The right labels keep the “mono” in monomaterials flexible packaging

Making your package from a single polymer is an important step toward Europe’s circular economy.

Demand for flexible packaging shows little sign of slowing. Companies and consumers are voting with their purchasing power, and flexible packaging continues to win.

And why not? Flexible packages are convenient, more efficient and affordable to ship, and excellent at preserving and protecting the goods they contain. According to our research based on Euromonitor, flexible packaging now accounts for just over 37 percent of the volume of total packaging formats in Europe. More than 88 percent of flexible packaging is used in the food sector, but it’s easy to find flexible packs in many other segments, including personal care, pharmaceuticals, beauty, and more. Chances are good that you’ll use a flexible package before the end of your day today.

But as with other kinds of packaging, brands and designers are faced with squaring flexible packaging’s practical benefits with environmental concerns. 

In many ways, flexible packaging has a positive sustainability profile. It’s generally less resource-intensive than hard-plastic packages, and it helps to reduce food waste, among other benefits. 

The problem comes with the end of the package’s useful life. Communities do not widely collect or sort flexible packaging. In Europe, regulations governing recycling favor heavier containers like those made from hard plastics. Also, flexible packaging often comes into close contact with its contents, making it a possible complicating contaminant for the recycling stream. And some flexible packaging is made from multiple kinds of materials that most recyclers are ill-equipped to separate and channel into different recovery streams. 

The result? Most flexible packaging ends up being landfilled or used for energy recovery—neither of which is good for the earth or supports the circular economy EU leaders envision.

But like an aluminum-lined bag of crisps, this quandary has a silver lining: Although multimaterial packaging consisting of various combinations of plastics and other materials are hard to recycle, monomaterial flexible packaging is made of just one material—usually polyethylene or polypropylene—that can be recycled using existing infrastructure. One researcher estimates that as much as 80 percent of flexible packaging is made of monomaterial and therefore has a good chance of entering the recycling stream, provided the packages are collected and sorted.

Labels and the rise of the “mono” culture

To help solve the recycling challenge without compromising on the functionality of packaging, brands and packaging designers are moving towards making their multimaterial packages from monomaterials instead. As they do, label materials should be part of their analysis. Nataliya Malhanova, marketing manager for Avery Dennison’s peel-and-reseal solutions, explains: “The good news is that, in terms of materials, we don’t have to invent something new to make recycling possible, once the collection and recycling systems are in place. Standard polypropylene and polyethylene labels enable packages of like polymers to maintain monomateriality for recycling, so it’s a relatively easy solution for brands.”

Some brands are also moving away from hard plastic lids on flexible packaging and are instead employing rigid labels or resealable enclosures. Some makers of wet wipes, for example, have recently committed to this change. These enclosures, too, can be made of the same polymer as the package itself, enabling recycling. (At Avery Dennison, we’ve worked with wet wipes manufacturers to develop thicker polypropylene and polyethylene labels that are up to the job of repeated reclosure.) Pairing the labels with the right adhesive ensures dependable functionality of the enclosure time after time.

Of course, choosing label material demands more than simply picking a facestock of like material and a suitable removable adhesive. All materials should be thoroughly tested against criteria such as barrier properties, repeated open-and-close functionality, chemical and moisture resistance, visual appearance, conversion characteristics, and more.

An important first step

Moving to monomaterials alone won’t be enough to improve the recycling rates for flexible packages. Collection, sorting, and a varying patchwork of recycling systems across Europe are all challenges yet to be worked out. It’s encouraging that organizations associated with flexible packaging in Europe, including we at Avery Dennison, have launched CEFLEX, an initiative to create a circular economy for flexible packaging. CEFLEX aims to lead in redesigning flexible packaging to make it more recyclable, and to establish a collection and recycling infrastructure across Europe by 2025. The organization’s goal is to collect 100 percent of flexible packaging and recycle at least 80 percent of it.  These are ambitious, admirable, and necessary goals. In the meantime, brands and packaging designers can move the circular economy forward by creating their flexible packaging from monomaterials, including the labels. It’s one strong step they can take until we get the rest of flexible packaging’s recycling challenges, well, all sorted out.

Written by Philip Yorke