As consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of their buying decisions, manufacturers are looking for ways of reducing product packaging and making it more environmentally friendly by using materials that are easily recyclable and come from sustainable sources such as recyclable labels.
The Anatomy of a Label
Many items of product packaging are essentially made from a single component. A plastic bag is extruded from a basic polymer such as polyethylene or polypropylene. A cardboard box is for the most part made of wood pulp and recycled paper and board fibres, and printing only adds a minuscule amount of other material. Inks are increasingly vegetable-based and present no environmental hazard.
But a label is different, comprised of three distinct parts with each having its own characteristics. These characteristics vary, depending on what the label is being applied to, the purpose of the label, the purpose of the product and the conditions in which the product will be stored and used.
The Face Stock
This is what we generally think of when we refer to a label; the paper or plastic layer that carries the printed information.
From the perspective of recyclability, the label should always match the material of the surface to which it is applied: plastic labels for plastic bottles, paper labels for cardboard boxes, and so on. This makes it easier for the packaging to be recycled as one item without being separated.
But other factors may require a different approach. Some types of tamper-evident security labels applied to cardboard cartons such as pharmaceutical products can only be manufactured from plastic, and glass bottles require plastic or paper labels.
This is the second component of the label, often invisible but playing a key role. It may need to stick the label permanently, allow it to be removed without damaging the label or the product, or be reapplied many times. It may need to resist water, high temperatures or freezing.
Once again, acrylic adhesives that dissolve in water are the most eco-friendly option, as removal is easy, inexpensive and uses less energy while the diluted adhesive is harmless to the environment. But acrylic adhesives are not suited to every application; it goes without saying it won’t be suitable for permanent use in damp or wet conditions.
Other adhesives contain latex compounds or solvents which, though less eco-friendly, are capable of withstanding more extreme temperatures and extended shelf life.
The Release Liner
This is the part of the label consumers rarely see but it still plays an essential role. It is the layer that holds labels on a roll, protecting the adhesive from drying out or becoming contaminated and feeding the labels through the applicator mechanism of a production line.
A silicone coating on the lining paper means the adhesive will hold the face stock firmly against the release liner during the label manufacturing process and storage, but release easily when it is applied to the product or product packaging.
Although release liner has previously been regarded as non-recyclable, some specialist recycling companies now claim to be able to recycle it but it should be segregated from other waste paper and treated separately.
As we mentioned earlier, labels should ideally be made from the same substance as the product or product packaging they are applied to, as paper (or cardboard) and plastic waste must be separated before recycling, as the processes used to recycle the two types of material are vastly different.
Paper and cardboard are mechanically broken down in large vats of water, where additives dissolve or separate any substances that are not paper fibre – ink, varnish, glue. These are then removed from the pulp, which is reprocessed into new packaging materials. Plastic is ground down, melted, extruded and made into plastic pellets which are also used to make new packaging.
If paper and plastic can be easily separated then the packaging will likely be recycled. If separation is too time-consuming, it will be sent to the landfill.
Recycled labels are another eco-friendly option, although these shouldn’t be confused with recyclable labels. Recycled paper labels are made from 100% recycled pulp. Plastic labels can – and often are – manufactured from recycled plastic, so even if a plastic label is the only choice it’s still possible to reduce your environmental impact.
Greener Alternative Labels
While the wood pulp used for paper labels comes from sustainably managed softwood forests, the paper industry is developing new alternative sources such as grasses that produce high pulp yields with lower environmental impact. These are proving popular with companies whose customers demand an even higher level of eco-sustainability.
The plastic label industry is also exploring eco-friendly alternatives and one of these is bio-compostable labels. Made from plant-based polymers, these comply with BS EN 13432 which means they will rapidly break down into water, carbon dioxide and harmless minerals naturally found in soil when added to a suitable composting environment.
Specifying a suitable label for your product or product packaging can often be a fine balance between cost-efficiency and performance on one side and environmental responsibility on the other. Being aware of, and where possible using, labels made from materials with lower environmental impact can help mitigate this problem.
At PFW Labels we can help you design labels with the most eco-friendly combination of face stock, adhesive and release liner to achieve the performance you need. Call us on 01270 766566 to speak with one of our team.