Practical Steps Toward a More Sustainable Process
The evolving needs of brand owners are often the key drivers of the changes printers and converters make within their businesses. As brands seek packaging to make their products as enticing as possible to consumers, it’s important that the message being sent aligns with consumer values. And leading a sustainable, environmentally-conscious life is increasingly top of mind for today’s consumers.
For package printers, implementing sustainable processes into their facilities can provide a strong selling point for brands seeking to align with eco-friendly suppliers. While sustainability initiatives can range from relatively small tweaks to massive overhauls, printers and converters seeking to move in a greener direction should be mindful of some practical steps they can take.
One first step, according to Rosalyn Bandy, VP of sustainability for TLMI, an association representing the North American label industry, is for printers to take stock of their internal processes. Having an understanding of a company’s environmental footprint, she explains, is a great stepping stone to establishing specific sustainability goals.
“Make sure that you have a sustainability management system in place so that you can track and improve your own manufacturing footprint, including energy use, waste management, efficiency, compliance, developing sustainability values and purpose, and building awareness with your internal teams,” she says.
In fact, Bandy recommends developing internal excitement about sustainability improvements as an integral starting point. By engaging employees directly, companies can often spark creative dialogue on the environmental front, which can lead to positive initiatives.
“I believe the best first step is to engage your workforce,” she says. “Chances are you have employees who have some interest or even passion on the topic of sustainability. These are the people who can unleash their creativity to help you look at your own operations.”
Another method of improving on the sustainability front, Bandy explains, is to seek out certifications that can guide and measure environmental efforts. For example, TLMI’s own certification, which was known as the Label Initiative for the Environment (L.I.F.E.), recently merged with the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) certification program. Bandy explains that becoming certified not only helps printers and converters keep track of their own environmental impact, it provides a selling point to potential customers.
“Using the SGP program as a way to guide your internal process and have a third-party auditor verify the program goes a long way to win business from customers who want their entire supply chain engaged in their sustainability goals,” Bandy says. “Many of our converter members are already pursuing this and our supplier members are anxiously awaiting SGP’s upcoming supplier certification program in 2020.”
While making improvements in internal processes can be highly beneficial in improving a company’s environmental impact, waste reduction and recycling are also important practices to reduce the amount of unused product like label liner and matrices being sent to landfills.
UPM Raflatac, a supplier of label substrate material, has sought out a leadership position in recycling label waste through the introduction of its RafCycle program. RafCycle, which was initially launched in Europe, was introduced in North America late last year. Through the RafCycle program, UPM Raflatac partners with both brands and converters to collect paper and PET liner waste to be recycled. Tyler Matusevich, UPM Raflatac’s Sustainability Manager for the Americas explains that part of the challenge in launching the program stateside was in finding external partnerships to conduct the recycling.
Matusevich says those partnerships have been formed with Sustana in handling paper liner and with Kal-Polymers in handling PET liner. Since the launch in December of 2018, nearly 100 tons of liner have been recycled.
“We’re open to partnering with brands and converters that want to look at this, because at the end of the day it’s recycling liner and giving it another use,” Matusevich says. “That’s the ultimate goal — to get this material out of landfills and into the recycling stream. Whenever we can do that, we’re certainly open to doing so.”
According to Bandy, another aspect of label material recycling to be aware of is in how a label can impact the overall recyclability of the larger package. For example, if the adhesive, ink or substrate material of the label hinders recycling, the entire package could end up removed from the stream. Following specific guidelines however, can ensure a label will not be a detriment in the recycling process.
“We know that, especially in PET container recycling, a label can render that container non-recyclable due to the adhesive, the ink and the substrate not floating,” Bandy says. “In the case of full-bottle shrink sleeves, the sorting technology identifies the shrink sleeve material and not the PET and removes it. The Association of Plastic Recyclers has specific guidelines for how to ensure that a label, whether it’s pressure sensitive or shrink sleeve, is not detrimental to recyclability.”
Another way to boost sustainability via material selection is to seek out resources for post-consumer recycled material, says Todd Bukowski, principal at PTIS, LLC., a company that helps create strategies and programs for its clients throughout the packaging value chain.
Bukowski explains that many brand owners have stated they plan to utilize more post-consumer recycled material in their packaging as part of their sustainability goals for 2025. However, he says that there is not enough of this material to reach all of their goals, so package printers should have a sense of where they can source it from in advance.
Where Consumers and Brands are Concerned
When assessing where they can make changes in their sustainability practices, printers and converters should be aware of the environmental issues that are top of mind for consumers.
“I see a lot of focus around plastics right now,” Bukowski says. “A lot of that has to do with concern around marine debris, which has brought plastics to [consumers’] attention.”
Because there has been an increase of consumer awareness of sustainability, particularly where recycling is concerned, Bandy explains that brands and retailers have reacted, announcing goals for incorporating more recycled materials into their packaging.
“The Association of Plastic Recyclers launched a Demand Champions Program in 2017 in which companies commit to increased use of, and report on, recycled content in their products,” she says. “Many companies and brands have gotten on board with this. Walmart has also recently launched a program to include at least 20 percent post-consumer recycled content in their private brand packaging by 2025. P&G has launched their Alliance to End Plastic Waste which commits a billion dollars to global recycling infrastructure, innovation, education and cleanup.”
Bukowski notes that the issue of sustainability and making packaging more environmentally friendly is something that is going to require a collaborative effort from brands, associations, package printers and converters and materials suppliers.
“We will see brands setting stronger sustainability goals, and they will be looking for partners to help them hit these goals,” he says.
Editor-in-Chief Cory Francer contributed to this report.