Sustainability becomes increasingly important in the label & packaging industry as consumers are more aware of the impact of waste and their environmental responsibility. “Reduce, reuse and recycle” as the dogma of sustainability is more and more practiced by consumers as they are raising the pressure on brands to fundamentally rethink their products and to commit to more sustainable packaging and CO² footprint. Of course, reducing and reusing packaging is first and foremost the best option. But a zero-waste lifestyle is a soaring goal which most consumers struggle to reach. Additionally, with the rising impact on our environment, EU regulations are coming into effect to actively call for waste & single-use plastic reduction as well as alternative packaging designs to achieve EU sustainability goals. At the same time, new technologies in the labels & packaging industry are pushing towards more sustainability. Digital printing as well as improved recycling processes already enable higher supply chain efficiency and recycling rates, considerably reducing waste throughout the production.
That is why sustainable packaging has become much more of a priority - not only for the big corporate brands, such as P&G, but also for smaller businesses and startups. They start to focus on a more holistic approach towards how to reduce their ecological footprint within their supply chain.
Material: What kind of materials are the most sustainable?
Design: How can materials and waste be reduced in the design of labels & packaging?
Production: How can waste in the production of labels & packaging be reduced?
Recyclability: And how recyclable are the labels & packaging really?
In this article we would like to address some major pitfalls for small enterprises and starters when selecting labels & packaging for their products. By diving into the fields of recyclability, compostable materials and digital printing, you will be able to better select a sustainable option that fits your needs.
Recyclability starts with the recycling process itself. There is no global standard for recycling as regulations and the state of the art of recycling machines are different everywhere. Not all countries have superior collecting and recycling processes. Central & Northern Europe have comparable collecting, sorting & recycling processes with recycling rates of up to 67% in overall packaging and 42% in plastic packaging (Eurostat, 2019).
But what happens when packaging is thrown away? Let’s look at an exemplary plastic recycling process.
Plastic material from industrial and consumer waste is screened via a light source scanner whether something absorbs radiation (or is “shiny”) or not.
Detected plastic is then ejected from the material flow. Rejected materials proceed to incineration.
Once ejected, plastic containers and bottles are first shredded into small pieces before they are friction cleaned from any dirt and detached from any labels and sleeves in a basic (NAOH) solution and hot bath.
The washed shreds are finally separated in a swim/sink separation process where plastic materials such as PE and PP float on top of the water whereas plastic materials such as PET and PVC sinks to the bottom.
With the recycling process in mind, here is how you can increase the recyclability of your packaging.
Use Mono-material designs. Most packaging today is not traditionally recyclable because of its complexity. The more materials are used, the more complex it is to separate them in the recycling process. Craft paper laminated pouches for example, often used by brands for their natural look, can easily be rejected as non-plastic as the scanner is not able to detect any shine from the packaging. Although the pouch itself would have been recyclable, the lamination prevents it from being reintegrated into the cycle. The best option here would be pure PP or PE packaging without multilayers or craft paper pouches without an additional plastic or aluminium layer. Beware, however, that mono-paper packaging often lacks compliance with EU food regulations and has a negative impact on the product’s shelf life due to its limited barrier quality.
Avoid completely black designs. Again, scanners can detect different types of plastic by how much radiation they absorb. In case of black designs, the sensors cannot correctly detect the black plastics and therefore cannot sort them. Anything that cannot be detected by the scanners is deemed to be burnt - a real waste of precious resources!
Use detachable labels. Labelled packaging is better detectable since the label does not cover the entire surface. Also make sure that the label and adhesive you are using is solvent in hot water or basic solution. Keep in mind that labels should also be recyclable just as the packaging it is attached to.
In recent years, biodegradable and compostable packaging have emerged as a noticeable innovation in the packaging industry. Here is what you should know:
Both the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” are used to describe the organic process of disintegration. Biodegradable or compostable packaging is produced from organic materials that can be broken down by microorganisms. “Biodegradable” materials take roughly 6 months to disintegrate whereas “compostable” products break down in less than 3 months on average. This, however, is only ensured provided that these materials are disposed and recycled correctly under specific conditions.
For correct decomposition, special recycling methods are needed that do not involve traditional processes.
Biodegradable and compostable materials do not decompose under compacted conditions lacking oxygen such as in landfills. Disposal is unfortunately also not possible in composting facilities as the disintegration time frame is much longer than usual bio-waste.
Special biodegradable disposal facilities need to be equipped with UV lights and high temperatures that are designed to speed up the decomposition process. Additionally, if biodegradable or compostable plastic-like material does land in a traditional plastic recycling process, it leads to the contamination and quality degradation of the resulting recycled plastics.
To sum it up, correctly disposed biodegradable and compostable packaging would be the best choice as they have presented a solution for plastic-like products capable of natural disintegration. However, for you as a business, it is essential to consider the recycling process in your region when planning and executing your compostable packaging strategy to ensure that your image won’t be compromised by the lack of correct recycling infrastructure and processes.
When talking about reducing waste in label & packaging production, digital printing is the way to go. Learn more about digital vs. traditional printing in our blogpost.
The bottom line: Sustainability in packaging goes much further than just materials. We want to make sure you have your entire supply chain in mind and think about all components of your product from labeling to packaging design and material.
Your palamo. Team