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  • 21 Jun 2021

How sustainable is sustainability?

Between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable materials, the regulations and end-of-life product treatment can be difficult to navigate.

Most companies are making an effort to be more sustainable, but it can be hard to know where to start and what product options are best. Between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable materials, the regulations and end-of-life product treatment can be difficult to navigate. As an increase in brand owner demand for more sustainable options puts pressure on both suppliers and converters, what option is truly sustainable?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ‘In the past 50 years, humans have consumed more resources that in all previous history.’ With the environmental stakes higher than ever, it is not surprising the demand for sustainable labeling and packaging solutions has grown to match.

The push for sustainability truly is consumer led. Finat recently released the 14th edition of its Radar report, which focuses on the European narrow web market. Companies were asked how important it is that their label supplier has an environmental certification; 75 percent of companies responded that it was an important factor when choosing a supplier. Over 25 percent responded that it is ‘vital that their label vendors are environmentally certified and only purchase labels from companies with certification’.

This drive for sustainability at the company level starts at the consumer level. During its recent webinar about compostable labeling, Avery Dennison stated that ‘Millennials and Generation Z  are the driving force behind the sustainability push and as they enter the workforce and become greater consumers the need for sustainable products will grow.’  

Millennials and Generation Z are willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to sustainability. According to Avery Dennison, ‘Roughly 75 percent of consumers are willing to pay an additional 10-25 percent more for products in sustainable packaging.’

While the intent is there, the execution of sustainability efforts may misfire. The demand may be customer driven, but guidance is needed at the corporate level to ensure those good intentions and efforts come to fruition. In the United States the current state of waste leaves a lot of room for improvement. In 2018 the EPA reported that ‘69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted’. While this seems promising, the ‘total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million tons’, which works out as ‘4.9 pounds per person per day’. An additional 35 million tons was able to be converted into energy through combustion. However, ‘more than 146 million tons of MSW (50 percent) were landfilled’.

While the percentage of waste going to landfill has decreased, from 94 percent in 1960 to 50 percent in 2018 according to the EPA, the overall amount has still increased. The EPA found that generation of waste increased by 204.3 million tons from 1960 to 2018. While recycling rates have also increased in that time span, from 6 percent in 1960 to 32 percent in 2018, this is still offset by the increased amount of waste overall.

One of the primary issues in managing waste, according to the EPA, is the fact that ‘no single waste management approach is suitable for managing all materials and waste streams in all circumstances’. There are many diverse approaches to sustainability, including recycling, biodegradable materials and compostable materials. There is no one size fits all solution, but all of these work in conjunction to promoting a healthier planet and more circular economy.

Roughly 75 percent of consumers are willing to pay an additional 10-25 percent more for products in sustainable packaging

Recyclable materials

As a simple definition, Because Health defines recyclable items as those that ‘can be turned into raw materials that can then be used to make new things without needing to create completely new resources’. Recycling is the most well-known sustainability effort and the most widespread. However, as Fortune magazine notes, the key to recycling is twofold: ‘Components must be recyclable, and systems must be in place to put the recycled material back into the manufacturing stream.’

All recyclable materials were not created equal. The Guardian found that recycling aluminum is ‘straightforward, profitable and environmentally sound: making a can from recycled aluminum reduces its carbon footprint by up to 95 percent’. With returns like that, aluminum is a desirable material to recycle, as it retains both economic and material value. However, with plastic, the results are not that simple. ‘While virtually all plastics can be recycled, many aren’t because the process is expensive, complicated and the resulting product is of lower quality than what you put in,’ reported the Guardian.

A critical component in the chain is having systems in place to sort and process the recycled materials. An investigation by the Guardian magazine found that in Los Angeles county ‘recycling facilities are separating “mixed plastics” from those plastics which still retain value – such as water bottles, laundry detergent bottles and milk jugs – and, contrary to what customers expect, sending them directly to a landfill or incinerator’. Los Angeles is not the only county to do this: many areas all around the US follow the same practice. This reality is a far cry from the idealism which surrounds recycling.

The label industry is making an effort to increase packaging recyclability. As L&L previously reported, more than 85 companies and organizations from the packaging value chain have joined forces to assess whether a pioneering digital watermarking technology can enable better sorting and higher-quality recycling rates for packaging in the EU. Better sorting would greatly increase the quality of recyclate, which in turn makes using recycled materials a more attractive proposition.

