Plastics Container Labeling – Sustainability Choices

Yupo provides IML substrates that are molded into the plastic container, creating an advantage in the recycling process. Photo courtesy of Yupo Corporation America.
by Liz Stevens, writer, Plastics Decorating

In 2022, sustainability and recyclability have evolved beyond being mere buzzwords or ideals held mainly by the environmentalists among us. The majority of Americans now understand the need to preserve finite resources and protect the health of landscape, seascape and atmosphere. The good news is that it is getting easier to be green.

Discussions on plastics recycling continues to be front page news. And, as it relates to the recycling of consumer plastic bottles and containers, how to either remove the label or incorporate the label in the recycling process continues to be a topic of discussion. Harrison Chien, vice president, sales & marketing at Weber Packaging Solutions, and Mike Licata, director, business & technical development at Yupo Corporation America, are experienced industry players with insight into the use of labels for plastics decorating purposes. Plastics Decorating asked for their thoughts on this trend.

Sustainability on the forefront

Weber Packaging Solutions, Arlington Heights, Illinois, is an innovator in the design, engineering, manufacture and supply of high-performance pressure-sensitive labels, labeling systems and ink jet systems. VP Harrison Chien has worked in the industry since the early 1990s, and he recalls the push a decade ago toward recyclability. “Ten or 12 years ago,” Chien said, “there was a huge drive for recyclability. We used the term ‘green’ back then, and what we eventually found out was that, at that time, the word ‘green’ just meant ‘it costs more.’”

The popularity of the movement waned for a time, but Chien now sees a strong resurgence of interest. “With social media and more environmentally aware consumers, we are seeing another surge toward recyclability and sustainability,” he said. “Today’s consumer is definitely more environmentally conscious, and they are demanding more sustainable products.” The demand is strong in areas like milk, yogurt, coffee, salty snacks and juices. Cannabis is another area with heightened demand for sustainability. “Cannabis,” said Chien, “is one of the fastest growing segments in the marketplace for sustainable packaging.”

Weber Packaging’s recyclable label on a lemonade bottle. Photo courtesy of Weber Packaging Solutions.

Chien explained that consumer studies reveal that as many as 50% of consumers would be willing to pay extra for goods (and packaging) that are environmentally friendly. While that sentiment tends to recede when consumers learn that the price hike might be as high as 30%, younger consumers remain keen on paying for sustainability, and so the sustainable/recyclable push has spread from consumers to manufacturers, especially the manufacturers in boutique, price-hike-friendly markets. It will take time, however, along with investment in infrastructure and probably some regulatory push to make sustainability and recycling as prevalent in the US as it is in Europe.

Sustainability and pressure-sensitive labels

Sustainability and recycling are most definitely here to stay, and CEOs and retailers are facing more and more pressure to get onboard. “Brands are making more commitments and large investments, and there are increasing regulatory demands,” stated Chien. “A lot of things in our world don’t happen unless there is a regulation or a mandate, and there is movement toward that now. And in North America, we are seeing improvements in infrastructure for recycling.”

Chien explained that, from a pressure-sensitive labeling aspect, new materials and technologies are emerging. A label for a PET container, for example, still must be removed during recycling, and Weber Packaging has begun using Avery Dennison’s CleanFlake™, a label substrate with an adhesive coating designed so both label and adhesive separate completely from the container during the recycling wash process.

Weber Packaging now offers its customers a variety of environmentally friendly innovations including products based on materials that have been redesigned for a reduced carbon footprint, unique label constructions that cut down on unnecessary materials while improving efficiency and exploration of hemp and other substrates beyond paper as a source for more easily recyclable substrates. The company also demonstrates its commitment by collecting all of its own production waste for conversion into fuel pellets.

Sustainability through IML

The use of in-mold labels (IML) continues to grow in the production of consumer plastic bottles and containers. Besides the benefits of in-mold labels eliminating steps in the production process, it is now being touted as a sustainable option for plastic labeling when a plastic substrate is utilized for the label and literally becomes part of the container. “We are receiving a great deal of interest in in-mold labels from brand owners of all types of consumer products looking for sustainability options for decorating their products,” stated Bob Travis, president of InkWorks Printing, a manufacturer of digitally printed in-mold labels and current president of the In-Mold Decorating Association (IMDA). “IML is an excellent alternative to pressure-sensitive labels, eliminating the adhesives used to apply label and reducing complications in the recycling process.”

Yupo Corporation America, in Chesapeake, Virginia, is an innovator in synthetic substrates for use in labeling and is one of the largest manufacturers of in-mold label substrates in the world. Yupo’s Mike Licata explained how Yupo’s IML substrates can be an advantage in the recycling process. “The IML becomes part of a container whether it is blow molded, injection molded, injection stretch blow molded or thermoformed,” stated Licata. “Specific Yupo IML substrates have been recognized by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) to be fully compatible with HDPE recycling and can also be recycled into HDPE containers without worry of causing any issues at the molders.” Licata went on to say that both brand owners and retailers value the importance of this recognition.

Licata has recognized the need for education as it relates to in-mold labels and other labels in the plastics recycling process. With this, he has taken on the role as the chair of one of the APR Olefins Technical Committee’s Continuous Improvement Working Groups focused on labels, inks and adhesives.

The association (APR) has been in existence since the 1980s and prides itself on being the Voice of Plastics Recycling® with members involved with the entire plastic recycling value chain. One of its key programs has been the creation of the APR Design® Guide for Plastics Recyclability developed by APR’s Technical Committees and published by the association. “The guide is a technical resource for brand owners and others involved in the plastics packaging supply chain to reference on how to make their packaging recyclable,” stated Kara Pochiro, APR’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. APR also offers in-house custom design guide training, a podcast series called “Recycled Content,” webinars and a design recognition program.

“Being invited to chair the APR Labels Team has given me amazing opportunities to engage with many of APR’s nearly 250 active memberships, which includes parties from across the value chain: waste haulers; MRFs; recyclers; reclaimers; consumer brand companies; retailers; packaging suppliers like resins, inks, colorants, adhesives and additives; label manufacturers; and testing laboratories,” concluded Licata. “The Labels Team is comprised of volunteers who are collaborating to develop Summary Guidance in support of the APR’s Olefin Technical Committee. APR does an amazing job as the Voice of Plastics Recycling®. I love the mission and opportunity to work daily with APR and others from around the world to make a difference.”

Continued progress

Changes in both pressure-sensitive labeling and the growth of in-mold labels will be important topics for the recycling of plastics moving forward. Educating the brand owners and manufacturers on the available choices and processes for labeling and decorating, as well as resources available – such as the APR Design® Guide – will be crucial for all the parties involved in the process.