Linerless labels are pressure sensitive labels with a release coating on the face and an adhesive on the back. Much like a roll of everyday tape, the coating prevents the labels from sticking to one another when wound on a roll. They are popular in certain markets – including food and logistics – but have yet to take off in other markets.
Though they are still on the fringes of the label industry at large, they are growing in popularity not only because they are sustainable – there is no release liner to dispose of – but also because they have the potential to be a cost-effective alternative to traditional labels.
A major drawback of linerless labels has been their inability to offer any shape other than square or rectangle. However, newer technological developments now make it possible for converters to create linerless labels in a variety of shapes.
Harveer Sahni is the managing director of Weldon Celloplast in Delhi, India. Weldon Celloplast is a manufacturer of silicone release papers, self-adhesive labelstocks and tapes, and a variety of coated products under the brand name FASCO. Sahni says that there have been many interesting developments in the processes to produce linerless labels. “While the basic concept on most of the developments being made by different companies remains printing the substrate, the application of release coat on one side and then applying adhesive on the reverse, there are now companies that are modifying equipment and processes to meet requirements of customers.”
ETI Converting Equipment, based in Montreal, is the developer of Cohesio equipment. The Cohesio press was launched nearly ten years ago and Yves Lafontaine, vice president of marketing at ETI, calls it “the work horse of ETI.” He says the Cohesio can manufacture a pressure sensitive linerless label from raw material to finished product, and that Cohesio technology enables converters to siliconize, print, adhesive-coat, print again and diecut at speeds up to 500 feet per minute in one manufacturing process. As a testament to the company’s commitment to reducing liner waste, ETI launched at this year’s Labelexpo the Miniliner, which is a 12 micron PET release liner that the company says reduces the use of PET film by up to 66%.
Lafontaine says that the conversion to a linerless label makes a lot of sense for certain market segments. “The blank label industry, as well as the direct thermal scale label markets, have started to make the conversion to linerless technology by developing linerless thermal transfer and direct thermal printers,” he says. “Today, the beverage and health and personal care markets are moving towards linerless technology, especially since linerless labels are no longer limited to shapes and sizes.”
He adds, “Eliminating the release liner from the equation also means a substantial reduction in the total label cost. Cost savings of 40% are very common in linerless technology.”
Growing with green
Given the growing need for sustainable methods and products in this industry, its no surprise that linerless labels have seen a growth in popularity.
John Guzzo, president of Polykote Corp. in Easton, PA, USA – a developer of linerless technology – says that linerless labels are on the radar of nearly every industry professional. “Certainly the popularity of this concept has risen dramatically. This subject is included in nearly all serious discussions on the future of labeling technology. It is the logical evolution of product decoration and variable information to reduce the materials needed and still achieve a high quality printed visual result.”
Polykote Corp. has recently developed Silgon Linerless Technology in cooperation with Quadrel Labeling Systems. Shown at Labelexpo, this technology uses Quadrel’s new Heat Activated Linerless Operating (HALO) System to take non-tacky labelstock and activate it to create “everlasting pressure sensitive adhesive properties.”
Guzzo explains: “This technology transforms an inert, dry coating into a pressure sensitive adhesive after the addition of energy. This is most easily achieved by briefly introducing heat to begin the reaction and produce a long lasting pressure sensitive adhesive bond. Unlike other methods that mask an existing pressure sensitive adhesive, our technology actually produces the adhesive properties on demand, thus allowing for easier cutting, dispensing, etc. We are able to apply this proprietary coating to various label materials, including papers and films.”
Lafontaine says demand for linerless technology has changed tremendously over the last few years. “The PS label market was and is very sensitive and fully aware of words such as ‘sustainability,’ ‘release liner wastage,’ and ‘throw away carrier.’ We are all trying to bring a green solution to reduce release liner wastage.”
He adds, “The ETI R&D engineering team has been working for years to find new innovative solutions to the ever-growing concern of release liner wastage. The effort of this commitment resulted into a linerless technology adaptable to existing Cohesio equipment. What was a concept 10 years ago is now a reality.”
A European start
Because of more stringent environmental regulations, linerless technology and processes have been used in Europe for several years.
Tim Mlnarik, business development director at I.D. Images, LLC in Brunswick, OH, USA, points out that advances in technology have also helped this type of label become more convenient for converters. “The growth of mobile printing has really helped linerless labels take off,” he says.
Innovia Films, based in Cumbria, UK, launched last year Rayoface NB, a range of films suitable for linerless label applications. The company says that this film, which can be used on food products such as meat and fish packaging, offers a waste and weight reduction of more than 30 percent. The films were developed through a partnership with UK-based Ravenwood Packaging.
Richard Southward, product manager of labels at Innovia Films, says that though converters in Europe are leading the way in terms of installed base, “there is a global drive from multinational end users that is pushing the technology forward in the US and Asia. In Europe, we see significant growth in the food markets, especially for fresh produce trays and ‘ready meals.’ Here, linerless labels are replacing both self-adhesive labels and larger carton board sleeves.”
