From a look at what the EU could be doing to promote more sustainable practices, to glaring brand owner mistakes, Marika Knorr, head of sustainability and communication at CCL Label, takes a look at the current state of sustainability in the labelling industry.


Broadly speaking, what are currently the biggest sustainability challenges facing the labelling industry?

Regarding sustainability I see a couple of topics that we are working on at the moment. The first would be the price and the availability of recycled content. As we mainly deal with films, the quality of the recycled resin needs to be excellent for us to able to include it in our label and sleeve products. We can already do a lot and have labels with recycled content in our portfolio, but the upcharges are still considerable.

Regarding the availability of recycled content, we would like to see more regulatory framework and action to make recycled content a priority. This would boost the quality and the quantity of available material in the market – for everyone.

Secondly, the carbon footprint of the production itself has to be reduced. Here we see a lot of great improvements, though – from the use of renewable energy at our sites, the use of more energy-efficient machinery that is a priority with every purchase we make, and collaboration with our supply chain to further improve.

We invested in special software a couple of years ago to collect and analyse the data from all our 204 plants globally – to be able to calculate our carbon footprint and to be able to set goals. This also enables us to track, report and improve our emissions and to support our global brand customers in reaching their sustainable goals, for example the race to net zero.

We’re constantly reporting on new and innovative labelling innovations – from wash off solutions to floatable labels. Can we expect these solutions to become fully mainstream in the future? Why/why not? What more can be done to scale them up?

These solutions have to become mainstream to reach two major targets of the packaging industry: to make packaging reusable and recyclable. Basically, a packaging is made up from a couple of different components – if you take beverage packaging, usually the bottle, the cap and the label or sleeve.

All these materials have to be functional and complement each other for the package to be recyclable in the end. The widely available “Design for Recycling Guidelines” for example from RecyClass guide brands on how to design the packaging at the beginning of life so that it is recyclable at the end of life.

If you look at labels, the Design Guidelines recommend floatable low-density polyolefin labels for PET recycling for example, because they are a perfect match for density separation in the sink/float process during the recycling process. In the established recycling process – which is important – WashOff labels are a basic requirement when designing returnable glass bottles. They can be efficiently and quickly washed off on the industrial washing and filling lines without leaving any residue on the bottles.

You can’t see this at first glance, but those small labels are high-tech. Once the bottles enter the washing basin, the shrink properties of the labels are activated and the label itself starts to ‘cringe’, thus rolling itself up and pulling itself from the bottle – together with the adhesive and the printing inks. This makes the washing very clean and fast – the bottle can be refilled immediately.

Despite huge amounts of investment in time and resource, major brands sometimes make glaring labelling sustainability mistakes. Could you identify some of these for us and explain how they can be avoided?

There has been a huge push towards “Design for Recycling” in the last few years – also thanks to clear guidelines that help everyone involved in the food and beverage supply chain to make better choices for the environment. Still, we see products in the market that need to be re-designed. In terms of choosing the right label material for your primary packaging, that will not hinder recycling, I would like to point out the following examples.

A paper label on a PET bottle will be a problem in recycling if it sticks to the bottle until it is sorted and recycled. Once the PET bottle is ground and enters the sink/float basin as a crucial step in recycling, the paper will get soggy and sink to the bottom of the basin with the PET flakes. So, there is no separation of the materials and the chance of the printing inks being mixed up in all of it, too. This can lead to a lesser quality of the PET recyclates which will have an effect on the applications it can be used for.

Although many materials have been put on a red list in many countries, for example PVC sleeves, these occasionally still show up and will be a problem for recycling and lead to contamination. The best advice we can give is to stick to the Design for Recycling guidelines when you are re-thinking packaging. These have the existing recycling streams and technologies in mind and contribute to a higher output of recycled content.

What more should European legislators be doing to encourage more sustainable labelling practices?

Well, if we could create a ‘wish list’, it would include the following points: harmonization of legislation when it comes to collection and recycling technology to enable a European approach than having fragmented practices in place. Also, simplification and harmonization of the language and key messages regarding the recyclability of a package would help a lot - this would enable brands and consumers to make an informed decision.

Last but not least we are supporting the Ecomodulation of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees. At the moment all brands that pay EPR for the packaging they are putting on the market, pay this according to weight. This does not incentivise anyone to make the package more recyclable or to re-think the packaging.

The EU is thinking about changing this, so that packaging that is designed for recycling is rewarded with lower fees than packaging that is deemed unrecyclable. This would enable companies to invest in innovative, sustainable packaging solutions upfront, because they are looking at fewer fees later on.

Looking to the future, what labelling sustainability trends should we be keeping an eye on?

One goal that almost every country in the world has, is to recycle more PET. It is already the most recycled plastic, but the quality needs to improve to enable even more bottle-to-bottle recycling, truly closing the loop in a circular economy for beverage bottles. This will give rise to the trend of the so-called “Floatables”, low-density polyolefin materials that automatically detach from the PET bottles during the sink/float process at the PET recycler.

Floatables are available as label or sleeve decoration and significant investments have been made to improve this material to efficiently boost PET recycling. We recently opened a brand-new state-of-the-art extrusion line in Poland – the world’s first dedicated line for low density shrink film. This is the birthplace of sustainable shrink sleeves that are a trending decoration material and hopefully become mainstream in the next years.

If you look at the content on the label itself, I think it will be interesting to witness the simplification of the material and recyclability messaging in the future. At the moment there are many mixed messages out there regarding the claims on the label itself – as I pointed out the EU is working on eliminating greenwashing and this will have to go hand-in-hand with a simplification of the claims on packaging.

Another exciting development will be the use of labels and sleeves to “hide” a digital watermark in there. Probably many are familiar with the HolyGrail 2.0 project, which uses the digital watermarking technology from Digimarc to hide a code in the label artwork itself that cannot be detected by the consumer. But when the used household waste enters the recycling unit the watermark can be identified by special sorting detection units.

They will detect several messages like “I am a PET bottle” or “I am a food/non-food grade HDPE bottle” and this will enable an easier and more precise sorting and even allows for new recycling material streams. The better the sorting, the higher quality the recycling – so this can boost the availability of high-quality recyclates that the packaging industry is looking for.

Last but not least the label and with it the packaging itself will be transformed into a “media channel”. With augmented reality and connected packaging technologies and the very much evolving Metaverse there are unlimited possibilities to create a connection between the “real” packaging and the digital world.

This can be used to communicate sustainability amongst other topics. Where did the product come from, where is it going and what makes it sustainable? The packaging can be used to educate on recycling and related topics. As I said – there are unlimited possibilities and we have created a dedicated team that deals with Connected Packaging.