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Why is it so important to make the right labelling choice if the packaging industry wants to reduce its reliance on fossil resources? Victoria Hattersley spoke to Eliisa Laurikainen, Business Development Manager, Consumer Goods at UPM Raflatac, to find out.

When it comes to future-proofing packaging, labels matter. And yet often the importance of the label when it comes to ensuring the overall sustainability and recyclability of a package can easily be overlooked. That’s why this company, which since the 1970s has been creating high-performance and sustainable label materials, argues brand owners should put the same care into selecting their labelling materials as they do into choosing their packaging. The ultimate aim, as it says, is to empower brand owners to move ‘beyond fossils’ to a more sustainable use of the world’s resources – and always designing packaging with recyclability or reuse as the end goal.

This requires employing the strategy of eco-design: that the whole lifecycle of the packaging, including the label, should be considered from the start of the design process. This encompasses everything from raw materials to manufacturing, right through to how the package is disposed of. factoring the labelling material into the packaging design right from the start. This approach is summed up – by UPM Raflatac – with the dual message of ‘Make the Switch’ and ‘Close the Loop’. Each of these two are intertwined: the one relies upon the other.

“With the message ‘Make the Switch’ we are encouraging brand owners to change to more sustainable label material choices,” begins Eliisa Laurikainen. “This can be reducing the use of raw materials, for example using thinner or resource-optimized label solutions, or taking advantage of the wider availability of label materials made from post-consumer recycled waste (PCR), such as our PP C-PCR – a polypropylene film where virgin materials have been replaced with chemically recycled post-consumer waste – or for paper labels UPM Raflatac Recycled Coat Plus PCR-FSC face paper material using 100% recycled fibres.

“Packaging recyclability is important today and it will be even more important in the future as brand owners are envisioning a waste-free world. Choosing the right label can help optimize recyclability and that’s  where ‘Close the Loop’ comes in. The packaging choices made will determine which recycling stream the pack will go in so it’s vital we make good label choices to support the recycling or reuse process.”

One key solution developed by UPM Raflatac that supports the ‘Close the Loop’ approach is RafCycle – a label waste recycling service designed to offer customers and brand owners a circular recycling solution. This is important because, as UPM Raflatac says, many companies may not know how to deal with label waste and the release liner is often overlooked in the waste stream. RafCycle enables companies to put valuable materials back into the product stream, in many cases returning the waste to the label value chain. The process is a simple one: RafCycle partners need only collect their waste and then UPM Raflatac will arrange a pickup and recycling. Find out more about this service.

UPM Raflatac’s solutions include wash-off labels for PET packaging that allow the label to be separated from the package during the recycling process. But with some recycling processes today it is not even necessary to separate the label from the package and in this case – for example for HDPE packaging – there is the option to use recycling-compatible labels. This is just a snapshot of what is possible; but as we will see, it’s a complex choice involving a large number of metrics. 

The right label material for the right product

‘Make the Switch’ and ‘Close the Loop’ are two clear, actionable ways for brands to move forward and make their packaging more sustainable. But the biggest sticking point can be agreeing on what this should look like as the word ‘sustainability’ can mean different things to different groups. So what, in UPM Raflatac’s opinion, constitutes a sustainable labelling solution?

“My view is that the labels are a vital component of the primary or secondary packaging so really everything must begin from the package design,” says Eliisa. “This means you have to consider the labels from the very early stage and factor in the end-of-life scenarios. And, of course, we cannot forget the end user needs so the label has to have all the necessary functionality (e.g. peel and reseal) and will have to tolerate a wide range of conditions. Any solution not meeting all these requirements is not sustainable.”

A key component of the packaging design phase is choosing the packaging material itself, and then choosing the right label material to combine with this to ensure circularity. But is there a ‘best’ packaging material? Does UPM favour any in particular or should we be agnostic about this question?

“Today we see so many innovations and new materials tested or introduced to the market and I completely support that development. But we cannot forget the most important role for the package and that is to protect the product and deliver it safely to the consumer to avoid product waste, and it’s good to keep in mind that different products have different requirements. Choosing the best sustainable label to suit the package is where our expertise comes in.”

