing its thickness tenfold, and therefore increasing total cup wall thickness.

Dixie pioneered a Grab'N GO sealed package in 2005 that combined a dozen of the PerfecTouch cups and corresponding lids in a paperboard holder. This combo pack introduced the fast food industry approach to retail trade.

The concept was well accepted by supermarket customers, and Solo Cup, a major Dixie competitor, came up with its own concept version of this product. At that time, the company was producing traditional hot one-wall paper cups. Solo Cup was trying to avoid double cupping by offering a separate sleeve made of recycled corrugated board placed on the cup before pouring the hot coffee.

Naturally, Solo Cup has offered its version of the combo pack, which included a similar amount of hot cups, lids, and heat-insulating sleeves. This concept was displayed on supermarket shelves next to Dixie's combo pack.

Currently Solo Cup is making a double-wall paper cup utilizing technology that creates an air gap between walls to improve insulation, and it still offers the combo package, Make It to Go, with traditional hot cups, lids, and grip sleeves in a carton made of recycled paperboard.

Triple Layers Introduced

In 2006, Georgia-Pacific acquired Insulair, the California-based, privately owned company. This company introduced a patented triple-layer cup, adding a built-in sleeve that consisted of an outside printed part and an internal jacket made of corrugated paperboard.

With its growing popularity (the company sales grew 1,400% in the period of 2000?2006), Insulair also offered its own version of the combo package with lids. Recently, as a part of Georgia-Pacific Dixie business, Insulair commenced a redesigned sealed combo package with EcoSmart cups and lids in a carton holder.

The newest player in this product line is the Chinet business of Finland-based Huhtamaki, one the world's largest multinational consumer product companies. Chinet's Comfort Cup combo pack also offers a triple-layer cup; however, it uses nonpaper foam material between the outside sleeve and a traditional hot cup. The holder for this package is an oval-shaped container.

Three out of four combo packages (Solo, Dixie-Insulair, and Chinet) offer the same product size and count (ten 16-oz cups). This highly competitive product line offers convenience at a relatively high price.

In the modern age of sustainability and “green” packaging, all combo packs display some environmental concern in the package design. However, only Dixie?Insulair, while competing with its own sibling PerfecTouch, claims at least 12% or 25% of post-consumer fiber content in its green leaf EcoSmart logo shown on the package.

It is not easy for some to justify ecological responsiveness for a paper cup made of virgin paper fiber (obviously for health reasons) and using a plastic coating. In spite of that, in the US, the world's largest consumer of hot paper cups (a 2008 estimate accounts for 50 billion hot cups per year), the retail sector offers its coffee-hungry customers a good choice of convenient tableware to go.

Greg Grishchenko is an independent market and technology consultant with extensive converting and packaging experience. He has carried out extensive research in paper cup converting technologies and also is the author of several reports on Eastern European packaging, converting, and the printing sector. He can be reached at greg_grishchenko@comcast.net.


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