By Steve Katz, Editor | October 9, 2012

Examining a label’s life cycle is paramount to developing a greener product.

When it comes to sustainability, the label industry has been in a tough spot. The topic is well beyond “trend” status – in any industry it is part everyday activities. However, in the drive to become more eco-friendly, there are a few things that separate the pressure sensitive label industry apart from others, and not in a good way.

Take release liner (someone has to), one of a PS label’s primary components. It essentially becomes garbage once it has served its purpose. Adhesive is another key element, and it has historically been a thorn in the side of the recycling stream. That “Reduce, Reuse, Recyle” mantra is still very much in play.

The industry has been making strides, albeit strides probably not as long or fast as environmentalists would like. Lean Manufacturing initiatives are widely being used across the board, and one of its main tenets – waste reduction – is being achieved.  Recycling Compatible Adhesives (RCAs) have been developed and are expanding beyond paper-to-paper applications.
Matrix waste, another industry-specific issue, is also being addressed. The Ecovillage pavilion audience at the 2012 Labelexpo was filled to capacity as Channeled Resources Group and Greenwood Fuels detailed how matrix waste can become fuel pellets. While it’s far from an industry standard, the process is picking up traction, and, at the very least, people have taken notice.

Rosalyn Bandy is Avery Dennison’s sustainability manager for its Label and Packaging Materials division. She says the industry is getting smarter about the use of its materials, and is actively addressing the sustainability challenge. Label and Narrow Web recently caught up with Bandy to discuss the issues, and the progress.

LNW: What would you say are some of the more significant developments in the label industry’s sustainability movement?

RB: Many of us in the industry are promoting efforts to manage materials and products on a life cycle basis. For example, what we have considered as the traditional waste management hierarchy of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Compost, Energy Recovery, Landfill” is important, but it isn’t enough. Companies are starting to realize that this framework needs to be updated with a larger, more holistic vision of sustainable materials management. This includes how we manage our discards as a component of this scope, but the scope is much broader. Life cycle studies show that most of the environmental impacts of materials are upstream of the consumer, primarily in extraction and manufacturing. Because we are so used to considering products based on waste generated – the least impactful part of the life cycle – we often end up making decisions from the framework of discards management when we really should be looking at material choices, product design and efficient manufacturing.

According to a 2009 EPA report, while materials contribute 42% to our GHG emissions, end-of-life management contributes only 2%. With the concept of the full product life cycle in mind, the label industry is starting to focus on the types of materials used, reducing amounts of materials, and considering the impact their products have on recycling.

LNW: How concerned are brand owners with being sustainable? What are they asking of the label industry to meet their sustainability needs?

RB: For many brand owners, sustainability initiatives are a major point of differentiation.  Consumers want to feel good about what they are spending their hard-earned money on and when they know that a product uses less material, has recycled content, comes from renewable sources, and reduces greenhouse gases they can feel good about their purchase. Much of the demand on the label industry is to provide products that enable the recyclability of the package. Especially in PET packaging, many brands have made public commitments to use a large percentage of RPET (recycled PET) in their PET package. There is currently an enormous shortage of RPET available to brands.

To put this problem in perspective, I’ll cite a recent National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) report that stated that, in 2010, 1.5 billion pounds of bottles were collected for recycling in the US. Of those bottles collected, reclaimers reported yield losses ranging from 24.4% to 32.2% due to contamination by labels, adhesives, and other components. This amounts to a loss of over 40 million pounds of PET bottles!

To further complicate this problem, NAPCOR calculates that in order to meet RPET demand from brand-owner-announced, recycled content commitments, the PET bottle recycling rate would need to increase to 48%  by 2013. This is a monumental task when you consider that the current PET recycling rate is only 29%. So, the label industry has a huge role to play in recycling and can make a huge contribution to sustainability.

LNW:  What are some of the challenges associated with a label becoming a truly environmentally sustainable part of packaging?

RB: It is essential to look at the full life cycle of the label and make design decisions around that information. The challenge is to look at our manufacturing and look at our products as part of the larger system – to design knowing that the value of recycling is upstream as a raw material; that creating a label which does not hinder recycling in any way is providing real economic and environmental value. That recycling-friendly label is helping to provide the packaging industry with feedstocks that offset virgin materials. Recycling is much more than landfill avoidance; it is a critical part of sustainable materials management. For example, for every pound of virgin PET replaced with RPET, energy use is reduced by 84% and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 71%. Put another way, for every 1,000 tons of PET plastic recycled, 2000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated and 53 billion BTUs of energy are conserved compared to using virgin PET.

