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Recycling issues continue to plague shrink sleeve labels

Shrink sleeves have many advantages for brand owners including a lot of label landscape for promoting the product, placement of information and the ability to create very decorative packaging. However, the downside for shrink sleeve labels is recycling, which continues to plague the industry and consumers, who must remove the label prior to recycling the bottles.

Shrink sleeves have many advantages for brand owners including a lot of label landscape for promoting the product, placement of information and the ability to create very decorative packaging. However, the downside for shrink sleeve labels is recycling, which continues to plague the industry and consumers, who must remove the label prior to recycling the bottles.

Sustainability and recycling issues consumed an entire afternoon at the recent two-day Sleeve Label Conference & Expo in Cincinnati, April 29-30. However, it garnered a lot of interest and attention from attendees. Rosalyn Bandy, senior sustainability manager for Avery Dennison, approached these issues by reminding us of the past when consumers and industry began becoming very conscious of all the stuff we were throwing out as trash.

"There are three eras of sustainability," Bandy told the group. "First there was 'Do No Harm.' Next came 'Do Well by Doing Good' and finally the era we're in now - 'Create Value.' Today, we need a more comprehensive approach to sustainability."

John Standish, technical director for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), noted in his presentation that sustainability is a key consideration of PET package design: lightweighting to minimize material usage; employ recycled content; employ renewable resources where possible; and ensure the package can be recycled into new packaging.  The APR supports innovation through The APR design guide - PET Bottles Design for Recyclability Guidelines can help brand owners with this. "It's in our collective interest to support PET packaging innovation," said Standish.

Recycling PET is critical because demand for rPET is greater than supply. Standish encourages the recycling of clean PET as "contamination reduces the value of RPET and limits its use." The APR also offers Critical Guidance Tests to quantify the impact of a label and ink on recycling of PET, including shrink sleeve labels.

Shrink sleeve labels can create extra cost and contamination, Standish noted. Because shrink sleeve labels are typically made from heavier weight film, the labels tend to sink in the water with the PET flake. Additionally, PETG label residue can cause clumping.

Label removal prior to recycling is another issue, and consumers are encouraged to remove sleeve labels. Some brand owners that use sleeve labels put a "zipper" on the label to make it convenient for the consumer to remove the label.

There are de-labeling machines that rip the labels from the bottles to allow sorting and minimizing label content in the wash tanks. However, Standish said, "This involves a new unit operation, capital costs, maintenance costs, extra labor, process down time, and yield loss. On the upside, this investment can be more cost effective than losing 5%+ of the bale content with sleeve labels. But de-label machines remain an undesirable solution to the sleeve label problem in the recycling stream."

Benefit for brands; issue for material reclaimers

Weilong Chiang, senior principal engineer of PepsiCo for beverage packaging R&D, noted in his presentation that the quality of the PET recyclate is "critical to PepsiCo" because the company uses a large amount of recycled PET material in its bottles - anywhere from 10% to 100% recycled PET. "PepsiCo has been major buyer of RPET," added Chiang.

Shrink sleeve labels are great for the brand owners, said Chiang, noting that sales of SoBe Lifewater increased dramatically when PepsiCo went to shrink sleeve labels. However, the recycling issues surrounding shrink sleeves "has been a hot-button issue the last few years and recyclers have a hard time dealing with them," he said. "There are bales full of full-wrap bottles stored in the reclaimer's facility because the material cannot be reprocessed resulting in a substantial loss for the recyclers."

Holli Whitt, market development manager of sustainability for Eastman Chemical, concurred about both the benefits of shrink sleeves to brand owners and the problems in the recycling steam that plague material reclaimers. "It is a complex problem and a complex recycling process," Whitt said. "Issues show up at different points in the process, which means there's not a single silver bullet solution."

"We can't implement every single solution because from a financial standpoint it's not financially feasible. The best we can do is find the right combination of factors that will work," she added. "With respect to the zip-off label, that's not necessarily viable. Some consumers will take the label off, some won't."

Kevin Frydryk, global market development manager for Jindal Films, formerly Exxon Mobil and now part of the B.C. Jindal Group, noted in his presentation that shrink sleeve labels have become mainstream now - not a niche. "It's a big market with attractive growth rates," said Frydryk. "We expect shrink to exceed 12% of the total label decorating market share. We're seeing industry activity directed at multiple solutions for recycling, including the adoption of polyolefin for sleeve labels. These advances are realistic options and are in the process of being commercialized. Of course there will be a cost-experience curve just like any new material."

During the panel discussion and Q&A portion of the afternoon, the question was asked whether or not these issues surrounding recycling cause shrink sleeves to be "deselected." Jindal's Frydryk responded that while he wasn't sure the shrink sleeve was being deselected, "brand owners have held back due to the problems until solutions are found," he said. "There's pent up demand [for shrink sleeve labels] but brand owners want solutions."

Eastman's Whitt noted the value in the material that can be reclaimed, and even brought up the idea of leveraging "waste-to-energy like other countries do much better [than the U.S.]," she said. Still, recycling bottles into new bottles can benefit from shrink sleeve in that "you can have a less pristine bottle under the shrink sleeve label and still derive a lot of value from it."

Frydryk concluded that the "packaging world is always one of change. Sustainability is such an ongoing issue. Brand owners are being held accountable at the retail level and that will drive solutions."

Avery Dennison's Bandy added: "And brand owners will be driven by consumers."

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