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Recyclers see progress on shrink-sleeve labels for PET bottles
What a difference a year makes.
In the development of a child, being a Boston Red Sox fan, and certainly in the effort to find viable solutions to difficulties in recycling containers that use shrink-sleeve labels.


Around this time last year, Beantowners were celebrating another World Series victory. And alarms were ringing in the plastics reclamation world as more and more bottles with hard-to-recycle shrink-sleeve labels were showing up at their doors.

While the fortunes of last-place Red Sox certainly have headed south this season, things are looking better and better for the future recyclability of shrink-sleeve labels.

“The good news is we’ve got new label technologies commercially available from a variety of suppliers,” said John Standish, technical director for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, a trade group. “The challenge that we have now is driving that into actual commercial use.”

APR Executive Director Steve Alexander agrees.

“This is a work in progress. I don’t think anybody wants to say the problem has been solved,” Alexander said. “I think it’s going to take a few years for the market to recognize what options are out there now.”

His trade group represents companies that acquire, reprocess and sell the output of more than 90 percent of the post-consumer plastic processing capacity in North America.

APR is optimistic about the future as more and more companies are creating sleeve label film that can be separated from the bottle PET during the recycling process.

The problem was years in the making as shrink-sleeve labels became more popular over time.

Shrink sleeve labels can fool optical sorting equipment into believing they are seeing colored resin. They also can mix with and contaminate PET grind from bottles at the bottom of water separation tanks.

Sleeve label material, historically, has been made from glycol-modified PET or PVC, which both sink in water and mix with PET flake, Standish explained.

But the development of new polyolefin label stock by a handful of manufacturers is providing an alternative that will allow label pieces to float in a separation tank instead of sinking, he said.

Alexander said it is hard to measure how far along we are in the shrink-sleeve recyclability journey, but the group does know progress is being made.

“I feel strongly to say that we’ve hit a significant milestone in this if that would be a helpful way to look at it,” Standish said. “Because of good old American ingenuity and competition, we’ve got new product offerings available in 2014 that were not available in 2013 for brand companies to use in their labeling.”

One company that’s been out front on the issue is Coca-Cola Co., which used a polyolefin label during last year’s holiday season.

“Coca-Cola’s holiday orb bottle transition to a recyclable shrink sleeve material was a success. The bottle was produced throughout the 2013 holiday season and sold in Wal-Mart stores. The label material was transitioned from a PETG substrate to a new polyolefin label with a perforation,” said Jeff Meyers, North America sustainable packaging manager for Coca-Cola, in an email interview.

“The key learning from the trial is that transitioning from PETG to a polyolefin label requires some operational changes and technical support to ensure labels are applied consistently.  The polyolefin label is softer and has different shrink properties,” he said.

Coke, Meyers said, continues to test polyolefin shrink sleeves.

APR, meanwhile, is out with a set of recommendations to help guide the use of shrink-sleeve labels.

APR recommends companies use “sleeve labels that will float in water and separate from PET flakes in a sink/float material separation step.”

The group also recommends use of printed label inks that do not stain PET flakes in the wash/rinse step of recycling. Another recommendation is to use an APR guidance document to assess the impact a label would have on PET bottle recycling.

APR further recommends use of shrink sleeve labels that leave at least 20 percent of PET bottle surface area exposed. “This will allow the most accurate auto-sortation by the broadest range of installed color sorters,” the group said.

APR formed its Sleeve Label Working Group in June 2013 to tackle the issue troubling plastic recyclers, which see shrink sleeve labels as a significant pocketbook issue.

APR research, unveiled earlier this year, show recyclers are spending anywhere from 2 to 4 cents per pound of reprocessed plastic to remove shrink-sleeve labels. That adds up to $40 to $70 per ton. An estimate discussed at an APR meeting at that time indicated the use of shrink-sleeve labels has grown by seven to nine times since 2007.

Consumer goods brand owners, cognizant of sustainability issues, will drive the adoption of shrink-sleeve label film that can be easily recycled, the men said.

“So we’ve reached this milestone. Our big challenge is how quickly can we push these new materials into broad commercial use. And the pace of that is controlled by the brand companies,” Standish said. “I think we’re in an excellent position, and there’s lots of reasons to be optimistic.”

Eastman Chemical Co., a manufacturer of resin used to make shrink labels, in recent years has helped lead a discussion about the issue among a consortium of interested parties. The company declined to comment for this story. 

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