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Coke testing shrink sleeve designed for easier recycling

By: Jim Johnson

December 10, 2013

Full-wrap shrink sleeve labels are a marketer’s dream and a recycler’s nightmare.

But one of the largest companies in the world believes it is on to a solution for a problem that’s been creeping up on the PET recycling industry in recent years.

Shrink sleeves — those full-bottle labels that provide plenty of room for graphics and product information — are growing in popularity.

But they also are proving to be a difficult material for plastic recyclers to handle because they throw off sorting equipment, high-tech and low-tech alike.

Coca-Cola Co., however, is out with a new full-sleeve label that’s being tested on a holiday product that company believes provides a pathway to easier recycling.

Full-sleeve labels can cause problems for optical sorters, for float tanks and for air separation technology, for example, all for different reasons.

But Coke has developed a new label made from a polyolefin mix instead of a modified PET that mixes with the clear bottle flake in float tanks. Instead, the new label material rises in a float tank and separates from PET that settles to the bottom.

“We’re quite proud and feel like it’s a good step forward for the industry. We’re not saying it’s a silver bullet resolution by any means. But we really want to do our part and feel like this is a good step,” said Jeff Meyers, manager of sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola.

“There’s a bunch of real world testing that’s been done to advance and actually commercialize a new label from Coca-Cola,” he said. “The story here is we believe we are the first to market with an APR compatible label per their guidelines.”

The APR Meyers that speaks about is the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, a trade group that has been working to address shrink sleeve label impacts on recycling. The group has even established a set of shrink sleeve guidelines to help manufacturers make their products more recyclable.

The issue has been growing as these labels gain traction in the market, said APR technical director John Standish. Bottles with full-sleeve labels account for about 5 percent of the recycled plastic bale these days and is expected to continue to grow in the years ahead.

This year, Standish said, was “a pivotal year because these labels got big enough in the market stream that it started to financially hurt the reclaimers. And what seems to be the direction people are going is to put in this machinery that mechanically rips the label off because nothing else has been available.”

Full-sleeve labels can fool optical sorting equipment into believing they are seeing colored resin. They also can mix with and contaminate clear PET grind at the bottom of separation tanks. And they can become mixed in with PET from lightweight water bottles because of their similar characteristics when recyclers use an elutriation process that uses air for sortation.

Coca-Cola tested thousands of bottles in real-world conditions by attaching the new mixed polyolefin labels and pushing product through the supply chain “to make sure this new material would stand the test of time in real-world conditions,” Meyers said. “But we didn’t just stop with our operations, we also took the bottles and sent them to a few different PET recycling plants and let them work on it.”

With encouraging results, Coca-Cola decided to use the new shrink sleeve on its single-serve orb-shaped bottle available during the holiday season at Wal-Mart. Every one of those bottles has the new label.

“Let’s actually put it out on the marketplace for a couple of months,” Meyers said. “Let’s see how it does. Let’s see if the recyclers have any feedback. You can call it a real-world trial. And so our intent is, assuming things continue to go well, that we would convert as many of our product lines as possible into that new material.”

Standish said that while his group is pleased Coca-Cola is first out of the door with the new material, there are other companies looking for solutions.

“Certainly, other brands are working on the same pathway as Coca-Cola, just a little farther behind. And many label producers are offering labels that have characteristics that Coke is employing,” he said.

“I believe that’s a very valuable step forward,” he said about Coca-Cola. “The reality is they are only one of many brands that are putting full-sleeve labels in the market. So we’d like to see other brands take similar steps.”

But, the technical director added, this will take time.

“I think it’s going to be a slow change. I think the ship is starting to make a turn. But I think it’s still going to be a very, very long turn.”

Meyers believes the technology can transfer to other companies. “I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t apply to other packaging that uses this technology.”

“I think the message here is we want to innovate and we also want to find solutions that are recyclable,” he said.