A LABEL EXPERTS SPECIAL | LABEL LINER AND MATRIX RECYCLING – the picture today

There is real change happening regarding sustainability in the label market today.  Companies across the value chain, from material suppliers to label converters, now have access to a number of industry-specific programs offering collection, recycling, and re-use of spent paper and film release liner and label matrix, such as the long-established Cycle4Green service covering paper release liner which, together with recycling partners in Austria and Germany, creates circularity from siliconized paper release liner back to recycled paper products.  

AWA | Alexander Watson Associates | 2020 | by Corey Reardon

In response to industry demand, these release liner and matrix collection services for recycling and second-life solutions, are now successfully functioning in many countries – importantly with a specific focus on collection from label converters’ and label application sites, and on the materials that have become ‘byproducts’ of their label production.   While the volumes involved are relatively small compared to other packaging materials, appropriate sorting and handling are important if the desired results in terms of recyclability and waste management are to be achieved.   The combination of clean adhesive-coated laminate using paper, film, or both; printed/diecut laminate; remaining facestock matrix, rewound; and used siliconized release liner is complex.   It also requires collection from different location types in the supply chain – as well as the label converter’s pressroom, the brand owner’s packaging line, and contract packers’ labeling lines.    

An important new international consortium CELAB – Toward a Circular Economy for Labels – founded by major companies in the pressure-sensitive label supply chain — is also now working to identify solutions for successful liner and matrix recycling, and to enhance and promote them across the sector.   

AWA recently conducted a market research study for CELAB to assess the recycling rates and means of disposal used to enable circularity, for both film and paper release liner, and to create a benchmark for future activity alongside a white paper that CELAB is preparing for the label industry value chain on liner recycling.

 CELAB currently has established regional branches in North America and in Europe, where FINAT has launched CELAB-Europe.  CELAB-Europe aims to identify and scale recycling and re-use solutions for label liner and matrix materials, with the goal of developing a sustainable and circular business model for over 75% of used liner and matrix materials in Europe by 2025.

Change is also happening in North America on a slightly different front.   TLMI has decommissioned its Label Initiative for the Environment (L.I.F.E) certification, and now works closely with the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) to merge sustainability certifications and create one comprehensive environmental management certification for all printing industry converters. SGP is a not-for-profit organization supported by the leading printing industry associations in North America, and also engages with retail brands through its Brand Leaders program.   TLMI also has an established partnership with Circular Polymers for full PET liner recycling into pellets for a wide choice of industrial uses.

Second-life options for used release liner are increasing around the world, both for paper and film, for example in building and construction applications and the manufacture of composites and electronic goods. 

Release Liner Recycling

AWA estimates the total release liner market to be 55.2 billion sqm, with pressure-sensitive labelstock being the largest application segment, with a share just below 50%.  Around the world, in the label segment, paper remains the dominant release liner substrate, representing 87% of the total volume, with film representing the remaining 13%.

AWA research shows that, globally in 2019, 41% of all used release liner in label applications went to landfill – and this represents an improvement in almost every region.    31%, however, was recycled to create new products, with the balance being incinerated, converted from waste to energy, and a small amount converted to engineered fuels or resold.   Figures vary across the regions, however.   Landfill claimed 28% of Asia’s paper release liner, and 61% of film release liner, whereas in Europe only 17% of paper liner and 26% of film liner went to landfill.   In North America, compared to Europe, a significant amount of release liner still finds its way to landfill – 65% and 75% of paper and film in 2019 respectively.

It is interesting to note that in a recent survey, 26% of label industry respondent companies approached by AWA say they now have a working recycling program for spent release liner, but 74% have not.

Matrix waste recycling

Some label matrix collected for recycling is used in incineration for energy creation, but there is also growing interest in finding alternative uses for the material – with film-based label matrix in particular already having success.    Film-based matrix is the subject of current pilot research in North America between custom recyclers RoadRunner Recycling and Avery Dennison, aiming to increase the alternatives to waste-to-energy ‘recycling’ for matrix, which, for film release liner, already include the creation of plastic ‘granulate’ for use in the manufacture of industrial and household products by a collaboration of Polifilm and Herma.

Positive status

Pressure-sensitive labeling’s agenda of challenges on the sustainability front is looking not only hopeful, but positive, and is already delivering a genuine contribution to the image of packaging Industry, which is currently at issue.   But there is still work to do.

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