by Melissa Donovan
Sustainability is a continued discussion in all print segments, including labels. Sustainable label media options are available—from facestock and adhesive to the liner—that can be optimized for digital printing. When it comes to label media, what does sustainability mean? Features that come to mind include water dissolvable, biodegradable, recyclable, repulpable, and compostable.
Brand owners from multiple backgrounds consider sustainable labels for everything from food packaging to cosmetic items. Demand for sustainable label media continues to grow with a push from consumers, despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of the supply chain.
What’s In a Word?
To better position our discussion on sustainable label media, it is best to first define sustainability. A uniform definition is a bit challenging, however it seems that the general consensus is sustainable label media is any portion of the consumable—facestock, adhesive, or liner—that contributes to reducing waste production and landfill usage.
“Sustainability means utilizing materials that can be safely returned to soil—biodegradable or compostable, reused, recycled, or remanufactured. It includes the use of energy efficient practices and clean energy sources throughout the manufacturing and/or converting processes,” explains Terri Brown, technical manager, Acucote Inc.
According to Richard Southward, global product manager, labels, Innovia Films, “the term sustainability in regards to label media means that the label should contribute to improving the recyclability of bulk packaging and container materials. They need to be recyclable themselves, facilitate whole-pack recycling, or separate readily to improve bulk pack material recycling.”
“Labels are a component of the overall container. Whether it is allowing labels to be washed off aiding in more PET being able to be reclaimed or looking at liners with post-consumer waste content. Any step made towards sustainability is a step in the right direction,” agrees Dan Riendeau, strategic business unit manager – packaging, FLEXcon Company, Inc.
Part of achieving a reduction in waste is by using thinner label media or substrates that contain recycled content, says Southward. “For plastic labels, fossil resource usage reduction should be the goal, also achievable through down gauging, adding recycled content, or even renewable content.”
“Sustainability is a commitment to best practices—from reducing environmental footprint as a manufacturer, to investing in practices that reduce waste and conserve natural resources, to developing environmentally friendly products,” adds Kim Hensley, senior marketing manager, Mactac.
Label media that falls under the heading of sustainable may be dissolvable in water, biodegradable, recyclable, repulpable, or compostable. These functions or features promote sustainability in their own way.
“Each of these categories offers benefits as well as challenges. They all address the impacts of end-of-life disposal. From an end-of-life disposal perspective, it is very important to continue to move up the waste hierarchy to reduce the amount of waste to landfill and move us one step closer to creating circular outlets for used products,” notes Louise Sullivan, director, sustainability and innovation, label and graphic materials, Avery Dennison, North America.
Water soluble or “wash off” labels are considered “green” because they facilitate bulk container recycling, explains Southward.
The labels are easily removed during the washing process for recycling because they are paired with the appropriate adhesive, which leaves no adhesive residue behind. This allows the product that the label was originally attached to be recycled or reused, says Hensley.
Meanwhile, water dissolvable adhesives, when paired with dissolvable facestocks, “typically disperse in either cold or hot water, leaving zero residue. These adhesives release from metal, high-density polyethylene, and other LSE plastic containers—allowing the end user to recycle or reuse the packaging,” explains Melissa Harton, marketing manager, Acucote.
Biodegradable and compostable label media “offers safe zero-landfill end-of-life disposal options,” shares Southward.
“To be considered compostable, the entire package must pass prescribed standards and prove a certain percentage degrades within a certain timeframe. In biodegradation, there is not a specific timeframe,” adds Harton.
Addressing repulpability, Harton notes that repulpable labels, which are paper labels paired with a certified repulpable facestock, are good candidates for sustainability because they can be remanufactured into paper using a conventional pulping process.
“International organizations have made major strides in the forestry sector by helping to create standards for wood-based products—like recyclable label stock—that come from sustainably managed forests,” adds Hensley.
Riendeau says reusability and repurposeability are other sustainable features that need to be considered.
“Label materials that are manufactured from previously used materials, post-consumer waste, or post-industrial waste should be considered for sustainable labeling as they recirculate the materials,” agrees Harton.
Reduce and reuse is an important focus as more data comes to the surface about recycling. According to a report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, globally 14 to 18 percent of plastic waste is recycled.
“That leaves the majority of plastic accumulating in landfills or entering the natural environment as litter. As consumers and brands learn more about recycling’s drawbacks, thinking is emerging around sustainable product packaging centering on a waste hierarchy that ranks waste management strategies from most to least preferred.
Coming before recycling in that waste hierarchy are the concepts of reduce and reuse,” shares Fabrizio Mandingorra, labels and graphics global segment manager, TESLIN products, PPG.
The manufacturing process of the label material itself should be considered as well. “Achieve goals such as using less energy for manufacturing and less raw materials, reducing freight, reducing packaging waste, and increasing productivity,” offers Hensley.
Southward admits there is another key aspect. “The infrastructure to collect and separate materials and handle them appropriately. A perfectly recyclable material is useless if not collected properly.”
“Regardless of how recyclable or compostable a product is, whether a product is recycled or composted will depend on end-user behavior, ease of access to recycling/composting infrastructure, and cost,” agrees Sullivan.
