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Cranberry juice, milk coming in 'bottles' made of paper

Ocean Spray calls it the ''Paper Bottle.'' Coca-Cola calls its version ''Hi-C in the Drink Box.'' The handle for the Borden Inc. product is ''Sippin' pak.''

They're all catchy brand names for the new ''aseptic'' packaging just starting to pop up on grocery shelves in test markets across the country. They mean you'll be able to buy milk and juice and store it on your shelf instead of filling up the refrigerator.

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Good-bye, bottles and cans. Hello, flexible containers that look like miniature cereal boxes and are made of laminated layers of aluminum foil, paper, and polyethylene. The packages also come with a short straw attached to the back. The fruit juice or milk inside may taste exactly the same, but grocery and refrigerator shelves will look very different.

Aseptic packaging is an airtight container that requires no refrigeration or freezing, whether on the store shelf, in the cupboard at home, in storage, or in transit. The drink is sterilized at a high temperature for just a few seconds, quickly cooled, then poured into the package, which has been sterilized separately. Shelf life is about six months for juice, three months for milk. No preservatives are needed.

The upshot in some cases: a lower price. For example, in the Boston area, a three-pack of 8.5-ounce aseptically packaged Ocean Spray fruit juice sells for about $1.19, or 4.67 cents an ounce. The traditional six-pack of 5.5-ounce cans sells for about $1.79, or 5.42 cents an ounce.

While fruit juices and milk are the only products now packaged aseptically in the United States, other products such as coffee, mineral water, cream, tea, and soup are expected to come wrapped the same way, as they do abroad.

Aseptic packaging is widely used in Europe and some third world countries, and has been used in Canada for the last couple of years. But in the US, its use was approved by the Food and Drug Administration only in January 1981.

''The incentive wasn't there until recent years to look for alternative packaging,'' says Herbert N. Colcord, manager of public affairs for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the first company in the US to test-market aseptically processed drinks, last July.

The technology for bottles and cans was easily available, resources seemed plentiful, and costs were low, so there was little reason to look to Europe for more sensible packaging. Still, there is only one major manufacturer of aseptic packaging equipment, a Dallas-based company called Brik Pak, a US subsidiary of the Swiss company Tetra Pak.

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Aseptic packaging proponents say its benefits include:

* Cost savings: Bottles and cans are heavier and bigger to transport, and more expensive to produce. According to Mr. Colcord, one of the key reasons for Ocean Spray's move to the paper bottle was the spiraling costs of bottling (up 66 percent since 1975) and canning (more than doubled since 1975).

* Energy savings: Stores will no longer have to keep freezers running 24 hours a day to keep the orange juice concentrate frozen. Nor will the consumer need to keep the refrigerator full to overflowing. Just pull the milk or orange juice off the shelf and put it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before you drink it.

* Space savings: The flexible, brick-shaped packaging is easier for merchants to store and truck.

Nevertheless, the move to aseptic packaging is not a cheap one. The equipment and even the paper boxes themselves are all still imported from Europe. Ocean Spray, for example, has committed some $34 million to the switchover.

A Louisville, Ky., dairy cooperative, Dairymen Inc., which serves the Southeast US, has been test marketing aseptically packaged milk, and is set to formally introduce the new products at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn.

''We were looking for a way to compete with other beverages, especially soft drinks,'' says Don Davis of Dairymen.'' Dairymen expects the flexible packaging to pour milk into more markets such as vending machines and airlines. Ocean Spray expects to move quickly into convience store and cafeteria markets, and maybe fast foods.

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