Packaging sustainability helps more than the environment.

Should Your Brand Consider Sustainability in Labeling and Packaging?

Sustainability in packaging and labeling isn’t just good for the planet, it’s good for business. First Insight’s “The State of Consumer Spending” survey found a majority of Gen Z and Millennial consumers would pay up to 10% more for a sustainable product, as would 34% of Gen X and 23% of baby boomer consumers. 

There are more ways to be sustainable than just using compostable packaging. Eco-friendly labels and packaging use less material, reduce purchasing and shipping costs, and when done right, can increase your sales while lowering your total cost per unit. 

However, choosing eco-friendly packaging materials can be a complicated process. How do your labels factor into sustainable packaging, and what do you have to do to switch to eco-friendly labels?

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle: The Factors That Make Packaging Eco-Friendly

Using less packaging waste reduces the weight and size of products, which means less energy is needed during shipping. We’ve covered this before with craft brewers switching from bottles to cans. Aluminum is lighter and more durable, cutting shipping costs and reducing losses from damaged products. While both glass and aluminum are recyclable packaging options, aluminum is easier to recycle, so cans are less likely to be thrown out than bottles.

Even if you stick with the same raw materials, packaging design improvements can reduce the amount of material needed for each container. For example, cans have seen a 43% reduction in their carbon footprint since the early 90s, thanks in large part to increased use of renewable power and recycled material in production. A simple redesign or smart packaging on new products can help reach your brand’s sustainability goals

Sourcing renewable packaging options reduces your products’ ecological footprint, because it minimizes environmental impact and emissions. Recycled materials are reprocessed, low impact materials are used in place of traditional materials, and harvested materials are carefully managed.

Using recyclable packaging lets retailers and end users keep that packaging out of the waste stream. With business-to-business sales, it’s easy to set up or encourage recycling. The buyer has a set waste stream, and they’re often able to earn money by selling recyclable materials. With consumers, it’s mostly a matter of convenience. Some materials are easier to recycle through municipal programs than others, while using fewer types of materials for retail packages makes it easier for consumers to send materials to the right recycling streams.

What Materials Make Up Sustainable Packaging Solutions?

Paper and cardboard are well-developed, inexpensive, readily available, and have easy and convenient recyclability.

Theoretically, biodegradable plastic should be a green option. However, there’s a big difference between the conditions that let plastics break down, and what they experience in a landfill. That said, polythene bubble wrap and containers won’t be around for thousands of years like some other plastics. High molecular density polyethylene (HDPE) is the easiest plastic to recycle, because it’s tough enough to make durable plastic goods, like patio furniture and plastic lumber.

Corn starch, mushrooms, and seaweed are all used as base materials for package fillers and bioplastics. While corn starch-based plastics have the same problems as other biodegradable plastics, packing peanuts and other bio-based solutions readily decompose.

Metal containers, glass jars, and resealable plastic containers are reusable, adding functionality and value for the consumer.

What Actually Gets Recycled?

Using recyclable materials only reduces impact if end users actually recycle them. According to a recent EPA study, 32.1% of municipal solid waste was recycled or composted. About 2/3rds of this recycled waste by weight was paper and cardboard, while 12.6% was metal, and both glass and plastics combined were 4.5% of total volume. As you’d expect, paper products and metal are the easiest to recycle.

How Do Labels Affect Recycling?

In most cases, the label is left on the packaging when it goes into the recycling bin. Labels and adhesives are burned off during the recycling process. When you’re working on your new sustainable package designs, it’s best to choose labels that burn easily to protect recycling equipment.

If you want to encourage label recycling, choose adhesives that make labels easy to remove by the end user. Of course, labels will still be thrown out with their containers, so you can reduce their impact by choosing biodegradable materials.

What Choices Do I Have for Flexible Packaging and Recyclable, Sustainable Labels?

There are several recyclefriendly label materials you can use to reduce your environmental impact. The best choice for your products depends on the requirements of your packaging.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a polyester made from renewable resources, including corn starch, sugar cane, and tapioca. Using this plastic is a mixed bag. It is biobased and biodegradable. However, while it will decompose in the right environment in just 60 days, it may take over 100 years for it to break down in a landfill. It’s a thermoplastic, so it can be mechanically recycled, but it’s classified as “other”(#7) plastic. That means there isn’t a recycling stream set up for PLA at a consumer level. 

Paper is biodegradable, but using standard virgin paper can lead to deforestation. Using partially or fully-recycled paper reduces this impact. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) paper is sourced from forests that should be 100% sustainable, and are harvested without violating human rights or destroying forest land. FSC has several labels, allowing you to use all FSC content, or use papers that mix new FSC paper and recycled paper. There’s also “tree free” paper, which is made with cellulose from fast-growing plants, including bamboo, cotton, and sugarcane.

Stone paper uses calcium carbonate, the main component in limestone, in place of cellulose. This is mixed with polyethylene (PE) to create a durable, waterproof material. Paper films used to make labels are typically 30% PE. While technically recyclable, programs that accept this material aren’t yet readily available. However, the production of stone paper uses significantly less water, making it an eco-friendly alternative to virgin paper and plastic labels. While not as sustainable as recycled paper labels, their durability makes them a viable alternative to pure plastic labels.

Biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) is UV, chemical, and temperature resistant. New plastic formulations can be recycled with HDPE (#2) plastic.

Do I Need to Change My Labeling Equipment to Use New Sustainable Labels and Packaging?

In most cases, no. The great thing about pressure sensitive label machines for the packaging industry is that they can use almost any label and container, as long as they fit the machine. Some machines, like our 360a Series Label Applicator, only need to be reconfigured to handle different label and package sizes.  

If you have a tabletop wrap labeler, you will need a star wheel that’s compatible with your new package dimensions.

Print and apply systems are also easy to configure for new labels. At CTM Labeling Systems, our machines support print engines from top brands like Zebra and Sato, so it’s just a matter of installing a printer to meet the needs for your new labels. Print engines come in both four inch and six inch wide models to print a wide range of sizes. Find the engine that fits your needs with 203, 305, and 609 DPI (dots per inch) options. While a higher DPI can print more information on a smaller barcode, 203 DPI will print your labels fast. No matter the need for your labels, CTM has the machine for you.

When You Want to Change Labeling Systems, Talk to the Experts

CTM Labeling Systems makes machines that can apply pressure sensitive labeling to any type of container, from cardboard boxes to bottles. If you’re looking to change your labeling system to incorporate sustainable labeling and packaging, contact us today to discuss your individual situation. We will work with you to discuss supply chain options, weigh the positives and negatives of certain products and set up a labeling system that works seamlessly with your new eco-friendly packaging and labels.