From a look at what the EU could do to promote more sustainable practices, to the glaring mistakes of brand owners, Marika Knorr, Head of Sustainability and Communications at CCA labelexamines the current state of sustainability in the labeling industry.
Generally speaking, what are the biggest sustainability challenges currently facing the labeling industry?
Regarding sustainability I see a few things we’re working on right now. The first would be the price and availability of recycled content. As we mainly deal with films, the quality of the recycled resin must be excellent for us to include it in our label and sleeve products. We can already do a lot and have labels with recycled content in our portfolio, but the additional costs are still considerable.
Regarding the availability of recycled content, we would like to see more regulatory framework and action to make recycled content a priority. This would increase the quality and quantity of material available on the market – for everyone.
Second, the carbon footprint of production itself must be reduced. Here, however, we see a lot of big improvements – from using renewable energy at our sites, using more energy-efficient machinery which is a priority with every purchase we make, and working with our supply to keep improving.
We invested in special software a few years ago to collect and analyze data from all of our 204 factories around the world – so that we can calculate our carbon footprint and be able to set targets. It also allows us to track, report and improve our emissions and help our global brand customers achieve their sustainable goals, for example the race to zero emissions.
We are constantly reporting on new labeling innovations, from washable solutions to floating labels. Can we expect these solutions to become fully mainstream in the future? Why why not? What more can be done to develop them?
These solutions to have generalize to achieve two major objectives of the packaging industry: to make packaging reusable and recyclable. Basically, a wrap is made up of two different components – if you take a beverage wrap, usually the bottle, the cap, and the label or sleeve.
All these materials must be functional and complementary for the packaging to be recyclable in the end. The “Design for Recycling Guidelines” widely distributed, for example by RecyClass, guide brands on how to design packaging at the start of its life so that it is recyclable at the end of its life.
If you look at the labels, the design guidelines recommend low density polyolefin floating labels for PET recycling, for example, because they match perfectly with the density separation in the sink/float process during the recycling process . In the established recycling process – which is important – WashOff labels are a basic requirement when designing returnable glass bottles. They can be washed efficiently and quickly on industrial washing and filling lines without leaving any residue on the bottles.
You may not see it at first glance, but these little tags are high tech. Once the bottles enter the wash basin, the label’s retraction properties are activated and the label itself begins to ‘grind its teeth’, rolling up and thus pulling out of the bottle – along with the adhesive and printing inks. This makes washing very clean and fast – the bottle can be filled immediately.
Despite huge investments of time and resources, big brands sometimes make glaring mistakes when it comes to sustainability labeling. Could you identify some of them and tell us how to avoid them?
There has been a huge push towards “design for recycling” in recent years – also thanks to clear guidelines that help everyone involved in the food and beverage supply chain to make better choices for the environment. Yet we see products on the market that need to be redesigned. When it comes to choosing the right label material for your primary packaging, which does not hinder recycling, I would like to highlight the following examples.
A paper label on a PET bottle will pose a recycling problem if it sticks to the bottle until it is sorted and recycled. Once the PET bottle is crushed and enters the sink/float, a crucial step in recycling, the paper becomes soggy and sinks to the bottom of the basin along with the PET flakes. Thus, there is no separation of materials and the risk that the printing inks are also mixed in all this. This can lead to a lower quality of PET recyclates which will have an effect on the applications for which it can be used.
Although many materials have been redlisted in many countries, for example PVC sleeves, these still occasionally appear and will be a problem for recycling and lead to contamination. The best advice we can give you is to stick to the Design for Recycling guidelines when redesigning packaging. These take into account existing recycling streams and technologies and contribute to a higher output of recycled content.
What more should EU lawmakers do to encourage more sustainable labeling practices?
Well, if we could create a ‘wish list’ it would include the following: harmonization of collection and recycling technology legislation to allow for a European approach rather than having piecemeal practices in place. Also, simplifying and harmonizing the language and key messages around the recyclability of a packaging would help a lot – it would allow brands and consumers to make an informed decision.
Finally, we support the eco-modulation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) royalties. Currently, all brands that pay the EPR for the packaging they put on the market pay it by weight. It does not incentivize anyone to make packaging more recyclable or to redesign packaging.
The EU is considering changing this, so that packaging designed for recycling is rewarded with a lower fee than packaging deemed non-recyclable. This would allow companies to invest upfront in innovative and sustainable packaging solutions, as they are looking at less expense later on.
Going forward, what sustainability labeling trends should we watch out for?
One of the goals of almost every country in the world is to recycle more PET. It is already the most recycled plastic, but the quality needs to improve to enable even more bottle-to-bottle recycling, truly closing the loop of a circular economy for beverage bottles. This will give rise to the trend of so-called “floatables”, low density polyolefin materials that automatically detach from PET bottles during the sink/float process at the PET recycler.
Floats are available as labels or sleeve decorations and significant investment has been made to improve this material to effectively stimulate PET recycling. We recently opened a brand new state-of-the-art extrusion line in Poland – the world’s first line dedicated to low-density shrink films. It is the birthplace of durable heat shrink sleeves which are a trending decoration material and which will hopefully become mainstream in the next few years.
If you look at the content of the label itself, I think it will be interesting to see the material and recyclability messages being simplified in the future. At the moment there are many mixed messages about the claims on the label itself – as I have pointed out the EU is working to eliminate greenwashing and this will need to go hand in hand with a simplification of claims on packaging.
Another exciting development will be the use of labels and sleeves to “hide” a digital watermark. Many are probably familiar with the HolyGrail 2.0 project, which uses Digimarc’s digital watermark technology to hide a code in the label artwork itself that cannot be detected by the consumer. But when the used household waste enters the recycling unit, the watermark can be identified by special sorting detection units.
They will detect multiple messages like “I’m a PET bottle” or “I’m a food/non-food grade HDPE bottle” and this will allow for easier and more accurate sorting and even enable new streams of recycling materials. The better the sorting, the better the quality of recycling, which can increase the availability of high-quality recycled materials sought by the packaging industry.
Finally, the label and with it the packaging itself will be transformed into a “media channel”. With augmented reality and connected packaging technologies and the evolving Metaverse, there are limitless possibilities to create a connection between “real” packaging and the digital world.
This can be used to communicate about sustainability, among other topics. Where does the product come from, where does it go and what makes it sustainable? Packaging can be used to educate on recycling and related topics. As I said, the possibilities are limitless and we have created a dedicated team that takes care of connected packaging.