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Recycling of full body sleeve labels on PET is ‘critical issue’, says APR

By Joe Whitworth , 23-Jan-2013

The use of full body sleeve labels on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles has become the “number one contaminant issue” facing industry, according to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR).

An industry consortium aimed at tackling the problem of full-wrap labels on PET bottles in the recycle stream has been set up and will meet again next month to assess potential solutions to the problem.

Approximately 80% of full-wrap labels in North America are found on PET containers, the most recycled plastic on the market.

Critical issue

Steve Alexander, president of The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), told FoodProductionDaily.com the issue is hitting critical levels.

“We see more of the full body sleeve labels each month and expect to see more as marketers use the sleeve labels to greater advantage. Sleeve labels have many positive characteristics, such as absence of adhesives and coloured bottle plastic.

“Reclaimers update their capability constantly, but you cannot buy what does not exist and should not buy what is unaffordable.  If some sleeved bottles stop the recycling systems, they become unrecyclable and should be so identified.  

“Packaging designers and specifiers need to keep their decisions within the realm of what is helpful and avoid magnifying the difficulty of recycling their package.”   

Eastman Chemical Company heads the group of 30 companies that aims to develop solutions that will benefit all involved parties.

As full-wrap labels are becoming more popular because of increased shelf appeal, many PET bottles also have been downgauged. The combination of these two elements has exacerbated the challenge recyclers’ face in processing these PET containers, said Eastman.

Possible solutions

Alexander added that they have not been contacted directly to participate in the group but have been addressing the issue and identified some of options available.

“Floating labels is the surest route to separate label from PET bottle flake. After hot caustic water washing, the label pieces must all float while the PET flakes sink in water.  Today we know very few floating sleeve labels are in the market, but we also know serious development efforts are underway now that the label designers know what is needed and how to measure success.

“Perforated labels that survive the package’s use stage and then completely liberate in the recyclers’ pre-wash step would be very good.  To date the right perforation process has not been identified.”

He added they do not expect consumers to remove the labels as frequently as needed.

“To date industrial delabeling equipment has not been as efficient or capable or as durable as needed.  Whether such a machine will be economical and successful is a real question.  A machine too delicate and expensive is not the needed solution.

“Another very serious issue is the ability of all of the very expensive automatic sorting machines to properly identify the plastic of the bottle when the label shields the bottle from the detectors.  This problem costs the municipal processers and the reclaimers with misidentified bottles.”  

Consortium aim

The first meeting of the group, held in August last year discussed how labels are creating challenges in the recycling process and began exploring solutions. The second meeting, held in November, considered the viability of potential solutions and identified critical success factors.

Holli Whitt, market development manager, sustainability for specialty plastics, Eastman Chemical Company, said: “Full-wrap labels are becoming more popular with brand owners because they offer increased shelf appeal that can impact consumer purchasing decisions and brand loyalty.

“We want to find solutions that will allow brand owners to continue using these labels to secure brand recognition, shelf appeal and market share while mitigating the challenges recyclers are experiencing.”

The group is made up of consumer goods manufacturers, resin and label producers, film extruders, print converters, equipment manufacturers, bottlers and packagers, recyclers and testing firms.