Sustainable materials

Delivering more sustainable food labelling

Labels are a ‘small yet mighty’ part of the food packaging puzzle and are essential for consumer safety, education and brand promotion. However, the power of the label extends far beyond food safety and functionality and can directly affect the sustainability of a product. Here Eliisa Laurikainen, business development manager, consumer goods, at UPM Raflatac discusses the challenges and opportunities of delivering food-safe but more sustainable food labelling and the need to reduce reliance on using virgin feedstock.

Overall recyclability

When it comes to label choice for food products, even if the main food packaging material is recyclable, using the wrong label can have a big impact on the item’s overall recyclability. Using the incorrect type of label can result in lower quality of recyclate and downcycling of valuable raw materials. With four out of five consumers saying that they consider the sustainability of packaging in their purchasing decisions[1] and 74 per cent willing to pay more for it, the need for more sustainable label options for food packaging has never been more environmentally, or financially, important.

Food-safe label and adhesive solutions

One size does not fit all when it comes to the type of label and adhesive solutions used in food packaging. Food safety is the responsibility of everyone in the packaging supply chain. However, label converters need to make sure that they comply with all relevant legal requirements in order to keep consumers safe, protecting themselves and their customers’ brands from potentially damaging product recalls. In the same way, brands have a responsibility to make sure that the packaging and label materials they use comply with food contact legislation.

For example, for food contact packaging, the Framework Regulation EC 1935/2004 states that it is the manufacturer of the final packaging who has the ultimate responsibility for safety. They must ensure that the labelling and adhesive does not transfer to foodstuffs in quantities that could endanger health, change the food’s composition, or how it looks, tastes or smells. This can add layers of complexity to choosing the right label and adhesion method to suit the core packaging materials used.

Adding sustainability to the mix

In the past, the choice of label face material and adhesive was focused around the packaging material and format containing the food, or whether it would be placed directly on the food. The next consideration when choosing the label and adhesive was the temperature the product would be stored at; as adhesives, designed to be used with food products labelled above 5°C, operate very differently to those designed to work well in freezer conditions. Now, however, another layer of complexity has been added to the decision making process, as more and more producers look to demonstrate their sustainability credentials through the choice of packaging and labels.

Delivering labelling solutions that are food-safe, more sustainable and meet the targets set for packaging recyclability is an ongoing journey of product development. However, creating solutions that meet the stringent food safety regulations, while also lowering environmental impact, are of paramount importance. The environmental footprint of packaging is predominantly defined by the choice of raw materials. That’s why it is important to use an approach focused on reducing raw materials or using recycled content to lower environmental impact and reduce the strain on natural resources.

By opting for innovative label materials that move away from fossil-based materials to verified sustainable and renewable ones, or solutions supporting circular economy and reducing the pressure on using virgin feedstocks, brands can meet food safety requirements, while also supporting their environmental targets, helping to combat climate change, and enhancing circular economy.

Creating labelling solutions that rely less on virgin fossil-based materials and increase overall sustainability and circularity has been the focus at UPM Raflatac for many years now. At present, a wide range of labelling solutions that follow the principles of reduce, recycle, renew and reuse have been brought to market. The solutions have been proving popular with printers and converters, as they help brands meet virgin-material reduction targets, reducing the pressure on using such feedstocks and combating climate change.

Examples of these solutions include Ocean Action label, the world’s first certified label material made from chemically recycled ocean bound plastic through a mass balance approach, as well as RAFNXT+ label line, our externally verified lower carbon alternative to traditional self-adhesive labelling materials and our Forest Film, a 100 per cent wood-based film label material made from residue of the pulping process, from sustainably managed forests. We’ve also created a useful food label materials selection guide to help brands choose the right materials for their packaging needs.

Food packages need label solutions that both enhance and increase overall sustainability and circularity. Whether brands are looking for renewable label materials, wash-off solutions or resource-optimised labels, there are options available today that will help us ensure a better tomorrow.

[1] Sustainability in packaging: Inside the minds of global consumers, McKinsey 2020 Study

[2] 5 Trivium Packaging. Boston Consulting Group. 2020 Global Buying Green Report. Momentum builds for sustainable packaging.

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