Are we ready for sustainability?

Modern consumers demand sustainability. Over the past few years it has become a key factor considered when making a purchase decision. According to a recent Accenture sustainability survey, 87 percent of consumers prefer an eco-friendly packaging option when purchasing products. 
UPM Raflatac’s Forest Film is made entirely from renewable wood-based raw materials

Environmentally friendly packaging has enormous potential to add value to products, shape brand image and develop customer loyalty. Sustainability and environmental responsibility, for brand owners contending for leading market positions, are nowadays a necessity, not merely a luxury or simply a buzzword. Plus, with the public increasingly aware of the waste caused by packaging, wasteful brands are often named and shamed on social media.

Global corporate giants such as McDonald’s are now pledging to make their packaging fully recyclable by 2025. Governments around the world are implementing stringent legislation and imposing sustainability deadlines, which brand owners will have to meet. 

There is no doubt about it. The pressure is on. 

Is sustainability here to stay?
Many of us were brought up with the phrase ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ in our vocabulary. Today, it’s essential for businesses to reflect these values. Not only to help the environment, but also increase brand loyalty among eco-conscious consumers.

‘Responding to changing consumer attitudes, sustainability has become a greater priority for both brand owners and suppliers to the packaging industry,’ says Jonathan Sexton, marketing manager, energy curing products for Europe at Sun Chemical, one of the largest producers of printing inks. ‘Brand owners have played an important role in the push for more sustainable packaging by committing to being more environmentally friendly. As part of that commitment, many have adopted a responsible packaging policy, which also includes the design and production of packaging for a circular economy.’

Yohann Froment, marketing director of Armor, French manufacturer of thermal transfer ribbons, thinks that sustainable packaging and labeling is still emerging, ‘though it has recently gained increased focus, driven by the corporate social responsibility policies of major brand owners.’ 

Is this wave of sustainability accountability from brands and the general population here to stay? ‘In my 30 years of experience in the packaging industry, this is the third wave of sustainability that I have seen, and I believe this one is here to stay,’ asserts Dan Haney, president and co-founder of Haney, the Packaging Microfactory, which has recently launched the VIA ReSolve sustainable packaging program. ‘Right now, many label manufacturers are moving towards more sustainable practices offering eco-friendly label materials, thinner films, liner recycling programs, etc. We at Haney are seeing increasing interest from brands in composting: compostable adhesives, films, containers. I think there needs to be more emphasis on adhesive technologies, specifically when it comes to the advancements in bio films; if you are going to use a bio film you have to have a bio adhesive and that bio adhesive can’t leave a residue or should be compostable if the label material itself meets those standards.‘

Indeed, material science, packaging and label engineering are developing at incredible speed. As a result, more eco-friendly options are on the market that can take care of a wide range of products. There have also been breakthroughs in plant-based and biodegradable plastic packaging. 

‘Sustainability labeling options are growing and being adopted by brands. At Avery Dennison we started with FSC face sheets (responsibly sourced) and now have grown our ClearIntent Portfolio to include products that have reduced environmental impact, include recycled content and also products that focus enabling the recyclability of the substrates they are applied to,’ comments Sarah Sanzo, compliance and sustainability manager at Avery Dennison. ‘We work with partners (APR, SPC How2Recycle) that help educate consumers on how to correctly recycle their packaging and this continues to push the sustainable packaging market forward.’

Factors shaping the market
According to Robert Taylor, sustainability director at UPM Raflatac, the most important factors shaping the sustainable packaging market are climate change, the plastics discussion, packaging recyclability and resource efficiency. ‘As a company, UPM Raflatac has taken a number of steps to address these. Through our commitments, we are doing our part in reducing unnecessary plastic packaging and setting concrete targets to create future innovative circular materials.’ 

Sarah Sanzo adds: ‘Consumers are a large part of shaping the environmentally responsible labeling market. Expectations from consumers that the brands are hearing loud and clear have made brands rethink their packaging. Out of the complaints it has created an opportunity for the labeling market to bring forth innovations to meet the needs of consumers and brands.’

Sun Chemicals echoes this statement: ‘The main factors are consumer demand, social responsibility and regional regulatory frameworks. However, the cost will also become an issue as sustainable solutions go mainstream,’ says Jonathan Sexton.

