Labels & The Environment

By Jack Kenny | September 27, 2007

Many questions, few answers as an industry explores sustainability

What if China catches up to the United States in consumption per person? If China's economy continues to expand at 8 percent per year, its income per person will reach the current US level in 2031. If we assume that Chinese consumption levels per person in 2031 are the same as those in the United States today, then the country's projected population of 1.45 billion would consume an amount of grain equal to two-thirds of the current world grain harvest, its paper consumption would be double current world production, and it would use 99 million barrels of oil per day — well above current world production of 84 million barrels.
— Lester Brown, Plan B 2.0, 2006

Label converters today, like their counterparts in just about every other industry in the developed world, are feeling pressure to pay attention to the environment as they go about their business. This is not the same pressure that has been exerted over the years by governments seeking obedience to environmental protection regulations. This pressure comes from two places, and mostly from one: the customer.

Around North America and throughout Europe — which is where most of the pressure is being felt — converters and packagers, marketers of consumer products, as well as suppliers to the label industry, are asking questions about sustainability, about environmental responsibility, about going green. Some of these questions are specific, though many are general and often vague, say industry sources.

For example, they ask, what is sustainability? What do I tell my customers when they ask if we use green materials for our labels?

The term sustainability has been around, in this context, for at least 20 years. In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development wrote: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Other definitions can be found, but all say basically the same thing.

In other words, in your business, in your life, in whatever you do, don't wreck the future.

Sustainability and environmental responsibility are volatile terms that divide society into believers and doubters. In busines we have the proactive and the reactive sides. Some companies — these can be the proactive group — are searching for green avenues because they feel the need to avoid contributing to the waste stream where possible, along with other reasons. Solutions to environmental problems cost money sometimes, and owners and top managers are faced with the decision to pay more or wait for a better solution.

The reactive group tends to favor compliance, when necessary. Some even consider adherence to environmental regulation a hindrance to business and growth. One web site that offers regulatory assistance to its printer members states that its mission is "to provide regulatory guidance that will allow member graphic communication companies to focus more on their business allowing them to grow."

Today's converters are fielding questions from their customers about materials and processes and the degree of greenness involved. Reactive or proactive, they want to satisfy their clients; even more, they want to be in the position to educate their customers, and they're calling out for answers.

Avery Dennison, based in Painesville, OH, USA, has a long relationship with the US Postal Service in providing the adhesives for its postage stamps. Those adhesives met the government's requirement that they be environmentally benign, meaning that they can be filtered out during the paper recycling process.

"We noticed earlier this year a real uptick in customer inquiries about environmentally-friendly products and services," says Sam Brown, manager of market research and competitive analysis, Fasson Roll North America. "To better understand this trend, we performed some internal research here among all who deal with customers, and we asked if they had been approached over the past six months about environmental and green issues involving our products and services.

"Eighty-five percent of our people had been asked, and of those about three quarters of the calls were along the lines of: 'What does it mean to be green?' or 'Do you have anything that's environmentally friendly?' The questions are vague, but we are being asked for answers by our customers. A smaller volume of calls had to do with specific environmentally friendly attributes, mainly recycled content.

"In response, we looked at our portfolio and identified the products we have today that have 'green' credentials, such as post-consumer waste, compostability, or renewability. After getting a good sense of what customers were asking for and what we had to offer, we felt much more able to think about filling the gaps," he says.

Brown adds that the company is "looking at all sorts of greener options, from products and services to waste reduction, and is planning to educate its customers on environmental issues pertinent to their processes.

UPM Raflatac, of Tampere, Finland, receives many enquiries from its customers as well. The company is implementing the environmental ISO 14001 certification process across its factories globally, and building on an environmental management program that was established in the early 1970s. Its goal is to reduce waste at all stages of its products' life cycles, from the use of raw materials to customers' processes.

Moreover, this year UPM Raflatac announced that it was developing a wood plastic composite called UPM ProFi, which can be used for decking and other constructions. It is manufactured mainly from surplus materials from self-adhesive laminate production.

Materials suppliers are not the only companies on the receiving end of questions from label converters. Mark Andy, the press manufacturer based in St. Louis, MO, USA, finds itself exploring sustainability issues. "Customers have contacted us wanting to know about the carbon footprint of our presses," says Jeff Feltz, director of product management. "They say that their purchasing decisions will be made in part on that type of information."

What are converters doing?

"We are now working on a plan to have in place in the next six months that will look at every segment of our business," says Nick Van Alstine, president of Macaran Printed Products, Cohoes, NY, USA. "We will examine how we run our building, our manufacturing practices in both the press room and elsewhere, and trying to use process materials that are environmentally friendly. We will be pushing suppliers as well. We want to have a dialog with them."

Van Alstine said that the "easy" part of going green "is to get my organization on board to look at reduction and at our practices. We are looking at renewable energy; we replaced the lighting system to use lower wattage. The hardest part is finding packaging materials that we can offer to clients who are looking for sustainable packaging solutions. There really aren't any, or they are a quarter or half the way there.

"One customer is now pushing me on an application that uses a PET label," Van Alstine says. "We can provide PLA (polylactic acid, made from corn), but it's not going to have the same kind of barrier properties that PET does. The adhesive has to have applications that meet requirements. We find that frustrating, and my customers do, too.