More companies are committing themselves to using recycled and recyclable materials despite the challenges. Canadian label converter Labelcraft, for example, has committed to sourcing liners which incorporate recycled materials, and to promote recycling at a liner’s end of life. Labelcraft’s liners are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, while its Enviroliner is recyclable at most recycling facilities. Traditional release liners which use a significant amount of silicone are not easily recyclable. This innovation earned Labelcraft a 2020 FTA Sustainability Excellence Award.

EcoEnclose also offers a 100 percent recycled and 100 percent recyclable liner with its Zero Waste Release Liners intended for stickers, product labels and shipping labels.

Finat’s Radar report shows that 23 percent of surveyed companies are currently involved in a liner recycling program and recycle all of their liner while 20 percent are involved in a program and indicate that they recycle some of their liner.

Biodegradable materials

Biodegradable materials open up another seemingly promising avenue towards sustainability. The relationship between biodegradable and compostable can be a bit confusing. If it is biodegradable is it also compostable? If it is compostable then is it biodegradable? The answer is no – and yes.

Because Health defines biodegradable as ‘a substance that can break down naturally without causing any harm’. While this does not seem very different from composting, the key difference is that composting starts with organic (as opposed to synthetic) materials. Every item that is compostable is also biodegradable, but some items that are biodegradable may not be compostable if they did not start with organic materials.

And the simple fact that a material breaks down in the soil does not make it environmentally neutral. A sustainability analysis has to take into account the time it takes to break down, and the fact that those resources cannot be reused.

A stand-out red herring is the term ‘bio-based’, particularly in reference to plastic materials. The EPA defines bio-based plastics as those ‘manufactured from plant materials instead of being made from oil or natural gas.’ However, just because these materials are made from plants does not make them automatically safe to decompose in the environment. In reality, reports the EPA, ‘bio-based plastics can be designed to be structurally identical to petroleum-based plastics, and if designed in this way, they can last in the environment for the same period of time as petroleum-based plastic’. Like any other plastic, they would need to be designed to be biodegradable or compostable.

Compostable materials

Compostable materials require processing in industrial facilities to break down, while in theory, biodegradable materials do not. Compostable items, properly processed, will break down completely and can then be used as a feedstock to grow more resources.

This viewpoint may become the industry standard; that converters are not simply packaging companies, but are also waste management companies

A recent Avery Dennison webinar pointed out the two key characteristics of compostable materials: the time they take to break down – the composting process should be completed in about three months – and the residue, or lack thereof, left behind. For a material to be compostable, it should leave behind nutrients for plants and have no toxic residues.

The most common compostable plastic is polylactic acid or PLA. It is made from a sugar produced by plants, most commonly corn, and is not recyclable with traditional plastics. When using a compostable material, ‘each of the components of the packaging structure, whether it is the base structure, the ink, or the adhesive should be certified individually and then as a complete structure,’ according to Kaetitia Kasl, senior product manager at Avery Dennison.

For the end user, the key benefits of compostable plastics include good content visibility, freezer safety and lower energy consumption – or greenhouse gas emission – during manufacture than traditional plastics.

Compostable materials need to meet strict regulations that can vary by country. In the US, The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) is the regulating body that creates the standards while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces those standards.

EN 13432 is the European certification for industrial composting and ASTM D6400 the North American certification. To qualify for certification to EN 13432, products need to satisfy strict criteria. After composting for three months and passing through a 2mm sieve, materials cannot leave a residue equivalent to more than 10 percent of the original mass. The certification procedure also entails an examination of the resulting compost’s effect on plant growth, which indicates any ecotoxicity. The compost produced from certified materials can therefore be used directly for agricultural purposes.

Many companies in the label industry have risen to the challenge. Avery Dennison achieved “OK Compost” certification for a BPA-free and FSC-certified thermal label material combined with a SX6030 adhesive. Additionally, Avery Dennison’s S9500 adhesive meets EN 13432 regulations for industrial composting. Herma has two adhesive and label combinations that meet EN 13432 regulations. PURE Labels has adhesive labels that are compostable, biodegradable, tree-free, vegan, and comply with EN 13432. UPM Raflatac has the RafBio range, which includes biodegradable cellulose films, PLA films, paper faces, and a biodegradable adhesive; all of which meet EN 13432. Cellulose film is also home compostable.

And not just materials. HP Indigo has also introduced digital printing inks certified for composting in both home and industrial settings and which meet EN 13432 standards.

