Leaking cans are not a common occurrence. But it only takes one encounter with the aftermath of “leakers,” as they are often referred to in the industry, to understand why you hope you never see one again.
If you bring up the topic of leaking cans in a room of beverage industry veterans, you’re bound to hear some scary stories. We asked a group of BevSource specialists to share what worries them most about the prospect of a leaking can. Their experiences reflect the fact that, although the probability of leaking cans is small, the damage they can do is anything but insignificant. Here are eight solid reasons brands shouldn’t let their guard down when it comes to leakers.
1. It’s Hard to Know When a Leaker is Lurking Around the Corner
It’s true; most brands will never face a leaker. If you follow proper protocols and quality checks, it’s unlikely that a leaking can will ever turn up in your supply chain. But even slight variations in your can supply or subtle changes to your formula, packaging process, transportation, or storage situation can be enough to trigger a leaking issue you might never have anticipated.
Over her five years in the beverage industry, Erin Marvin-Barnes, Manager of Client Services at BevSource, has only had to tackle a few leakers, but she remembers them well. “Nobody wants to get a call like that,” says Marvin-Barnes, who has helped find the root cause of leaking can issues for brands. “As soon as you know you have a leaker, the clock is ticking. You’re just trying to contain the damage as quickly as you can.”
2. The Root Causes of Leakers are Often Illusive
As difficult as it is to anticipate when you might have leaking cans, it’s even trickier to identify and isolate what’s causing them. Every time a can moves, it encounters new risks, and the internal and external liner that protects your aluminum can from the elements starts to break down.
“You have to work through every stage of the manufacturing process to determine where the risks are,” says Jeremy Koehler, Operations Business Specialist at BevSource. “It could be defective materials, a problem with the seaming process, or even a mechanical issue on the line.”
The BevSource team helped narrow down the potential source of one company’s leaking cans after discovering that none of the problem products were found in the 4-packs or 6-packs the company sold. The information that leakers were coming only from the variety packs helped the company narrow the search for issues in the repacking process.
When brands lose the chain of custody or access to direct quality control, additional risk factors come into play. Going through a can broker or purchasing pre-sleeved cans, for example, can make it more challenging to nail down a root cause.
A definitive answer to what’s causing a leaker is never guaranteed. “Even after going through an extensive process of elimination, we still might never know why the cans are leaking,” says Koehler.
3. Don’t Get Them Wet! Even a Little Moisture Can Mean Big Trouble with Leakers
One of the known culprits for causing leaking cans is moisture. Water and other liquids used in the filling and packaging process cause moisture to build up on cans. Without proper drying at various phases, that moisture can cause damage that leads to leakers.
“Frequently, leakers are moisture-related,” says Erika Morehead, Project Manager in Product Development at BevSource. “Unrinsed product or rinse water can get trapped within the secondary packaging and start to attack the packaging or can.”
Depending on which part of the can is exposed to moisture, the integrity of the can could be compromised within hours. “The tab score is the weakest point of the can,” says Jim Kuhr, industry veteran and Director of Co-Packer Development at BevSource. “Just a little bit of moisture there, and you could develop corrosion that results in the tabs popping.”
4. Leakers Spread Quickly, Destroying Everything They Touch
Stopping moisture damage from spreading is extremely difficult and often requires disposing of products that have been exposed before they contaminate others. Cans are highly susceptible to damage because moisture breaks down the liner, the only thing protecting the aluminum from the corrosive liquid inside.
Marvin-Barnes remembers spending an entire day sorting and repacking products that were exposed to moisture resulting from a leaker. “Once the cans get wet, corrosion starts right away,” says Marvin-Barnes. “You have to sort and segregate any products that have been in contact with a leaker because the damage spreads.”
In this case, many products had to be thrown out. “Once corrosion has started, it’s not going to stop, and those products will also leak inevitably,” says Marvin-Barnes.
5. What’s That Smell? Getting Rid of Leakers Stinks!
Getting rid of those leaking products can be a frightful experience itself, not only because you’re dumping money and product down the drain, but the smell can be rancid. Morehead recalls the shock of uncovering a pallet of beverages damaged by leakers. “It’s horrible,” she says. “ The scents of mold and rotting cardboard along with the sticky residue and flies make for an extremely unpleasant ordeal.”
The experience is so undesirable; it can be hard to find someone who will dispose of leakers. Repackers and freight companies don’t want to handle bad products. You need to investigate and document the damage, but you can’t leave spoiled beverages in a food-grade storage facility, and you don’t want to leave them on a distributor’s or retailer’s dock.
“Uncontrolled damages from a leaker can be incredibly detrimental to a brand,” Morehead goes on, “It’s a hassle that nobody is excited to deal with.”
In addition to the difficulty and expense of transporting bad products, laws govern how alcoholic products can be recycled and destroyed, and there are costs associated with those processes.
6. Leaker Problems Can Paralyze Your Production
Brands with leakers have to allocate resources not only to dispose of products but to find what caused the issue in the first place. Looking into leakers can take your entire team days or weeks, and you will usually want to halt production until you know you’ve removed or minimized the risk of the issue happening again.
Kuhr recalls the strain of investigating leakers as part of an experienced operations team when he was working as the director of operations at a major co-packer. “We had excellent controls and quality checks and maintenance,” says Kuhr. “In the cases when we had mechanical issues, it could take all hands on deck to inspect the often thousands of feet of the conveyor on a production line.”
7. Leaking Liquids Quickly Drain Beverage Budgets
Along with creating a distraction and consuming team resources, leakers cost beverage brands a lot of money. Costs associated with leakers include the price of a potential recall, the cost of disposing of products, fees for legal disputes, and a potential drop in value for existing or future products.
8. A Little Leaker is Enough to Take Down Your Brand in a Big Way
But the immediate financial impact on a beverage doesn’t always reflect the long-term damage leakers can cause to a brand’s relationships with distributors, retailers, customers, and the market. Brands can and do recover from leakers, but it takes work to rebuild trust and brand image, and some beverage brands don’t have the resources to do so.
You Don’t Need to Run and Hide
Yes, this is all scary stuff, but you don’t have to run away screaming. Like other risk factors that come with being in business, you can learn to effectively reduce the probability of leakers and prepare to mitigate the damage if you have a leaking can. This work will allow you to carry on with a healthy respect for and a realistic perspective on the scary prospect of leakers.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Looking Out for Leakers series, where we’ll explain the steps your brand can and should take at every stage of the manufacturing process to reduce your risk of leaking cans.