Shrink-label group puts recycling challenges under wraps

By Jenni Spinner

- Last updated on GMT

The popularity of full-wrap shrink labels, such as those found on SoBe Lifewater, presents several challenges to the recovery and recycling process.
The popularity of full-wrap shrink labels, such as those found on SoBe Lifewater, presents several challenges to the recovery and recycling process.
The Full-wrap Label Consortium is making progress on challenges associated with recovery and recycling the shrink labels found on PET beverage and food containers.

Holli Whitt, market development manager of sustainability for Eastman Chemical, told FoodProductionDaily full-wrap shrink labels can be a powerful packaging tool. The 360-degree, whole-surface coverage provides a large billboard for graphics and on-pack messaging, giving brand owners leverage in attracting and connecting with consumers.

SoBe Lifewater is one example of full-wrap label success; after switching from a partial-wrap label, the beverage brand saw a surge in sales, despite an overall decline in the flavored-water market.

Recycling challenges

However, the opportunities that full-wrap labels afford also come with challenges. The labels themselves (typically made of PVC or other materials) can contaminate and complicate the PET recovery process.

What’s more, the popularity of full-wrap labels is increasing, and the label material is making up an increasingly greater percentage of the PET bale weights. Whitt, a leader of the Full-wrap Label Consortium, told FPD to streamline PET recycling, materials firms, packaging companies, and brand owners need to come together to generate ideas to solve the challenges.

The Full-wrap Label Consortium is a group of such stakeholders. Formed in 2012, the participating members have been meeting ever since, coming together to generate ways to deal with the problems presented in recovering and recycling bottles with wraparound shrink labels.

That’s the fascinating thing about the consortium; people are sharing as much as they can​,” she said. “They’re sharing concepts in development, and partnering on innovation pre-commercialization—it’s good for the materials industry as a whole​.”

Gray areas

One area of confusion: should food/beverage brand owners, packaging firms, and recycling groups prod consumers (with on-pack messages, informational campaigns, or other means) to remove the labels before recycling, or should they be left on before entering the recovery stream?

One of the things we’ve found is with certain containers and packages, it’s best for the recyclers if they can receive the packaging without additional substances or labels​,” Whitt said. “It makes the containers easier to process​.”

Whitt told FPD the issue is complicated by the fact that in many states, shrink labels are included in the container’s reclamation value. Consumers might believe they are being good recycling citizens by removing the label, while they’re actually not—and it differs from location to location.

You can’t exactly say, ‘Go ahead and take this label off—unless you live in one of these state​s,’” Whitt said. “I’m not sure that’s the most viable, long-term solution​.”

Generating solutions

Fortunately, Whitt said, the stakeholders taking part in Full-wrap Label Consortium discussions have, in the nearly two years since they started talking, come up with some possible solutions.

There are many technologies that won’t require additional consumer intervention and involvement​,” Whitt said.

The consortium contributors have come up with a number of methods that could help material recovery facilities (MRFs) streamline the recycling of full-wrap shrink-label PET containers. Whitt pointed out the technologies are not yet commercially available, but Eastman Chemical and other suppliers are partnering to explore ideas and bring them to reality.

One of the concepts is “de-seaming,” or breaking down the solvent used to create the seam, where the labels ends are sealed and the label attached to the container. Whitt reported Sun Chemical came up with the idea and presented it to the consortium for further exploration.

The idea is to leverage the existing conditions in the full-bottle wash that the containers go through at the PET recycler​,” she said. “The label just comes apart at the seam. From a recycler standpoint, that requires virtually no additional effort—they just need to monitor the conditions of the wash​.”

Whitt reported that Eastman Chemical also tested ways to perforate labels on the container, to facilitate mechanical label removal at MRFs. Additionally, the consortium has explored ways to employ floatable coatings, which would trigger during recycling by harnessing the high temperatures and caustic conditions to activate in a recovery facility’s sink/float tank.

The Full-wrap Label Consortium remains an informal organization, rather than an official collective, Whitt reported. However, she told FPD, the group plans to meet this spring in Cinncinati, then in Chicago over the summer, to continue discussions and development.

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1 comment

the solution is already available....

Posted by Wolfgang Ploesch,

.... you just use stretch sleeves for full body bottle decoration and you have solved the recycling issues with PET bottles: stretch sleeves are made from PE with a density below 1g/cm3 and will easily separate from PET flakes in the floating process

And stretch sleeves provide additional advantages compared to shrink as cost savings and energy savings (no shrink tunnel is needed)

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