Labelling waste: small pieces add up
by Trish Hyde, MD The Plastics Circle
Think plastic waste and you probably think plastic bottles and shopping bags. These big items attract a lot of attention, but what about the small pieces? What about the humble label, for example?
A label gives colour, branding and important information about its product and/or packaging. However, it is most often a different plastic to the bigger item it serves. Because of this labels deserve their own attention when it comes to recycling and recyclability.
Plastic PET bottles are widely recycled and recyclable, thanks to the commercial value of the recovered material (rPET) in making a wide variety of new products, including new plastic drink bottles.
Up until the recycling process, the label serves its bottle exceedingly well - giving essential regulatory and consumer information, and the needed barcode for inventory tracking and product pricing at checkout.
But when it comes time for the recovered PET bottle to become rPET, the label is no longer wanted. Much of the time, the label is removed, and discarded as waste. But sometimes the label’s adhesives can render a normally recyclable bottle non-recyclable because it can’t be removed.
If the label is removed, this light weight plastic-fibre material can be annoying to manage in the best recycling facilities. However, where unsound disposal is the norm, the small label has a significant impact.
Do we go without? Setting aside the important role that labels play, some may seek a simple answer to reducing the impact of labels on the environment. In many countries, there is a focus on removing 'single-use' plastics - shopping bags, for example. Should labels be treated similarly? Are there degrees of acceptability? What about size limits?
To me, these are the wrong questions. Single-use is a mindset not a type of plastic. Single-use is a term that describes human behaviour when we interact with plastic - not the plastic's make-up or its actual use.
Without entering the bag-ban debate, it is broadly agreed that a plastic shopping bag can be used more than once. Further, its plastic can be given a second-life.
The plastic bottle serves the purpose of getting liquid distributed to a merchant, so that it can be sold for consumption. The vessel does the logistic task several times, before its contents are consumed and the bottle is ready for its next life as rPET.
Its label makes the bottle's many logistics possible with all the information needed to make a safe and happy customer. But can it have a second-life?
Labels, like all plastics can have a second-life - it is only our lack of imagination stopping that full recovery.
Imagining the future
While most attention is on the popular plastic wastes, small items are going unnoticed by the masses (labels, soy sauce (fish-shaped) containers, clothing tags etc). Fortunately, people are looking at these and pioneering change.
One such example of this pioneering attitude occurred at Labelexpo 2018. Avery Dennison, the global label-maker, piloted a ground-breaking trade show stand. As you would expect, it looked great and drew the eye, but of note, was its structure – all of the panels used to make the stand contained 50% consumer label waste.
This is not surprising given Avery Dennison has earmarked label waste as a top strategic challenge in its 2025 sustainability goals.
Label for sustainability
Regardless of the size or use, plastics can be sustainable when used well and with second-life markets in mind.
In the case of labels, this means thinking carefully about the purpose, its composition and the ability to remove it so that both the label and the plastic it serves can be recovered. It is early days on the adventure to make label waste sustainable, but thankfully industry players, like Avery Dennison, are looking at this issue now.
Avery Dennison will be at Plasticity Malaysia, 25 Oct 2018 to join the global conversation to make plastic circular.