Yohann Froment is also concerned about the economic side and thinks that as long as recycled raw materials remain more costly than new raw materials, the trend towards sustainability will not develop at a fast pace. ‘Consciousness of manufacturers will progressively contribute to increase demand volume, and will reach at one stage, the price required for a viable economical model,’ he says. ‘Innovation can also drive this trend. Innovative products and processes can lead to demand and can impose standards to the market. For example, at Armor, we have recently launched a new thermal transfer ribbon, APR1 which is manufactured with 12 percent less plastic. Though it is positioned as a competitive ribbon compared to the other products of its family, this industrial innovation will necessarily make an impact on the mind of resellers and brand owners using it. So, it is the responsibility of the industry to innovate with economically viable, sustainable options because it will progressively shape the buying intentions of the market.’ 

One of the key challenges is the number of different assessment criteria for sustainability, which includes recyclability, compostability, bio-sourcing and carbon footprint, and within recycling there are also different processes and guidelines.

‘This not only means there is no single technology approach, but also that there can be challenges with sustainability criteria such as the recycling of bioplastics and with the functionality and cost of the package in question,’ confirms Jonathan Sexton. ‘Label and packaging converters and their supply chains are having to adjust to evolving consumer and brand owner demands and priorities in this area. The supply chain is reacting to these evolving needs, but the industry needs to move to a more proactive approach, which requires greater investment.’

According to Dan Haney, one of the biggest issues is the infrastructure for recycling and composting. The lack of consistency makes it difficult for brands and material manufacturers to develop products that are universally recyclable or compostable. 

‘The intentions are here, recycling initiatives exist, but not strong enough to make them a reality or to develop fundamental changes like compostability,’ says Yohann Froment. ‘Cost effective options (versus non-sustainable alternatives) will be a key driver to the speed of adoption. Currently sustainable initiatives are sometimes polluted with rather “fake” sustainable packaging, giving a green image to packaging rather than being truly sustainable products. Most brand owners are not willing to pay a premium for the existing environmentally friendly solutions. This is slowing down the investment and development from the labels and packaging makers.’

‘The biggest challenge in the US is getting consumers to recycle their packaging,’ adds Sarah Sanzo. ‘Education is needed. Low rates of recycling make it hard to source enough post-consumer recycled content to help brands achieve their goals.’

‘There has been a huge surge in advancements in materials and adhesives, but if the facilities aren’t there to properly recycle or compost that product it will just end up in a landfill,’ agrees Dan Haney. ‘To reiterate, at Haney, we are getting a lot of requests for compostable and bio-based adhesives, which is tricky because these adhesives are being asked to do a lot while still maintaining the necessary characteristic to achieve the BPI or TUV standards.’

Circular economy 
Jonathan Sexton considers the circular economy to be an achievable target and one that is certainly worth achieving. ‘It will be a long and challenging road to get there. Nevertheless, we are committed to it – as a member of Ceflex, for example, Sun Chemical is working closely with the organization to advance its sustainability and circular economy roadmap for flexible packaging in Europe,’ he says. 

Armor is also positive about the circular approach: ‘In Armor’s business unit working on consumables for office printing, the product is sold, collected once used, and finally rebuilt as new one,’ says Yohann Froment. ‘All waste is recycled into new products, therefore as soon as the value of recycled raw materials is competitive, the same model can be implemented across labeling and packaging.’ 

‘For the circular economy to be successful, we need to continue and work with industry partners up and down the value stream,’ adds Sarah Sanzo. ‘We see a path to success, especially with recycling our liners back into new liner products. Making a market for our byproducts is key to keeping circularity in motion. Other countries are seeing great success with circularity, but they have a more robust recycling infrastructure, but as consumers are eager to learn we all have an opportunity to improve how we manage our recyclables.’

UPM Raflatac goes as far as calling it a ‘new way of doing things’. ‘Simply put, we have no other option. It’s the only way forward,’ says Robert Taylor. ‘Fortunately, there are already things that are happening to bring this to life. Take, for example, UPM Raflatac’s Label to Label product in the Americas, which is the label industry’s first paper face material constructed from recycled label materials. Or our RW85C wash-off film labeling materials, which allow the label to cleanly wash off from a PET container during the recycling process. This gives you contaminant-free flakes that can be turned back into another PET container, thus closing the loop. These are just a few examples of the circular economy already in action. But there’s still so much more we need to achieve. UPM Raflatac will be one of the key solutions providers in this game, which is central to our company’s strategy. As part of UPM, it strengthens our position to be able to do this. For example, with our Forest Film materials, we are able to leverage our sister company UPM Biofuels’ resources to find new ways to innovate for a future beyond fossils.’