Challenges for brand owners

It’s also important to note that the material choice doesn’t always come down to the needs of the product – sometimes there are other deciding factors. For example, there are regional variations when it comes to recycling infrastructure, climate conditions, etc: one solution might be appropriate for some metrics, but in another geographical region another material is the appropriate choice for the same product. As we’ve said, it’s a complex equation.

These regional variations are one of the biggest challenges for brand owners. “The recycling infrastructure is not homogeneous in every region and in most areas it is still developing to meet requirements,” says Eliisa. “The difficulty is: how do they meet these requirements when it is not clear what is needed?”

How indeed. Furthermore, while many brand owners are taking clear steps to shoulder their own share of the environmental burden, their requirements are of course for large-scale solutions. This, paradoxically, can somewhat limit their choice when it comes to innovative, sustainable materials. As Eliisa adds, “There are many innovative niche label or packaging solutions available, but the capacity for these is often limited. Multinationals need solutions that are available on scale and follow high standards for sustainability, from sustainable raw materials sourcing and efficient production to third-party certifications. This is not always so easy to achieve, but we are a global company able to work with multinational brands to support them in making the best labelling decisions.”

Make labels ‘change agents’

Given all the above, how can labels come to be more widely perceived as not just functional items but, as UPM would describe it, ‘change agents’? In practical terms, this comes down to making data-driven decisions, rather than decisions driven by emotions or subjective impressions.

“As I’ve said, we at UPM Raflatac want to make it easy for brands to make educated decisions when it comes to their label choices,” says Eliisa. “UPM Raflatac Label Life LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) tool is great example of that. It’s a scientific, externally verified method for analysing the environmental impacts of our label materials. Through this service brand owners can get cradle to gate LCA calculations on three fundamental impacts: greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and water consumption.”

Label materials can also play their part in mitigating climate change through reducing reliance on virgin, fossil-based materials. UPM’s Forest Film is an example of this. Certified by ISCC PLUS, according to the company it is the first wood-based plastic label material on the market. Eliisa says the reason this is such an important addition to the company’s product selection is that its technical performance is ‘identical compared to standard film made from fossil resources’.

It’s not just recycling we have to consider, either: while their uptake may be slower than many might have hoped, reusable packaging solutions are slowly but surely growing in importance. It may be years – if at all – until they take up a sizeable proportion of the market but the labelling solutions still need to be there to support them. There are plenty of wash-off options to meet the needs of the reuse sector, whether that is for glass packages, aluminium or plastics.

Casting an eye into the future, Eliisa identifies a couple of growing areas of innovation in the labelling sector that we might want to keep our eyes on.

“Labels carry the inks and removing the labels from the packaging during recycling is improving recycling quality and quantity. Really all those solutions that can improve packaging recyclability are growing areas of innovation. Pressure sensitive labels are a great canvas for information for many reasons; they can have active role in recycling and improve the packaging recyclability in many ways. They can also provide functionality to packaging.

“Linerless label technology is interesting and it can already meet labelling requirements in many end-use areas like retail and logistics. Linerless technology is developing with big environmental advantages. We at UPM Raflatac have invested in this growing area.”

‘We have to be clear in our communication’

Eliisa believes that helping the brand owner wade through all these different choices to find the optimum solution comes down to an emphasis on clear communication from companies such as UPM Raflatac on the relative benefits of certain materials. No producer should be ‘championing’ one material to the exclusion of others for the sake of vested interests. It is also important that there is communication along the supply chain itself – a message that fortunately now appears to be taking hold. “We now see many brands working upstream in the value chain to ensure the quality of the raw materials they are purchasing and this kind of collaboration will be vital in the future.”

The labelling industry – and indeed the entire vast and complex structure that is the packaging value chain – is just a single cog in a much wider, global system. Labels, as part of the packaging and the value chain, must play a role in bringing about systemic change. And that, readers, is what is desperately needed if the world is to avoid climate catastrophe.  

To summarize what is required from brand owners: design the label in from the start; focus on metrics; focus on facts; communicate; stay neutral and support the push for systemic change. This requires wider communication along the value chain to understand the options available so they can make the switch to more sustainable packaging options.