The Circularity of Product Packaging | Industrial Print Magazine

The Circularity of Product Packaging | Industrial Print Magazine

Sustainability is a focus across the print industry. Now more than ever thanks to supply chain issues, many are considering how material is made and if it can be procured at a local level. On top of these challenges, there is the desire to be more eco-friendly.

Above: Offered as both a facestock and label stock, PPG Teslin synthetic paper delivers essential attributes for durable label performance.

Sustainable materials used for labels are an option for those “green”-focused buyers. Not only how the label is made, but what is made up of, and if it can be recycled is important.

“Product packaging is a major contributor to environmental pollution and litter and a significant presence in landfills around the globe. For years, many brands have focused on recycling as the panacea for this waste. Recycling does help keep some plastic and other materials out of the natural environment, but in many parts of the world the current infrastructure and process faces numerous challenges,” notes Fabrizio Mandingorra, PPG labels and graphics global segment manager, TESLIN products.

Defining Sustainable With a focus on sustainable media, it makes sense to first define the term sustainable. More than a buzzword, how sustainable—particularly for our purposes label—media is perceived is an important consideration for both brand owners looking to use it and the printers printing to it.

The manufacturing process of label material can be complicated. “Many well-known facestock providers in the industry provide options that incorporate recycled materials and post-consumer recycled solutions. As simple as a label may appear, it is constructed of several layers, and each piece in the process affects the sustainability of the finished product,” notes Ryan Chai, strategic solutions manager, Nobelus.

Dan Riendeau, strategic business unit manager – packaging, FLEXcon Company, Inc., defines sustainable label media as media that helps facilitate a circular economy. “This means matching the label material to that of the specific container and its anticipated disposal, whether it is to be recycled, composted, or biodegraded. Utilization of label media that is best suited for the end of life of that particular container exemplifies the true definition of sustainable label media.”

He provides an example of a polyethylene label placed on a compostable container. This would not be considered a sustainable option because it cannot be composted. However, a polyethylene label placed on an high-density polyethylene (HDPE) container that will be recycled would be a sustainable option. “The use case here is key. Knowing the anticipated end of life path is essential to choosing application-specific sustainable label media,” continues Riendeau.

FLEXcon offers the optiFLEX ecoFOCUS product line with options that support recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and HDPE containers. For PET containers, the line features a wash-off adhesive that enables the production of clean recycled PET resin without contamination from label media. For HDPE containers, the line enables brands to pair like polymers so that the label can enter the same recycle stream as the container.

“Most often labels are placed on some type of packaging or container. In addition to the packaging surface the label must adhere to and the environmental conditions the item will be subjected to during its usable life, knowing how customers will dispose of the packaging helps dictate types of sustainable label media to use. Because of this complexity, no one sustainable label media solution will support all packaging containers and their waste streams,” agrees Mandingorra.

To illustrate the point further, when using 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 utilizing a biodegradable bag for a food item, then the label should also be biodegradable, he continues.

Sustainable label media should encompass the totality of a project—from sourcing to disposal, according to Chai. “As a layer that traditionally is made of plastic, sustainably sourced laminates can play a big role in supporting conservation efforts. Sustainable lamination also includes ensuring plastics end up in a circular economy and creating films that can be composted back to base materials over time to protect marine ecosystems.”

Usage Options Sustainable label media is used in a number of applications from personal care containers to food and beverage.

“Due to the growing volume of waste produced—single-use goods and consumer packaged goods—this is an ideal area for sustainable label media. We see it most often in fast moving consumer goods—and on food products in particular. We also see it in horticultural applications,” shares Mandingorra.

Sustainable label media is commonly used in consumer products like personal care containers for shampoo or lotion, food and beverage like produce containers or juice bottles, and household chemicals like window cleaner or dish soap containers. Riendeau says this is because of the push from consumers for companies to adopt more sustainable packaging.

“We definitely see increasing demand for sustainable labels by consumers. Consumers are much more aware of the role packaging has on the environment and are rethinking their buying behavior as a result. In fact, numerous research studies report the majority of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact and look for sustainability information on packaging,” agrees Mandingorra.

As a result, many companies are taking a hard look at their packaging to try to meet those needs. “Furthermore, many consumer goods companies have committed, through The U.S. Plastics Pact, to come together and work toward a common vision of a circular economy for plastics as outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative. This vision aims to ‘ensure that plastics never become waste by eliminating the plastics we don’t need; innovating to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and circulating all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.’ With this commitment across the industry, sustainable label media plays an instrumental role in creating a circular economy for plastics,” explains Riendeau.

Mandingorra believes the scope is broadening beyond the material and focusing on corporations’ commitments to environmental, social, and governance principles. For example, they may look at the entire carbon footprint to manufacture the material, the company’s hiring practices, and how they give back to the community.