"Buyers and designers are now interested in wanting to be responsible, but they don't know how to do it. A tremendous amount of education and work needs to be done so that we can have the selections, the products that actually are biodegradable or truly recyclable. These are tough issues that we are facing."

Nick Van Alstine is taking steps to educate himself. He has joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which is an industry group dedicated to creating a robust environmental vision for packaging. He also is a member of the Best Practices Task Force, an offshoot of the Environmental Committee of the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute. The task force's goal is to pave the way to the creation of standards of practice that TLMI members can meet or exceed in order to become certified as an environmentally responsible label converter.

"Our three big issues are the end of life of the facestock, the recyclability of adhesives and the recyclability of the release liner," says John McDermott, vice president of Label World USA, Rochester NY, and chairman of the task force.

"The big challenge with release liners is getting people together and broadening the discussion to include suppliers, customers and converters to figure out how to create a market for recycled liner. There has to be a secondary market, even if we have to create one.

"As for facestock," McDermott says, "we need alternatives that take us away from petrochemicals and from virgin trees. Maybe bamboo or corn. For the facestock it's about the product sources, finding alternative sources that are more environmentally sustainable."

John McDermott believes that "there are a whole lot of people out there waiting for someone to tell them what to do. A lot want to do the right thing. Label converters already are being asked by customers to follow Wal-Mart's sustainability scorecard and to start scoring themselves. There will be pressure on them to follow these requests. We have to work hard to educate our customers and to be ahead of them."

"There is not a day in my life that I don't get phone calls or e-mails from people in our industry asking me what they should do, where they should go, how they can become green," says Calvin Frost, chairman of TLMI's Environmental Committee and head of Channeled Resources Group, Chicago, IL, USA. "And these are big companies, the players, the ones that are supplying the big consumer product groups.

"This industry, in my opinion, generates overall about 25 percent and more of byproduct. Release liner is part of that. It is up to us to change it. Raflatac's ProFi, which is being made of matrix waste and plastic waste is the kind of cutting edge change that has to occur, because we have to stop putting this into the landfill."

In the United States, several regions have waste to energy plants that will accept pressure sensitive scrap. Some converters are making use of that opportunity, but it's costly. "It's more expensive than throwing the stuff away," says Frost. As for release liner recycling, there are two or three such operations, but Frost describes them as "isolated".

"The inaction by the industry is flabbergasting to me," he says. "I just don't understand it."


The light went on seven years ago at Berkshire Labels Ltd., in Hungerford, Berkshire, England. "That's when we started getting questions from customers about recycling and environmentally friendly labels," says Paul Roscoe, managing director. "We went off in search of answers from our suppliers to find out what was available." Nothing, apparently.

"Not wanting to give up, we carried on in our search, and it took a couple of years for us to come up with our own products. The key to it all was the adhesive; we couldn't find one to conform to environmental standards, so we set about to develop one of our own."

And develop they did. Berkshire Labels produces BioTAK, described as a "100 percent biodegradable label made from replenishable and renewable resources, incorporating a completely biodegradable adhesive."

BioTAK was developed, Roscoe says, to conform to EN13432, the European composting and biodegradable standard. "It has now entered the final stages of testing (after biodegradation and disintegration) with very positive results already achieved," Roscoe adds. BioTAK already has FDA approval.

Berkshire Labels set up a sister company, Sustainable Adhesive Products, to manufacture the adhesive, and also to explore other applications. "These are for a whole range of industries," he adds, "mostly packaging related, coating, laminating, printing, all sorts of biodegradable needs."

"It's been an interesting exercise to be involved in," Paul Roscoe says. "The temperature heats up all the time on green issues and concerns. We've been working on this all the time, and others have stood up just recently. Thankfully we are one of the frontrunners in the marketplace.

"We're dealing with lots of customers, large and small, who are pursuing the environmental product. Some produce products that go into the major retailers in the UK, and some are cottage industries with organic style foods and produce."

This article began with a quote from Lester Brown, and it was included to make a point. The world is changing, and label converters are beginning to ride the wave.

Recovering solvents in the plant
Printers who use solvents — in inks and coatings, or even for cleanup — are well aware of the issues involved in the use of these compounds. They can be dangerous to people and property in the immediate environment, as well as to lives in a wider area and down a long chain of activity, both chemical and human.

Handling of solvent waste can be accomplished in one of two ways: Either hire a service to remove the used solvent products, or recycle it in-house.

NexGenEnviro Systems manufactures distillers for in-house solvent recovery. "We have more than 8,000 customers throughout North America in a wide range of industries, and a good number of them are in the printing industry," says Mike  Robbins, president of the company, which has its headquarters in Lindenhurst, NY, USA (www.nexgenenenviro.com). "We have 12 sizes of distillers, ranging from 2.6 gallons up to 160 gallons."

A distiller vaporizes the waste product and returns it in pure solvent form, which can be re-used. The waste that is separated from the pure solvent is a fraction of the original volume, and can be stored for eventual collection and disposal.

"A service company is a continuous cost forever," says Robbins. "You can get rid of a usable product, but all solvents are reusable. If you buy a piece of capital equipment to do the job, you have an asset for the company you remove the expense of the service company, you reduce the cost of purchase of new solvents, and you reduce hazardous waste on site, which is reportable. Plus you don't have exposure for EPA purposes."
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