Mike Cooper, business development director at Catchpoint Labels – which has offices in Linton, UK and Chatham, NJ, USA – says that one Scandinavian materials supplier has reported a 50% annual growth (albeit from a low base). “UK retailers have switched the presentation of some fresh meat and fish packs into linerless adhesive sleeve formats, usually with variable weight and price data,” he says. “Ten percent of the sales of the two leading UK label printers from this format highlight the opportunity. Interest in what we are doing in Asia is high, particularly from India.”
Catchpoint Labels, which is dedicated to advancing linerless technology, was granted its first patent on a linerless product in 2005. Since then, it has developed linerless technology for prime and decorative labels, variable information, and special function labels. The company is launching a complete range of linerless label application systems at various Packaging Exhibitions this year. Cooper describes the linerless application systems as “very high speed, dedicated applications for conversion of rotary machines with ILTI srl applying Catchpoint labels to +/- 0.5mm accuracy at 300 feet per minute web speeds. Flexible conversion kits will allow many end users to modify existing applicators to apply both Catchpoint labels and conventional PS with minimal changes. This unique dual capability will allow packers an easy transmission to linerless as their printers create capacity, and ever-inflating material costs drive investment.”
Sahni, of Weldon Celloplast, confirms that interest in India is growing. On his website, Sanhi says that though he has seen no indulgence in linerless technology in India, he has discussed the topic with some of the leading label printers across the country. He says, “It is difficult to report detailed individual responses in this article yet I give herein the gist of what the industry feels. Half of all the printers that I contacted said they had not studied this concept and that they all had a problem disposing their waste.”
Limits of linerless
Thomas Dahbura, president of Hub Labels in Hagerstown, MD, USA, says that the potential drawbacks of linerless labels are rooted in change. “There is a learning curve to printing on these substrates and changing the workflow in our operation,” he says. “There are also changes to the way we sell. Our approach is a value proposition. It’s more than just a label. It’s a solution.”
Guzzo, of Polykote, adds, “The challenge we have found was getting all the players in the supply chain of a label to join together to determine how best to apply these concepts into each of their processes. As we have been introducing our linerless technology, we have found the best path to success was to unite the label converter with an end user who has an interest in linerless, and then to connect all to a label application equipment group to put a program in place to take advantage of this method.”
The challenges of going linerless, says Cooper of Catchpoint, are more significant in newer markets. Regarding more developed markets, he says the biggest challenge is to confirm the efficiency gains and reduce face material thickness to drive investment.
“We also need to educate,” Cooper says. “Half the material does not mean half the price! Most end users do not appreciate the costs of adhesives and release coatings as used now in laminates. Brand managers and the public are not aware that a round ‘save’ label is produced with two-thirds waste material. Buyers usually know total laminate cost, see the liner removed, and expect a huge discount.
Cooper adds that a thorough linerless label education program should include information on different cost models and how they can improve planning logistics. “Printing a mono-film in longer runs to spread setup costs and holding stock ready to coat and finish for the customer is a very different equation to converting a fully coated laminate which may be three times the basic face material cost,” he says.
Lafontaine, whose company helped shepherd in linerless technology several years ago, says that until recently, linerless was limited to certain shapes. He says that’s not the case in today’s market. “With the ETI linerless applicator, you can use any shape or size as you would normally do when printing the conventional way. This unique applicator is designed to be retrofitted and adaptable to the end user production line. Being fully automatic, speed is not an issue,” he says.
ETI developed last year a linerless labeler, which Lafontine says is adaptable to all brand owners and existing labelers. The unit transforms the linerless tape into different shapes or sizes as would normally be done on a printing press. It’s a servo-motorized driven technology that adjusts itself to each shape and size. “It’s extremely popular, especially since Labelexpo,” he says.
The labels of tomorrow
Southward, of Innovia, says that he believes large brands will change over to linerless technology in the next few years. “There is a lot of activity at the moment and with both global brand owners and multi-national printer groups focused on this technology, it is just a matter of time before there is a major success for linerless.”
Mlnarik adds, “I think linerless labels will see a dramatic growth rate over the next several years. The technological advances have made it a very compelling alternative for a lot of users.”
Sahni says that there is a comparison to be made between digital printing technology and linerless labels. “The way digital is growing,” he says, “similarly linerless will grow.”
According to Lafontaine, linerless technology has already changed the market, and will likely continue to do so because of regulations. “Thirty-seven percent of the worldwide label applications are being applied by hand. In a hand-applied application, the release liner acts as a carrier and, once applied, it is thrown in the garbage.
“Each year, over 15 billion square meters of release liner ends up in landfill. That 37% portion as already converted to linerless technology. Worldwide governments will also have an impact. Brazil was first to implement a law forcing label printers to be responsible for release liner wastage. Corporations will also put pressure on label printers to evolve and change their method of printing pressure sensitive labels. Linerless is no longer a trend,” he says, “it is a reality.”