Concerns with compostables

As we have seen, in order to fully break down, compostable products must be correctly processed at the end of the product life cycle. Unfortunately, the odds of that happening are even smaller than properly handling recyclable materials. The EPA is clear that ‘compostable’ plastic often only means industrially compostable and cannot be added to a home compost pile; ‘Plastic that is labeled as compostable is generally intended to be sent to an industrial or commercial composting facility which has higher temperatures and different breakdown conditions than those found in a typical homeowner’s compost bin.’

What about recycling the compostable plastic? The EPA also addressed this: ‘Compostable plastics are not intended for recycling and can contaminate and disrupt the recycling stream if intermixed.’

If compostable materials cannot be processed at an industrial composting facility, and cannot be recycled with traditional materials, can they just be thrown away to compost in a landfill? While one might expect they would break down and eventually compost themselves, the answer is, surprisingly, no. A landfill is not the right environment to promote composting.

Emma Zang-Schwartz at Because Health describes the difference between an industrial composting facility and a landfill. ‘Composing facilities regulate temperature, moisture, and air flow in order to ensure a compostable item breaks down as fast as possible. Composting works best when the items have access to oxygen and are regularly being turned over. A landfill is basically the opposite. It's an anaerobic environment where most of the pile actually doesn't have access to oxygen.’

Until composting can be carried out by consumers at home, it is not a large-scale viable solution. Indeed, some companies are now trying to avoid PLA, the most common compostable plastic, for this very reason. Nature's Path, a family-owned organic foods company that caters to specialty diets, is avoiding all corn-based plastics including PLA because it found them to be ‘almost impossible for our consumers to compost’.

As pointed out in the Avery Dennison webinar, while there are benefits to compostable plastic (assuming the right end of life processes), there are also many drawbacks. A particular concern is that compostable plastic ‘can be difficult to distinguish from traditional plastic, cannot be used for hot foods or liquids, and needs specific storage environment’. Additionally, all parts of the packaging must be compostable, which necessitates specialty inks and adhesives.

Compostable packaging is a step in the right direction, but only if the infrastructure steps up to match.

First, reduce and reuse

Reduce, reuse, recycle is not just a catchy phrase. It lists the steps of the packaging waste hierarchy in order of importance. Avery Dennison has a slightly longer waste management hierarchy: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, energy recovery, landfill’. But the first step is always to reduce – both the amount consumers use and the amount of packaging that manufacturers produce.

The sustainability movement is an opportunity for smarter design and more innovative packaging choices

A company at the forefront of this movement is Loop. Loop aims to change our ‘disposable’ packaging mindset and bring back classic business models from the last century: like the milkman delivering milk products door-to-door in reusable packaging.

This idea is the brainchild of Tom Szaky, founder of recycling company TerraCycle. Szaky told The Guardian that he now ‘wants to apply the milkman model to almost everything you buy’. With a small refundable deposit, typically a couple of dollars per product, consumers can get their products in sustainable packaging that when empty are either picked up by a mailing service or dropped off in a participating store. They are then sanitized, refilled and sent back to the consumer. According to Szaky, ‘Loop is a not a product company; it’s a waste management company. We’re just looking at waste before it begins.’

This viewpoint may become the industry standard; that converters are not simply packaging companies, but are also waste management companies. This change in mindset requires starting with sustainable designs and packaging options rather than trying to manage or recycle waste at the end of a product’s life.

Rather than limit design and packaging opportunities, the opposite may be true Szaky believes. ‘By moving from disposable to reusable, you unlock epic design opportunities. It forces packaging designers to prioritize durability over disposability.’

Many big-name brands are joining with Loop while others are following in its footsteps. Dove, for example, is now making a stainless-steel case for its deodorants and selling just the product refills. Dove says the product has been ‘made with the planet in mind and is designed to be kept for life’. The refills are, of course, packaged, but Dove states the refills use 54 percent less plastic than a standard stick of Dove. Additionally, the plastic Dove uses is 98 percent recycled, according to its website.   

The sustainability trend is not going away, nor should it. If the future is not to be littered with pollution and environmental degradation, the culture of disposable consumerism needs to change. This should be a wake-up call, but not a code red alarm. The sustainability movement is an opportunity for smarter design and more innovative packaging choices.

The package printing industry has a massive role to play in a greener future. The EPA acknowledges that labels and packaging are vital to determining the best end of life options for a product. But rather than look at end of life options, the industry can start designing and producing products that can have a second or longer life. As Loop says, waste management starts at the beginning.


Jordan Hart - online editor


Jordan joins the editorial team with international journalism experience and a degree in communication.

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