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Recyclers still exploring solutions for shrink-sleeve label problems

By: Jim Johnson

February 10, 2014

ORLANDO, FLA. — There is no silver bullet when searching for a solution to the problems that shrink-sleeve labels cause for plastic recyclers.

Shrink labels have been a boon for marketers, allowing manufacturers to increase the appeal of their products through these full-bottle, graphics-friendly labels.

"The biggest takeaway," said Holli Whitt of Eastman Chemical Co., "is I think that we can see that there are good solutions out there, but no solution is the end-all, be-all fix for this challenge. So it's truly going to be a combination of a variety of different solutions to create the impact we're looking for."

Whitt, market development manager for sustainability at Eastman's specialty plastics unit, spoke recently about the issue at The Packaging Conference in Orlando. She indicated an informal consortium of interested parties is examining a variety of solutions and potential solutions for the issue that has grown significantly in recent years.

Mechanical de-labeling equipment already is being used by some recyclers. Perforation on the labels themselves also could help both consumers and recyclers readily remove the labels. And research is under way to allow labels to "de-seam" during processing to allow for easier separation from bottles. Another approach involves special coatings for labels to allow them to float away from PET flake during the materials' time in separation tanks.

The consortium has been working on the issue for about 18 months, and Whitt said it remains unclear how long it will take to develop a final game plan for the issue.

"One of the things we've learned is the power of collaboration," Whitt said, in bringing people together from all aspects of the "value chain," including recyclers.

Eastman, based in Kingsport, Tenn., thrust itself in the middle of the issue because the company is a major manufacture of resin used in shrink labels.

Nancy Scott is in marketing and communications department for Eastman's specialty plastics business and she has noticed perforated labels on the store shelves. "Even the brand owners are moving more and more towards trying to get consumers to help with removing labels," she said.

And that, Whitt said, is progress. "Every little bit helps in improving the yield for the PET recyclers, which, ultimately, is the goal because you want to have a packaging that has a really positive end-of-life story as well."

The shrink label problem has grown quickly in recent years with recyclers reporting about 1 percent of their bales containing bottles with these labels in 2007, Whitt said. That number increased to about 3 percent by 2011 and 5 percent to 6 percent in 2012. And there have been anecdotal reports of 7 percent to 9 percent by some recyclers.

"Part of that is due to the fact that these labels have such a dramatic impact on shoppers and consumer preference. So they really have become highly adopted by different brands and marketing managers," Whitt said.

Popularity has grown because shrink-sleeve labels not only provide full coverage, but they also can be applied to uniquely shaped bottles.

Coca-Cola Co., late last year, indicated it might have one solution for the problem — a label made from a polyolefin mix that rises in a float tank and separates from PET that settles at the bottom. The company, however, cautioned that there needs to be lots of "real world testing" to commercialize the new label.

The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, a trade group, has been deeply involved in the issue. APR Technical Director John Standish previously said 2013 was a pivotal year for recyclers because the use of the labels had grown large enough to start financially hurting reclaimers.

Coke said the company believes its shrink sleeves meet recycling guidelines established by APR, which has formed its own group to tackle the issue.

"I think we're excited about the progress that we've made. You always wish that it would be faster. But we appreciate the collaboration and cooperation we're getting with the full value chain, including the recyclers, as we continue to drive toward a real long term solution for them," Whitt said.