How Labels Can Make PET Recycling Easier
The packaging industry is on the way to a circular economy. This is exemplified by PET from beverage bottles, which is already largely recycled. Labels play an important role in this. For clean recyclate, they must be removed without leaving any residue. New adhesives are designed to help with this.
The European label association Finat recently published a position paper on the role of adhesive labels in PET recycling. The message: since labels regularly lead to problems during recycling, such as lower quality or additional effort, they are perceived by recyclers as disruptive factors. The label industry now offers clean solutions. They just have to be used.
The problem is that labels are mainly applied to PET bottles using permanent adhesives that do not come off the PET flakes, or not completely, during shredding and subsequent hot washing. This makes it difficult, for example, to really turn PET beverage bottles back into PET beverage bottles. The solution: wash-off adhesives that allow labels to come off without leaving residue. In the sink-float process, the PET flakes sink to the bottom, the label residues float to the top and are skimmed off.
Such certified wash-off adhesives have been developed by Dow and Herma, for example. Both suppliers have just introduced new products that are superior to classic adhesives in terms of adhesive strength or high-speed labeling.
“Today, you no longer have to compromise on adhesion or wash-off," says Hendrik Kehl, product manager at Herma. Wash-off labels are used not only on PET but “also on PE and PP packaging, whether for dishwashing detergents, cosmetics, sausage or cheese,” explains Kehl.
Nevertheless, they have, so far, been “more of a niche” and are mainly used by brands that are already sustainable or those in the premium sector. The reason is not only that the costs are still somewhat higher, but also that there is still “no real obligation” to use them.
Thinner Labels in Vogue
But this could soon change, for example because of EU regulations and initiatives from the recycling industry. The new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), for example, is generally accelerating the pace of recycling, and the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUP) requires 25 percent of recycled PET (rPET) in beverage bottles by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030. According to the European PET Bottle Platform (EPBP), the proportion was only 17 percent in 2020. At the same time, industry initiatives such as Recyclass are setting targets for plastic recyclability. “All of this is leading retail chains and brand owners to increasingly set appropriate targets for their suppliers so that they, too, meet their recycling goals,” says Herma manager Kehl.
Industry service Alexander Watson Associates (AWA) takes a similar view. AWA analyst Anum Javed Beg is convinced that those who work sustainably will be able to secure competitive advantages. For the label industry, he currently sees the following areas of innovation: thinner labels that save material and costs while offering the same functionality, as well as recyclable labels made from recycled material, or even compostable labels.
Label manufacturers like Herma are active in all these fields. They are trying to make label materials as thin as possible, says Kehl, and have also developed a new linerless material that is activated by water alone. In addition, labels are increasingly being made from recycled plastic, hemp or grass paper, or even stone foil, the powder of ground stones bonded with recycled PE.
In the overall adhesive compound, Herma combines PE labels made entirely from post-consumer recyclate (PCR), for example, with a CO2-neutral pressure-sensitive adhesive by BASF and a newly developed sustainable backing paper.
Herma manager Kehl is convinced that labels could thus make a significant contribution to more efficient recycling and greater sustainability in general. The challenge in this is that in order to ensure economic viability, such innovations must not be much more expensive in the end.