Lately, as you wander through the grocery store aisles it doesn’t take long before you notice that some shelved items seem to be jumping out at you. Many beverages, yogurts, snack foods, toddler meals, pet foods, cleaning and personal care products seem to be screaming, ÒLook at me!Ó Glossy, vividly colored, labeled items do stand out from the crowd, but are they wreaking havoc in our recycling streams?
Form-fitting, high definition printed labels have been coined, ÒHeat Shrink LabelsÓ by the packaging industry. Consumer goods companies believe that these high tech, eye-catching marketing tools actually help to influence our purchase decisions. In other words, we tend to put these highly labeled items in our shopping baskets rather than leave them on the store shelves! With marketers always trying to capture our attention and turn our attention into sales, it is not surprising that heat shrink labels are one of the fastest growing segments of the packaging industry.
Heat Shrink labels can be used on containers made from plastic, glass, metal, and other materials. Because a heat shrink label is directly shrunk onto a container, it can be used to label any shape container and provide 360 degrees of visual ÒHere I am” space. Unfortunately, the majority of heat shrink labels are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride plastic). PVC labels used on PET bottles (PolyethyleneTerephthalate), PP containers (Polypropylene) and HDPE jugs (High Density Polyethylene), or on any type of plastic container other than PVC are not readily recyclable. PVC is the same plastic resin used to make “see-through” blister packs and clamshells. Just like their thermoformed cousins, PVC heat shrink labels are not environmentally friendly; they complicate recycling and can even reduce the overall recycling rate. In today’s highly competitive beverage industry, PVC labels are fast becoming the label of choice for PET bottles. This is truly unfortunate because PET bottles are the most recycled plastic product in our country; we shouldnÕt be doing anything to risk damaging the PET recycling rate.
So, why donÕt we hear more about this? Basically, because the separation of the PVC label from the PET bottle has become the responsibility of the recycled resin producer who is the last step in the recycling stream.
In a nutshell, the curbside recyclables picked up by our local municipalities are not put under stringent materials separation; the collected recyclables are shipped off to MRFs (Materials Recovery Facilities) for sorting and baling by recyclable type. To sort through all the various types of recyclables, MRFs utilize mechanical, optical, and hand separation techniques. While MRFs strive to separate PET plastic from PP or HDPE, PVC labeled PET bottles escape scrutiny and are not separated from their 100% PET counterparts. Why? Because the recycled resin producers who purchase the baled PET have come to accept that the bales are not pure PET and may contain as much as 25 Ð 30% other materials. Resin producers know that once separated from the PET plastic, some of these extraneous materials can be sold profitably. In the case of PVC, the intrinsic characteristics of this plastic make it difficult to separate out under standard industry practices.
So, why is PVC so difficult to separate? When resin producers remove the plastic from the bales, the plastic is subjected to a wash phase which removes dirt, grime, and paper labels. Since water is an integral part of the process, these recyclers also utilize a continuous water flotation process as a means of plastic separation too. Floating is not a viable means to separate tight, bottle hugging PVC labels from PET bottles. And, even if the labels somehow become detached from the bottles, PVCÕs high density does not enable it to be isolated using current industry floatation/separation techniques. When the PVC cannot be separated, the contaminated PET cannot be turned into recycled PET flakes and recycled PET pellets; the overall PET recycling rate is lowered.
With American consumer goods companies screaming for more recycled PET content in their packaging, it is not the time for the packaging industry to be making PET more difficult to recycle. In all fairness, there are PVC heat shrink label alternatives. Packaging companies have developed heat shrink labels from PET and PP plastic too; however, their costs remain prohibitive. If a PVC label costs two cents less than a PET or PP label, guess which label is going to be put on the bottle? Additionally, since the packaging industry has big investments in PVC labeling, it will probably take more than just a few cents per bottle before any significant change in industry practice takes place.
Despite these hurdles, the company Herbold Meckensheim USA is now commercializing an innovative machine designed to remove heat shrink labels from plastic bottles. According to the company, The Plastic Bottle Label Remover Òdrastically reduces the rejected bottles as well as the amount of hand sorting/removal required. The result is improved productivity and cleaner productÓ. To see this machine in action, please watch this YouTube video:
The Plastic Bottle Label Remover is well established in European recycling programs. We can only hope that it becomes a staple in the recycling arsenal of USA recycled plastic resin producers too. For most recycled PET resin producers, this piece of equipment is a sizable investment. Yet, if PVC heat shrink labels continue to be the packaging label of choice, such equipment will be necessary to make PVC labeled PET bottles truly recyclable.
In the meantime, help out the recycled resin producers and remove these labels from your bottles and containers. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where you have PVC recycling, recycle these labels with other PVC items.
Happy Heat Shrink Label Recycling!