According to Dan Haney, circular economy does come off as a buzzword, but that doesn’t make it any less of an important goal to strive for. ‘I would like to see more companies providing liner recycling programs, such as RafCycle from UPM Raflatac. Nearly 50 percent of the label is the liner. While consumers may not think about this portion of the label it is a huge part of the process and it is important to divert this waste from landfills. Additionally, it is important to address the business case for a full circular economy to warrant the investment from brands and manufacturers alike.’

‘Companies like The Loop are experimenting and figuring out the value of taking products out of landfills with permanent packaging,’ continues Dan Haney. ‘If they can identify sufficient financial gain for the business to do that then programs like these will gain momentum with the brands. But ultimately it goes back to what do consumers want- are they willing to pay a slight upcharge for something that improves sustainability, takes something out of a landfill, or reduces greenhouse gas emissions? Unfortunately, I don’t believe at this point in time that is the case – typically consumers don’t want to pay more if the only tradeoff for their dollar is sustainability. 

‘Our philosophy at Haney is to pair sustainable advancements with product innovations to entice the consumer to pick that more sustainable product up off the shelf – that’s when we see consumers be more receptive to paying a slight upcharge of 6-12 percent.’

Recycling, PCR or CO2 
There is no singular answer. The only way to move forward to a more environmentally friendly future in labeling and packaging is to attack the problem from all sides.

‘You have to be looking at all options,’ says Sarah Sanzo. ‘If you can’t recycle your package, then it’s harder to get post-consumer recycled content. When you can’t purchase post-consumer recycled content for your products industry is forced to purchase virgin raw materials which increases carbon footprint instead of decreasing it. As a society we need to focus on the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” model and shift the general mindset.’

According to Robert Taylor, all three aspects are important, but a fourth – renewables – also needs to be considered. ‘They all have their role in the drive towards more sustainable products and none of them are mutually exclusive elements,’ he says. ‘For example, by ensuring recyclability, we’re keeping raw materials in the system, and that eventually allows you to use more post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. In doing so, you’re reducing the carbon footprint. So, they’re totally interlinked; you cannot separate them, and you shouldn’t. Instead, we need to understand the links and make informed choices. Resource efficiency is at the core of UPM’s and UPM Raflatac’s Biofore strategy.’

Jonathan Sexton adds: ‘Our own discussions with stakeholders suggest that there is currently a market focus and priority on recycling. This focus is also being driven by regulation and is generating questions around recyclability that will impact increasingly also on inks and other materials used in label and packaging manufacture. 

‘A carbon footprint is also important and has several aspects, one of which is operational with regard to manufacturing processes and energy consumption and is a clear focus of label and packaging converters and supply chain manufacturers. Another increasing priority is biosourcing, i.e. using raw materials based on “natural” renewable organic carbon sources rather than on ancient or petrochemical carbon sources. This is particularly true, where paper-based materials are favored in new applications.’

Some producers such as Armor are focusing on carbon footprint reduction, so that newly developed products have significantly lower environmental impact. 

‘The trend is a combination of all these sustainability factors, depending on what part of the packaging they refer to,’ says Yohann Froment. ‘We definitely invest in production processes to use less solvent, less plastic, and less raw material so, for example, some of our ribbons are developed using 12 percent less plastics, others are 100 percent solvent-free. We are committed to recovering any post-production waste from our customers. From Armor’s flagship plant in France, 100 percent of our PET waste is recovered and along with 91 percent of the solvent we use is turned into energy for our own plant, which currently uses electricity made of 58 percent renewable sources.’

‘Brands need to collaborate with the material manufacturers who need to work with the printers and converters and ultimately with the MRFs and composting facilities as well,’ says Dan Haney. ‘Collaboration is key to identifying options that tackle environmental issues at every step in the process. Right now, from a developmental standpoint utilizing post-consumer recycled content (PCR) is the easiest first step. The problem there is that the supply isn’t consistent. A refocus on recycling in the United States and developing a system that enables businesses to generate both revenue and a consistent supply of the right materials is needed. In addition, label companies, such as Avery Dennison and UPM Raflatac have developed wash-off adhesives that advance PET recycling. The greatest challenge is greenhouse emissions. I think a lot of work has already been done there – many of the big companies have stepped up and changed their manufacturing over the past few years and they have identified efficiencies in their facilities and the facilities of their supply chain.’

