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Recyclers form group to address problems with shrink-sleeve labels

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May 8, 2013

WASHINGTON — The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers is officially joining the debate on shrink label recycling.

The Washington-based group announced May 8 that it was forming a Label Working Group "in an effort to focus on the recycler's perspective on the problem."

Full-wrap shrink sleeve labels on PET bottles and containers have been a hot topic in recycling this year. The labels, commonly made of polyactic acid or PVC, are popular with brand owners, but can also contaminate the PET recycling stream.

Recyclers are reporting seeing an increase in full-wrap labels on containers and bottles, said APR Director Steve Alexander in a news release.

"While the initial concern was on PET bottles, we are now seeing these full wrap shrink labels contaminating polypropylene bottles and containers. The problem continues to grow," he said.

The labels can interfere with sorting equipment — most technology can't identify the resin composition of the container underneath the label — and labels aren't easily removed during pre-wash or in float tanks.

"This essentially contaminates the entire stream of material, and makes it unusable for a second life application," said John Standish, APR's technical director, in the release.

Recyclers are often the last to know about innovations like shrink labels, only becoming aware of new products once they're made available for recycling, Alexander said. APR's goal is to work with innovators so they understand the implications on the recyclability of the container.

Many APR members are currently working on solutions to the shrink label issue. APR said it plans to work with label manufacturers and other groups to find solution that works for everyone.

"The last thing a brand owner wants to see is a new innovation that they have invested in rendering their container non-recyclable. We do not want that either. Contamination is the last thing we want to see in our material," Alexander said.

The label group will meet next month in Baltimore at the APR Membership Meeting. The group has also published a list of principles that labels should meet to eliminate contamination.

The list, available on the APR website, consists of the following guidelines for sleeve labels on PET bottles:

  •  The label will not interfere with the ability of a NIR automatic sorter to identify the underlying PET bottle.
  •  The label will separate from the bottle in a whole bottle wash step.
  •  Any sleeve label that remains after bottle granulation will float in water.
  •  Label residue present during hot caustic wash will not cause discoloration of PET flakes or molded plaques made from flake.

APR isn't the first group to take on the shrink label conundrum.

Eastman Chemical Co. formed a full-wrap label consortium last year with members from than 30 companies.

According to Eastman, the consortium focused on cooperation and collaboration between its diverse member group, which included everyone from resin producers to recyclers.

The consortium planned to hold its third meeting in February. During a presentation at the Packaging Conference, Holli Whitt, Eastman's market development manager for sustainability for specialty plastics, invited industry groups like APR to join them.

But APR Chairman Tom Busard took issue with the group, and with Whitt's invite months after the group was formed, arguing that APR should have been involved with the organization from the start.

Whitt countered that Eastman had proposed the consortium as a project for the National Association of PET Container Resources, but the Sonoma, Calif-based organization did not seem interested.

Busard is also chairman of NAPCOR.

"The folks who created the label consortium maybe will admit now … that it might have been better to start with APR, rather than just waiting a year to invite them," Busard said, in his presentation at the Packaging Conference in February.