Polypropylene (PP), biaxially oriented PP (BOPP), machine direction oriented, polyethylene (PE), and paper-based consumables are commonly considered sustainable label materials and offer one or some of the aforementioned features to make them so. They are used to label anything from water bottles to cleaning supplies. Specific adhesives are also designed and manufactured to work with these materials.
It is important to note, no one sustainable media solution will support all packaging containers and their waste streams, admits Mandingorra. “For example, if you are using a compostable packaging for a horticultural good, then a compostable adhesive label is the best choice so it doesn’t contaminate the waste generated during the composting process. If you are using a biodegradable bag for a food item, then the label should also be biodegradable,” he continues.
PP-based labels are commonly used for PET bottles—almost preferred—according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers guide. “This is because the labels when separated in the float-sink bath float to the top, making recycling easier. Low-density films can be used, which reduces material usage. PP also flexes with the bottles and allows expansion during filling,” explains Southward.
Southward believes that PP labels replacing paper wrap around labels can make a huge impact on improving the recyclability of PET bottles. “If a manufacturer making hundreds of millions of bottles using two million pounds of 70 g/m2 paper transitions to BOPP film, they will make a 43 percent material reduction, while eliminating two million pounds of paper from the recycling stream.”
There are recycle-compatible adhesives that when applied to paper, can be recycled and the paper is repulpable, explains Hensley.
Other adhesives are designed to be easier to remove during paper recycling. “These are called recycling compatible adhesives, which are a class of hot melt PSAs that remain large enough after pulping and can be removed by slotted screens and flotation. They allow paper to be recycled without the adhesive clogging the screens during the recycling process,” she continues.
A recent trend in label materials related to sustainability is thinner facestocks. “2.6-mil white PP has been the standard for years—lower gauge versions such as 2.4- and 1.6-mil are taking over to improve economics and sustainability. The standard 2-mil clear PP, often used for ‘no-label’ look applications is moving to 1.6-mil,” shares Hensley.
“Thinner products allow us all to reduce our overall environmental impact while maintaining quality by using less raw materials, requiring less energy for manufacturing, reducing freight, minimizing packaging waste, and increasing productivity,” she continues.
Demand for sustainable label media is coming across all sectors and industries but is driven primarily by consumers.
Consumers are a major player in sustainable growth. “They want to understand the entire message. The package in most cases is the first thing a buyer sees. Food, beverage, and personal care are specific industries that consumers are insisting for more sustainable products,” shares Riendeau.
Mandingorra says that numerous research studies report that the majority of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact and look for sustainability information on packaging.
“Buyers are becoming more environmentally conscious and demand sustainable products across most categories. This pressure is driving the demand for sustainable products and packaging. Brands respond to this with a renewed focus on sustainability and this trend is expected to continue into the future,” adds Sullivan.
Major consumer product brands are establishing corporate goals for more sustainable packaging solutions. Hensley cites examples such as PepsiCo committed to making 100 percent of its packaging recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025, and striving to use 25 percent recycled plastic content in its plastic packaging by 2025. Nestlé plans for its Poland Spring bottled water to reach 100 percent recycled PET across its entire stillwater portfolio by 2022. Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste goals has 16 markets offering beverages packaged in 100 percent recycled PET bottles.
“The food and beverage industry is inquiring more frequently about sustainable labeling options. A main reason for this is the constant changes in testing standards. Communities are also mandating sustainable end-of-life solutions compatible with recycling resources for their municipalities,” explains Brown.
Trends in Action
Competing trends and macro-influences effect the growth of sustainable label media. The COVID-19 pandemic was one such influence. In addition, increased interest in digitally printed shrink sleeves and direct to object printing has left its mark on sustainable label media as well.
While the pandemic may have delayed and/or slowed the sustainable label trend, Southward admits its unstoppable and demand is growing strongly.
“Coming out of COVID-19, more brands are looking towards sustainable packaging solutions. The demand across all consumer-goods markets has increased. In addition, sustainable solutions are going to be the key in differentiation across all label media,” predicts Riendeau.
COVID-19’s direct influence on consumers’ increasing usage of home delivery services “created a spike in corrugate consumption. This drove the market to produce labels that are more compatible with corrugate recycling,” says Brown.
Interestingly enough, it seems as though more products will necessitate labels and as a result these will require sustainable materials. Why is this? Two trends—localization and private labels—to once again come out of COVID-19.
“Localization is on the rise in the wake of the pandemic. Consumers realize the importance of supporting their own community and will look to brands to invest in local suppliers and innovators. We also see private label products becoming more popular. The pandemic served as an economic stressor for many, and they turned to store brands to cut costs. After realizing these products are not so different from name brands, many people will continue to purchase them even after their economic stress lessens,” shares Sullivan.
With consumer interest high in sustainability, it is no surprise that label media manufacturers are reacting with new products to market. Many of these products address the end of the product life cycle, ensuring they can either be recycled, reused, or repurposed in some way. IPM
Sep2021, Industrial Print Magazine