Jonathan Sexton believes sustainability is one of the key opportunities and drivers for new product development, especially around supporting the social imperatives of ensuring food safety and reducing food loss and packaging waste. ‘Continuing to help our customers to achieve their sustainability goals, Sun Chemical already has programs related to deinkability and recyclability of printed materials as well as biosourcing and sustainable printing technologies such as LED, and these will become more important in the future. Our future developments will all need to integrate sustainability criteria.’

‘We work with the APR, MRF’s and recyclers to ensure our pressure sensitive labels do not hinder the recycling process,’ says Sarah Sanzo. ‘With these insights the entire label industry is working toward the same goal thus creating a larger economy for recyclers.’

‘UPM Raflatac’s role in the packaging value chain is to offer label options and services that enable brands to make their packaging more sustainable. But we’re not just offering product-based options; we have services available to help enhance a brand’s sustainability,’ says Robert Taylor. 

The company runs RafCycle label waste recycling service with over 150 partners around the world. ‘With RafCycle partners, we coordinate the recycling of spent label liner waste and have it recycled into a new resource. Additionally, our Label Life tool helps educate on the environmental impacts of our label materials by providing life cycle assessments and showing three fundamental ways they impact the environment: greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and water consumption,’ adds Taylor. 

Armor has also set up a complete collection and recycling program for its thermal transfer ribbons. ‘At the moment it is running in France, where the program called RecPET is offered by our resellers to their end-users,’ says Yohann Froment. ‘Some of the large brand-owners have embraced this initiative to reduce their waste and participate to reduce their own carbon footprint. We are currently preparing similar RecPET programs in other countries like the USA with intentions to go faster and stronger everywhere we are present in the world.’

Dan Haney also can see a significant potential in implementing sustainability: ‘If permanent packaging is becoming a sustainable revenue platform for companies and brands then they have to address premium print. The ability to use and remove a label easily would become imperative for brand messaging on permanent packaging. I think that labels are going to play a significant role in this market and be the primary communication vehicle here.’ 

Positive, but cautious outlook
There is no doubt that the focus on sustainable packaging and labeling will continue. Already it’s growing several percentage points faster than non-sustainable packaging. 

‘You can see where the future is headed, and we want to be part of that future,’ says Robert Taylor. ‘This growth is in large part due to consumer demand for sustainable packaging. In turn, brands are working to keep up with this demand by announcing their sustainability targets and launching more sustainable sub-brands. There are the leading companies who are not just meeting consumer and customer demand, but go beyond the targets. Our job is to push the agenda and create an innovative new labelstock that turns heads. That’s what leaders do. We just want to reiterate that the green recovery is undoubtedly the path forward, not just in the post-Covid period, but well beyond’

‘This market has an enormous future, but will only gain full momentum once governments enforce stricter environmental regulations and develop clear recycling channels,’ says Yohann Froment. 

Sarah Sanzo adds: ‘The future is indeed very bright for the sustainable packaging and labeling market; value stream partners are collaborating, and new technologies are being created and tested. Chemical or advanced recycling technology is growing and being adopted which will help offset the hard to recycle materials that end up in a landfill.’

According to Dan Haney, the best way for a positive future is through collaboration and understanding where the value lies. ‘What we are trying to fix is something that has to work in a much larger system, and the only way is if all the pieces of the system are working together. The power of marketing is tied into incentive programs. Consumers want to do the right thing and know they need to do the right thing, but they are lazy sometimes. If you can create an incentive system to get part of the process done at home instead of at the plant, that makes it easier for the manufacturers and investors to invest in high-speed lasers for reading the right materials versus grinding machines. It will have to be a collaborative process at the manufacturing level, the brand level, and the consumer level.’ 

However, alongside this positive outlook comes some caution: ‘As the momentum behind the adoption of sustainable packaging and labeling picks up, current products and processes may quickly become obsolete, so the industry will need to accelerate innovation,’ warns Jonathan Sexton.