This rebranding of recycling as a manufacturing activity is really challenging the status quo mindset.  We tend to focus, and report on, environmental issues like landfill-avoidance without considering that social and economic aspects are also significant when recycling increases. In the case of PET, for every 1000 tons of PET recycled, 22 to 30 jobs are directly and indirectly supported through collection, sorting, processing, and manufacturing of the end product. From 2010 to 2012, more than $500 million in new investments yielded high technology plants that better convert post-consumer packages back into raw material that supports a wide range of domestic manufacturing applications. This new capacity can directly create more than 5000 jobs, and indirectly support an additional 6000 jobs. If the PET bottles are collected through container deposit systems, another 4000 jobs can be sustained. Labels that do not follow a design for recyclability have an enormous impact on this economic and social aspect of our society. Labels matter – a lot!

LNW: What does the future look like for sustainable developments within the label industry supply chain?

RB: It will be critical to look at the label industry as a component of a larger system of global use of materials.  While discards management seeks to minimize and manage wastes or pollutants, materials management seeks the most productive use of resources; in other words, the net will be cast far broader when we consider sustainable development in our industry.

Materials and product stewardship will increasingly matter far more than they do today.  Being sustainable means we’ll look at every material and every product and analyze for the associated impacts, what processes drive those impacts, and what type of opportunities exist to reduce those impacts.  Life cycle assessment will be the norm for product decision support, including innovation, and will show us the way to change our historic use of materials, energy, growth and the environment.  When used carefully, materials hold the key to enormous opportunity as we compete in a global economy.

The state of LIFE
By John McDermontt, President & CEO of Label World and Chairman of the LIFE Subcommittee

TLMI’s Label Initiative for the Environment (LIFE) continues to grow in acceptance among TLMI members, both converters and suppliers. At latest count, 33 locations have now been certified representing 23 different companies. Among these are some of the industry’s largest players like WS Packaging, Multi-Color, UPM Raflatac and Avery Dennison.

Participants in LIFE have indicated a variety of reasons for their commitment to an environmental certification program. Many are responding to perceived customer commitment in this area. Others see it as “the right thing to do” for their community and employees. Still, others see in it another way of reducing cost and improving their own competitiveness.  Many are engaged for more than one of these reasons. But whatever the reasons, most of them see becoming more sustainable as a strategic commitment for their business that will be a multi-year journey.

As LIFE has rolled out over the past three years, the program continues to evolve in response to member suggestions and needs.  The committee responsible for LIFE has adopted several changes including new metrics (e.g. bonus points for innovative programs) and clarified some calculations. This past year, for example, a task force developed a standard method for calculating greenhouse gas footprints using the Kyoto Protocol. This fall, participants will be asked whether we are now ready to incorporate some of the LIFE metrics into TLMI’s annual Ratio Study and, if so, which ones? If successful, this could allow members over time to establish some crucial industry benchmarks for environmental performance against which to compare themselves. Overall, however, most participants comment that the program has a good balance of robustness without being too heavily bureaucratic or expensive to implement. The biggest challenge for many who have not implemented a data driven program like this before is coping with the anxiety of the unknown. How to take time from very busy days to implement a program of unknown return? To this end, committee members encourage prospects to call them directly – we can walk them through the process in advance and give them a clear idea of how to proceed.

Given the high profile of LIFE materials at all TLMI events, not to mention mailings, webinars, articles and workshops at TLMI meetings, it appears that awareness of LIFE among members is high. While committee members continue to encourage adoption among other TLMI members, they also have been working on ways to develop awareness among the vast landscape of brand owners and customers of tag and label converters. The LIFE committee is developing contacts among trade associations for several vertical market segments and has sent speakers to a number of audiences outside of TLMI in order to broadcast the news of LIFE. Just in the last year these have included Walmart, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Dscoop and the Sustainable Packaging Forum. Their message is that LIFE is an environmental management system specifically designed for the needs of the tag and label industry, but is aligned with other widely known environmental scorecards such as the Walmart Scorecard and the P&G Scorecard. All of these are based on the same methodology and share a philosophy of continuous improvement. Some participants now report instances of LIFE certification being mentioned in select pre-qualification documents for key brand owners.

Where will LIFE go from here? The name of the game right now for the LIFE committee remains driving adoption across the industry. For recent participants, it often is working on the low hanging fruit. For most participants, this means focusing on internal changes since this yields the quickest improvements and is an area under local management’s direct control. Those further along tend to turn their attention to greater collaboration with suppliers and customers. For both the LIFE committee and individual participants, this eventually leads to more conversations with customers. This is both to get further insight into the sustainability challenges that brand owners face, as well as to collaborate on solutions that improve the whole industry. LIFE will then become a tool to identify problem areas as well as to highlight progress and opportunities for further improvement.