Of all the components of the labels we make, the release liner—the paper backing peeled off just before application—is arguably the most indispensable. Its job is to transfer the adhesive to the label and protect it until it’s ready for sticking. In short, liners put the “self-adhesive” in self-adhesive labels.
The challenging thing about liners? Like booster rockets and bridesmaids dresses, once they’ve served their critical purpose, they become garbage. Users discard millions of tons of them annually, along with tons of the matrix left stuck to used label rolls.
That sobering fact is what’s driving us toward eliminating 70 percent of the liner and matrix waste from our value chain by 2025. Label waste is a challenge for our whole industry, and as an industry leader and pioneer, we’re in a unique position to do something about it.
Surprisingly, no comprehensive system for recycling label waste currently exists. So we’re working to facilitate the creation of one, with the help of partners like Adam Kositzke and Fox River Fiber. A major recycler of paper pulp in the central U.S., Fox River trucks label waste from our customers and recycles it at their De Pere, Wisconsin, plant, turning it into pulp used to make printer paper, facial tissue, food packaging and more. With our project less than a year old, Fox River is collecting around 800 tons of label waste per month—a fragment of the 18,000 tons of waste paper they receive in a typical month, but it’s a number that Adam expects will grow as word gets out.
One of the biggest barriers to recycling liner waste has been the widespread belief that release liners coated with silicone for easier detachment can’t be recycled. Recycled pulp from siliconized paper can leave telltale translucent dots—known in the industry as “fish eyes”—in finished fine papers. But in fact, with the right equipment, silicone can indeed be removed from wood fiber. Fox Fiber is one of the few companies that has such equipment, and Adam sees recycling siliconized paper as a growth market as digital communication shrinks the volume of non-siliconized paper in use.
Because not all of our customers use labels on a scale that would make collection profitable, Adam connects smaller companies with smaller recyclers that stockpile label waste until they’ve amassed enough to sell to Fox River. Doing so helps mom-and-pop recyclers and helps ensure that Fox River always has a diverse range of sources; it also helps us in what Adam sees as an important effort to keep reusable material out of landfills.
“All that paper going to landfills is a wasted opportunity,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for us, because that’s material we could be reselling. And it’s an opportunity for society, because it’s better if it never goes into the ground. Landfilling is so inexpensive in the U.S. that companies don’t have an incentive to try very hard to avoid it. If we can help get more of them to recycle, we’re proud to do that.”
Building a global network of partners like Fox River Fiber will be critical to solving our industry’s biggest environmental challenge, observes Renae Kezar, Avery Dennison’s global head of sustainability. That’s why we’re reaching out to recyclers and to paper and plastic manufacturers in the five global regions in which we operate; a dedicated team in each region is connecting with potential recycling partners, then helping to close any technical gaps that exist. We’re also working with our Label and Graphic Materials technical team to produce documents showing customers and other recyclers that recycling siliconized liners is indeed possible. In 2017, we initiated an independent global study of liner recycling that we’ll share upon completion to build more momentum for a workable solution to liner waste. And based on our work to date, we’re defining “workable solution” as one that:
● Is available to all customers
● Doesn’t require additional costs for recycling
● Eventually results in a “circular” system, through which raw materials are kept at their highest utility as long as possible.
“Then you have a challenge on this scale, you need everyone involved—not only to solve it but to bring it down to a reasonable cost,” says Renae. “It’s going to take buy-in from everybody in our industry, but we’re glad to start the conversation.”
See more about how we’re working beyond the boundaries of our company to address sustainability challenges that affect our industry.