Sustainable Label Production
Options and Considerations
Have you and your company committed to decreasing your environmental impact? Perhaps your customers are requiring sustainable products as part of meeting their sustainability goals. Or maybe your customers need sustainable labels to comply with local environmental packaging regulations and requirements.
Companies, consumers, and regulatory agencies are increasingly focused on sustainability. One of the major points of focus when it comes to this is the effect that packaging can have on our environment. Because labels play a key part of packaging and the supply chain, chances are that you will at some point need to consider how your customer’s labels contribute to overall sustainability.
There are several decisions that can be made to decrease the impact of labels on our environment. We’ve put together this overview of some of these considerations.
In many cases, these choices will balance function, cost, availability, and practicality with overall sustainability goals and requirements. You can contact our label experts any time and we can help you choose the right labels to meet your and your customer’s sustainability, budget and labeling goals.
Sustainable Label Materials
The material that your customer’s labels are made of can play a large role in helping to reach sustainability goals. As the desire for more environmentally friendly packaging increases, label material suppliers and manufacturers are continually developing new materials to meet this need.
While these sustainable materials are generally more expensive than conventional label materials, many companies will determine that the extra cost is worth it to meet sustainability goals or customer demand. Sustainable materials also aren’t as readily available as conventional label materials. But as the market for environmentally friendly packaging grows, these materials will become more mainstream.
The market for sustainable products has also become much more nuanced than in years past. The sustainability of a given material goes beyond simply whether it’s made of recycled paper. When determining how a particular material helps to meet sustainability goals, companies consider many factors – looking at where and how a material is made, what it is made of, how much material is needed and what happens to the material as it moves throughout its lifespan. Some companies may simply be looking for a label printed on renewable or recycled materials, while others will look for a product that has been sustainably produced, and yet another will be looking for a label that is recyclable or biodegradable.
Building a Sustainable Label
A typical pressure sensitive label consists of a liner, an adhesive and a facestock. All three components have an impact on sustainability, and all three should be considered when looking at label sustainability. It’s also important to consider the ink and any coatings or embellishments.
As the main material of the label, the facestock is one of the most obvious places to look for sustainable options. As demand increases, the variety of more environmentally friendly facestocks continues to grow. Today’s environmentally savvy customers can choose from a wide variety of sustainable facestocks such as:
- Post-consumer recycled paper or film
- Sustainably-sourced and certified paper material
- Biodegradable paper made from non-tree sources
- Compostable label material
- Plastic films made from non-petroleum products
- Recyclable PET
- Thinner/lightweight facestock options
Label release liners make up 33% or more of the materials used to produce pressure sensitive labels. Unfortunately, they also pose a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to sustainability. Typically, release liners are coated with silicone, making them difficult to recycle. Only specialized facilities are able to remove the silicone and recycle the paper. While some companies have worked to create options for recycling liners, most liners currently end up in landfills.
Some of the options for more sustainable release liners include:
- Liners made with recycled raw materials
- Sustainably sourced and certified liners
- Recyclable liners
- Thinner liners
- Liners produced by a company with a liner recycling program
- Linerless labels
Label adhesives can in and of themselves be more or less sustainable. They can also have a direct effect on recyclability and overall sustainability of packaging. Options for more environmentally friendly adhesive include:
- Water-based adhesive
- Low VOC adhesive
- Flake away/wash away adhesive
- Biodegradable adhesive
- Repulpable adhesive
Ink and Label Coatings
The ink that the label is printed with, as well as any coatings and embellishments applied to the label can have a direct effect on its overall environmental impact. As companies balance requirements for aesthetics, ink quality, durability, or resistance properties, some sustainable options include:
- Low VOC inks
- Biodegradable inks
- Water-based, biorenewable inks
- Low energy/LED cured UV inks
Label Packaging and Transport
Like any product, labels require packaging. Some options to increase overall sustainability include packing label pallets with less cardboard, or utilizing post-consumer recycled packaging materials.
Shipping and transport of labels means greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use. Some of the strategies that can reduce the environmental impact of label shipping include:
- Strategically combining shipments
- Ordering from facilities closer to where the labels are needed
- Using smaller or thinner labels to decrease weight and allow for more labels per shipment
It can get complicated when it comes to disposing of or recycling the packaging that labels are applied to. Once applied to bottles, boxes or other packaging, labels can affect the recyclability of that packaging. If your customer is worried about label disposal or recycling after use, there are a few considerations to consider. There are also options available for recycle-friendly, biodegradable, or compostable labeling materials.