Consumer goods companies are generally most apt to seek out sustainable practices. On the other hand, “markets that prioritize durability and peak performance, such as the automotive industry, lack the financial and functional incentive to change their materials or processes. In some instances, applications in these markets have requirements that go beyond the capabilities of existing sustainable solutions and therefore require traditional facestock and lamination,” suggests Chai.

Supply Chain Challenges Faced with supply chain challenges across the globe, many brand owners have to accept working with materials that they didn’t intend on using. Sustainable label media is affected, but in some aspects it is a positive influence.

With shortages on paper label media, Riendeau says many convertors have inquired about sustainable film options. “While it may seem that this is a move toward decreased sustainability, the opposite is actually true as it relates to plastic containers because paper label media, when adhered to widely recycled plastic containers such as PET and HDPE, contaminate the recycle stream and are, therefore, detrimental to the recycling process. Many organizations are starting to realize this and are requesting film options to help ensure the recyclability of their containers.”

“The prime label industry is dealing with logistical challenges and raw material shortages in general, and sustainable label media is no exception. Supply chain issues seem to be impacting traditional and sustainable label media in similar ways,” argues Chai.

Mandingorra believes that at this point, brand owners are desperate just to get whatever material they can find in the marketplace with acceptable lead times. “We believe that the trend toward sustainable materials will return when the supply chain normalizes.”

Performance Comparisons Durability, printability, and ink compatibility of sustainable label media is a topic of concern. No one wants to justify giving up one of those features to offer a sustainable option—no matter how beneficial it may be for the environment.

Chai says there hasn’t been extensive testing concerning the efficacy of these factors in direct comparison to traditional labels. However, Nobelus has conducted tests verifying that its

EcoElement films provide scuff resistance and protection on par with biaxially-oriented polypropylene or BOPP solutions in the market today. Nobelus’ EcoElement gloss and matte films are composed of Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification certified wood pulp and 20 to 25 percent reprocessed cellulose to create a completely plastic-free protective layer for prime labels.

“Performance requirements such as durability, printability, and ink compatibility will continue and must be equal to or better than less sustainable options to compete in the marketplace. Brands will simply not accept sustainable label media that requires compromises in performance,” adheres Riendeau.

It depends of course on the material in question. Synthetic paper, for example is considered a sustainable material, is also long lasting and can withstand harsh conditions, notes Mandingorra.

“Companies are choosing synthetic paper because it will not deteriorate when exposed to rain, humidity, extreme temperature changes, and abrasion and scuffing. It’s essential, however, that these materials provide high-quality printability and ink compatibility as well as durability.” PPG Teslin substrate is compatible with a range of print processes, including inkjet, laser, and thermal transfer for on demand and variable data printing. The microporos in Teslin material enables multi-dimensional bonds reducing risk of adhesive failure as well as built-in tear resistance and durability.

Offered as both a facestock and label stock, PPG Teslin synthetic paper delivers essential attributes for durable label performance. In addition to water-, chemical-, and tear-resistance, images and data printed on PPG Teslin synthetic paper stand up to abrasion, scratches, and scuffing better than on other synthetic label papers.

Unlike other synthetic substrates that may melt when exposed to high temperatures, the Teslin substrate withstands heat and readily accommodates laser-based print customization of single labels with variable information. It also offers fast drying of toners and inks to boost production throughput and is digital print-ready right out of the package, no corona treatment or coating is needed.

Trends Worth Noting Here are some other worthwhile topics of discussion in relation to sustainable label media. “Since this is a new and ever-changing landscape, we’re trying to keep an eye open as new technologies and methods develop. As laminate suppliers, our focus mostly rests on researching and developing environmentally friendly options for label finishing so label converters can offer sustainable products that look appealing with optimal performance. We talk to many label converters who are interested in compostable lamination but pass it over due to price. In the interim, post-consumer recycled solutions and recyclable alternatives are providing a lower cost option. The aim is to help label lamination reach a fully compostable model, but this will take time,” admits Chai.

With a jump in use of reusable containers with refillable options, Riendeau sees a new—albeit good—challenge for label media suppliers. “Some products are already hitting the market, such as dehydrated dish soap and body wash packets that are dissolved in water in a reusable container. After a couple of refills, plastic consumption can be reduced by as much as 94 percent, depending on the product. This can potentially pose a new risk for labeling as film suppliers and label printers need to understand a new container life—one that will be longer in duration and, therefore, require greater durability than labels that are intended to last for only weeks or months.”

A strong need for education is another trend. “Everyone in the label and packaging industry knows that they need to do something, but they don’t always have clarity as to what it is they should be doing. It’s the responsibility of large companies who are further along the sustainability journey to provide that education,” says Mandingorra.

A Circular Future As we become more well attuned to the wants and needs of brand owners and more importantly, consumers, the term sustainable takes on a focused meaning. It settles on the entirety of a project, from the container to the label, sourcing to where it will be disposed of. This circular focus is one that we all can agree on, particularly with a goal to achieve less waste in the future.

Learn more about sustainable label media in our recent webinar, available online at

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