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July 18, 2022

How Labels and Inks Impact Packaging Sustainability

Michelle Kweon

Certain labeling and ink materials can diminish products’ recyclability. Even if the product itself is sustainable, unsustainable packaging can still negatively impact your business’s carbon footprint.

Putting the right foot forward in creating a better brand means ensuring a minimal carbon footprint throughout the manufacturing process, and creating clear criteria for end-of-life disposal. To do so, brands must understand how materials impact packaging sustainability—starting with labels and inks.

What makes packaging sustainable?

There isn’t one strict definition or criteria of sustainability—rather, a material can be considered sustainable by a variety of factors. Recyclability is one such metric and generally refers to an item’s ability to be collected, sorted, and reprocessed. Then, it should be repurposed for manufacturing or for another product.

According to the FTC Green Guides, for a product to be considered recyclable, it must be able to be "collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item” (§ 260.12 Recyclable Claims). However, even if a product is mainly composed of recyclable materials, it likely can’t be recycled if it’s mixed with other materials;for example, an aluminum pouch fused with an inner plastic layer isn’t recyclable.

A product can also be considered sustainable if it’s compostable or biodegradable. Biodegradability refers to an item’s ability to be quickly broken down. Compostability refers to an item’s ability to biodegrade in the proper settings, eventually turning into organic material.

Recyclability, compostability, and biodegradability can all help prevent product packaging from cluttering landfills, whether it's cycled back into new product or broken down into benign matter that won’t negatively affect the surrounding environment.

How do inks and coatings affect recyclability?

by aleksanderkrsmanovic via Getty Images

Metallic inks

Metallic inks are not recyclable or biodegradable. The heavy metals will sit in landfills without being broken down, leaching into the ground and polluting nearby groundwaters. This can heavily impact the environment and the health of any surrounding humans and animals.

Some recycling plants do have de-inking processes. These processes remove inks before allowing the de-inked materials to continue the recycling process.

However, for brands that want to achieve stricter sustainability standards, it’s best not to use metallic inks if they’d like to make recyclability claims. Recyclability potential is only realized if customers dispose of their products in recycling plants with de-inking processes.

If not, recycling plants will likely identify metal-inked materials as metal. Upon this identification, the packaging would be removed from the sorting process and disposed of in landfills, where it can cause the aforementioned pollution.

Chlorinated inks

Humans can tolerate some chlorine exposure, but overexposure can lead to symptoms ranging from mild eye irritation to severe lung damage. Pure chlorine generally isn't terrible for the environment, but it causes noxious chemical reactions when chlorinated.

Chlorine can impart significant benefits, particularly when disinfecting drinking water. But it’s not the only ink option and can seriously harm aquatic animal species in the surrounding ecosystem—them and any larger animals that eat those species, including humans.

Not only that, but while some levels of chlorine are necessary for photosynthesis, chlorine overexposure can be toxic for plants. For brands concerned about their environmental impact, using chlorinated inks should be avoided entirely to minimize potent emissions.

Water and vegetable-based inks

Water and vegetable-based inks are biodegradable and generally indistinguishable from their environmentally harsher counterparts. Both are also easily recyclable and do not contain any harmful fossil fuels or petrol products.

Some avoid using these inks since they degrade more easily than petrol or fossil fuel-based inks. But both are still very durable and of industry quality, especially depending on the packaging used. Water-based inks are popular for fabric materials since they absorb into the fabric, causing them to last as long as the fabric does.

Labels most commonly used on plastic packaging

by tcerovski via Getty Images

Foil stamping

Foil stamping uses pressure to stamp pre-dried inks and foils to surfaces. This can be done with or without heat and is one of the most popular metalized decorating techniques.

The materials in foil stamping are technically recyclable. However, most recycling plants will identify foil-stamped, otherwise non-metal packaging as metal. The product will then be removed from the sorting process and unfortunately, sent to landfills.

Paper labels

Paper is a common label alternative to plastic. While non-recycled paper still isn’t categorized as a sustainable material, it is usually biodegradable.

Brands can also use recycled paper, minimizing resource wastage and using less energy than nonrecycled paper production. Keep in mind that paper is only finitely recyclable.

However, it’s not the best label to use with plastic materials. If processed through plastic sorting processes, it can turn into a pulp that can clog and damage sorting machinery.

Brands that still wish to use paper labels on plastic can display clear end-of-life disposal instructions (e.g. Remove paper label before recycling). Doing so does place the responsibility on the consumer, but it also better ensures that the discarded product undergoes a sustainable disposal process.

Tree-free paper labels

Paper is less environmentally taxing than plastic, but our current usage devastates natural woodlands and uproots ecosystems. However, there are other materials brands can use to emulate paper’s texture without actually using paper.

Bamboo, cotton, and even sugarcane can produce materials that resemble paper. They’re also typically made from waste fibers that processing plants would otherwise discard in landfills. Manufacturing these labels reduces resource wastage and requires less energy than nonrecycled paper production.

Thinner labels

Regardless of the material brands use, using less of it will reduce their environmental impact.

If brands don’t want to modify their label materials but would still like to improve their sustainability practices, they could simply make their labels thinner. This strategy can add up in time, resulting in tons of lighter resource usage.

Types of label adhesives

by JulyProkopiv via Getty Images Signature

Degradability, compostability, and less resource usage can minimize a label adhesive material’s environmental impact. There are several different types of adhesives, including:

  • Hot melt: bonds materials using plastic heated until it’s melted, then applied to the label before being allowed to cool once it’s applied
  • Drying: bonds materials with removed moisture
  • Pressure-sensitive: bonds materials using pressure
  • Reactive: bonds using chemical reactions produced by a reactive adhesive

Regardless of the adhesive method, what matters most is the material and how much of it is used. Traditionally, many adhesives are composed of melted plastics, petrochemicals, polyurethane, and more—all of which pose serious pollution risks and/or are not biodegradable/compostable.

Instead, try a popular reactive adhesive using potato starch, which starts binding to the packaging material after it’s activated with water. It’s also biodegradable and does not pose a risk for pollution. Gelatin-based glue is an animal-based adhesive that, while not ideal for vegan products, is biodegradable and non-toxic.

Choose the right deco for your sustainable packaging

Understanding labels and inks’ impact on packaging sustainability is half the battle. The other half is acting on it, ensuring that your brand fully controls its sustainability practices.

Packaging is often an afterthought in the product development process, or seen as “secondary” to the formulation process. However, we’ve seen a shift in the way brands prioritize packaging, and at Novi Connect, sustainable packaging is integral to the way that we help brands build better products.

Build custom packaging and optimize sustainability with expert guidance from start-to-finish with Novi’s packaging studio. We’ll help you coordinate the deco and artwork you need that won’t derail your sustainability goals.

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