Labels and Plastic Packaging
In many (though not all) cases, a paper label on a recyclable plastic bottle will not make the bottle unrecyclable. At many recycling facilities, the label will be burned off in the recycling process. However, this label material can lead to contamination of the recycled plastic material, degrading the quality of the recycled material, limiting its use and reducing overall yield.
There are also recycling facilities that are unable to process plastic with labels. In this case, the label would need to be removed and discarded prior to recycling.
Plastic labels applied to a plastic bottle can be recyclable if they are the same type of plastic as the bottle – such as a PET label on a PET bottle. There is still, however, the possibility that ink or adhesive could contaminate the recycled material.
Some labels will not be compatible with recycling. For example, a paper label with a plastic laminate will likely need to be removed prior to recycling.
To allow for optimum recyclability, look for label materials that are fully compatible with the recycling process, including facestocks, inks and adhesives designed to work with recycling. For example, there are adhesives designed to either flake off or completely wash off of recyclable plastic.
When worried about the effect that labels can have on recycling, companies can also consider the size of the label (both thickness and surface area). Larger labels mean more potential contamination of the recycled material.
In cases where it isn’t feasible either due to the functionality of the label or the price of specialty materials, companies can help increase the recycling rate of their packaging by including messaging on how to recycle. This messaging can include instructions to remove the label prior to recycling.
Utilizing adhesives that make it easier for the consumer to remove the label can also help this process. Other options include the use of washaway or dissolvable labels.
Biodegradable and Compostable Labels
Many companies are looking to biodegradable packaging to help meet sustainability goals. This type of packaging relies on materials that will break down naturally, within a relatively short time period. Biodegradable labels will generally be made up of uncoated, natural materials such as paper made of sugar cane. It is also important to choose a biodegradable ink and adhesive for these labels.
When considering biodegradable labels and packaging, it is important to look at the function of the packaging, especially how long it needs to last and conditions the label will be exposed to. Because these labels are specifically designed to break down, they won’t be a practical choice for all uses.
For packaging that is designed to be compostable, it is important to consider the construction of any labeling. There are a variety of label stocks, inks and adhesives that are designed to be compostable. If the label is not itself compostable, label messaging can inform consumers of the need to remove the label prior to composting.
Reduce Label Waste
Consider Label Size
Companies that are concerned about sustainability should carefully consider the size (surface area and thickness) of their labels and liners – using only as large of a label as necessary. This will help minimize the raw materials and energy needed to create the label, as well as the eventual label material that must be disposed of.
Thinner labels and liners also mean more labels per roll, which reduces the materials needed for label cores and packaging materials. Reducing label weight and allowing for more labels per shipment, smaller/thinner labels can reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions.
There are limitations in some cases for how thin a label or liner can be, based on current machinery available both for label converters, printers and industrial label applicators. When considering a thinner label for your customers, be sure to consider the necessary specifications of their label equipment.
As we mentioned earlier, silicone coated label liners are generally not recyclable unless utilizing a specialized recycling facility. With linerless labels, there is no release liner. This means fewer resources and materials used to create the liner, as well as no liners to add to landfills.
Using linerless labels can also reduce label material waste. Because linerless labels are printed and cut to size, there is no wasted blank label.
Without the added bulk and weight of liners, linerless labels can have up to 50% more labels per roll. This equals less fuel and emissions needed to transport them.
Digital Label Printing
One way to reduce label waste is to only produce as many labels as needed. Digital label printing helps makes this possible with the option to cost-effectively produce small and medium print runs.
Because the digital printing process doesn’t require plates or dies, it offers the possibility for smaller runs (as low as 100 labels) and quicker turnarounds. This allows your customers to order only as many labels as they need – when they need them.
Balancing Sustainability with Other Business Concerns
In an ideal world, all of these sustainable label options would be utilized by all companies. However, while demand for and regulatory requirements for sustainable packaging and labels is increasing, not all companies are yet able to fully make the switch to sustainable labels.
Every company needs to balance the demands of their customers with the availability and cost of sustainable materials, as well as how the materials will perform for the specific label application. If you are looking for more sustainable options, contact our label experts to help you determine what options will work for you and your customers.