Inks and coatings are essential to today’s economy. From helping brands stand out from their competitors to protecting goods in transit, the materials that go into our labels and packaging have a hand in almost every major industry.
But the role inks and coatings play in different economies is becoming more important by the day. As regulatory and consumer pressure to operate more sustainably grows, and with ambitious environmental targets piling up, many companies are starting to think about how their labels and packaging affect the circular economy.
From paper to plastic, the materials that go into labels and flexible packaging are too often used once and discarded. In fact, almost 80 million tonnes of packaging were thrown out across Europe in 2020.
Waste on this scale is unsustainable. If we’re to make printing more environmentally friendly, we need to start using inks and coatings that can help us move from the throwaway packaging economy to a more circular, sustainable model.
The principles behind the circular economy are simple: reduce the quantity of raw materials consumed; reuse packaging where possible; and ensure all packaging is recycled at the end of its operational life, creating a closed loop. The last part of this system is where ink and coating choices can have the biggest impact.
Contaminants are one of the main barriers preventing substrates from being recycled into new packaging materials. Inks, adhesives, varnishes, adhesive, foils, and ideally labels must all be removed from a substrate as much as possible before it can be processed into recyclate or pulp. If not, the resulting material is degraded – either from a quality, functional performance or colour perspective – and its economic value lessens, therefore creating down-cycling rather than material that has equivalent value to its virgin counterpart.
Thankfully, recent leaps in ink and recycling technology can help address this problem. From ink formulations that are easier to remove, to advanced substrate washing systems, it is easier than ever to find ways to remove the ink from a substrate. Labels, adhesives, and varnishes can also now be formulated for easy removal, including adhesive deadeners or similar elements that help replace the traditional seam in shrink sleeve labels, making them simple to take off maintaining ease of recyclability.
These advances mean it is possible to replace some harder to separate contaminants with inks and coatings. For instance, high-quality metallic inks can achieve a similar visual effect to foils, which recycling systems can struggle to separate from a substrate.
Additionally, inks and coatings can help overcome recycling barriers that emerge with multi-layer packaging. Recycling multi-layer packaging, which can include many ultra-thin layers of different materials, has historically presented a major challenge for the industry; while using different materials can provide outstanding protection and barrier properties, the different layers can contaminate recycling streams even if they can be separated. However, coating formulations like PureFinish can mimic the desired protective qualities of multi-layer packaging when applied to single-layer flexible packaging films, while being simpler to remove and recycle.
The throwaway model of packaging has been stretched to its limits. With pressure to reduce, reuse and recycle growing, modern ink and coating formulations mean it is easier than ever to create packaging and labels that support the circular economy.
To find out how you can help your customers on their sustainability journey, get in touch with our team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.