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Sustainability in a complex value chain

FINAT managing director Jules Lejeune offers solutions and challenges for self-adhesive labelling

As a key contributor to the global packaging industry, the self-adhesive label sector is as committed to the cause of sustainability as all its peers. However, it faces some unique challenges in the context of sustainability – in relation to the industry’s extremely long, complex, and specialised value chain.

At the heart of a self-adhesive label is the ‘sandwich’ of a face material, adhesive, release coating, and release liner. This is a combination of many different components, to which must be added the printing inks and other on-press processes that create the finished label.

No single level of the value chain can offer a full and detailed picture of the process of delivering a self-adhesive label; but, despite this complexity, the self-adhesive label industry must present a single, united profile if it is to be able to communicate with, and partner, the brand owners, the retailers, and ultimately the consumers in the environmental arena.

It makes sense for an industry association such as FINAT, which represents the whole label production value chain, to take on that responsibility. For a number of years, FINAT has been creating and updating industry-standard performance test methods, and – with sister organisations around the world – is currently advancing a detailed formal agenda for step-by-step actions to make our industry ‘greener’. We are also actively supporting a raft of initiatives in the recycling arena.

This in itself may not sound like a major set of challenges – but, again, the value chain is complex, and there is a proliferation of environmental initiatives in the broad print/packaging manufacturing context, at many levels. There are the environmental management systems like ISO 14001, Lean Six Sigma, and the US-based Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute’s industry-specific LIFE system (Label Initiative For the Environment). Certification to environmental sourcing standards – such as FSC and PEFC for papers – is another possible path. Brand owners’ and end-users’ own environmental standards for their suppliers, such as the Wal-Mart Supplier Sustainability Assessment, add further complexity.

While the raw material suppliers and the major coater/laminators represent, in the main, manufacturers at a global scale, the self-adhesive label converters themselves are mostly small-to-medium-sized enterprises for whom such additional agendas are difficult to support. Nevertheless, FINAT member companies across the value chain are, individually, actively delivering technology solutions to reduce waste all round and improve their carbon footprint; to be REACH-compliant, particularly in relation to adhesives and coatings; to explore new label and release liner substrates and adhesive technologies; and to use thinner materials all round without compromising performance.

But there are limits to which individual companies operating in a competitive business environment can go in meeting the needs of the ‘three Ps’: people, planet, and profit. So, as I see it, there is a distinct role for an association such as FINAT in the label sustainability arena: to combine the aspirations of the many levels of the value chain into a single agenda, and to represent all its members (within the broader context of the global packaging industry) to the ultimate buyers of its products – the brand owners, retailers, and consumers.

The brand owners and retailers have established an outstanding sustainability platform, in the Consumer Goods Forum’s Global Packaging Project. It is bringing together the world’s leading manufacturers and retailers, with their packaging suppliers at every level, and industry associations, as a single group with a single agenda.

This group has already defined what is now the accepted framework for informed debate on sustainability concerns throughout the supply chain: the Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability.

Through its common professional sustainability language that transcends the boundaries of commercial advantage, the GPPS is facilitating a meaningful dialogue between customers and suppliers on appropriate parameters to be used to measure environmental progress. FINAT is an active supporter, representing the interests of thousands of label converters in Europe and further afield, as well as its valued supplier company members.

I personally believe that if any initiative will deliver a real blueprint for the optimal combination of environmental friendliness and fit-for-purpose packaging, it will be this worldwide forum of suppliers and users.

At a regional level, self-adhesive labels must meet the requirements of the EU Packaging Waste Directive, which is driving change in Europe through legislation and punitive levies for non-conformance. Here, in the self-adhesive label industry, waste management, recycling, and recyclability are priority issues in relation to a particular part of the label laminate – the release liner.

Release liner is the ‘hero’ of the self-adhesive label, delivering superb handling characteristics on the printing press and in label application. However, it is also a perceived problem for the recycling lobby since, once a self-adhesive label has been automatically applied to the product, the release liner is effectively redundant.

The latest revision to the Packaging Waste Directive in its final draft is consistent with FINAT’s definition of used liner as process waste, as opposed to packaging waste – but this is not the end of the story. In individual national legislation in a number of countries – including The Netherlands and the UK – spent release liner has been defined as packaging waste at the end of its working life, and is therefore the subject of a financial levy.

A final decision from the EU is expected this summer and, whichever way it goes, it will have a significant effect on the market’s perception of self-adhesive labelling. It is, however, FINAT’s opinion that, without its empowering release liner, the label’s benefits – versatility, accurate, clean, fast label dispensing – would not be achievable.

Whatever the final outcome in European waste legislation, it is being proved in many arenas that release liner, both paper and film-based, is recyclable, despite its release coating. FINAT is driving and supporting initiatives to create viable waste collection and recycling schemes, which are becoming increasingly commercially active. I encourage brand owners and retailers, as well as label converters, to buy in to what could be a real game-changer for the self-adhesive label industry by participating in formal liner waste collection schemes.

Paper release liner base remains the choice for the vast majority of label applications, and there is a growing choice of solutions for its recycling and re-use. Film-based release liners are, however, also gaining market share; and collecting and recycling these relatively high cost liners – and perhaps, in the process, creating an additional revenue stream – is an option today. ‘Clean’ used PET liner is a highly desirable commodity – and it is a priority to develop a supply chain structure to make collection and recycling simple, financially attractive, and effective for all concerned.

Liner waste, ultimately, is generated at the contract packer, brand owner, or retailer, and is, therefore, largely out of the hands of the label production chain.

FINAT’s prime task, therefore, is to make end-users aware of how they can link with their label suppliers to deliver sustainability in terms of liner waste collection for recycling and reuse.

This is a genuine opportunity to achieve significant progress in managing our environment.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and may not be shared by this publication.

Jules Lejeune Jules Lejeune

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