Zero Waste Release Liner: A Case Study
The world’s first zero waste release liner
Release liners are everywhere. Stickers, stamps, bandaids, medical devices; virtually anything that’s sticky—and needs to stay sticky until it’s adhered to its final substrate—requires a release liner.
The majority of release liners are made with silicone lined supercalendered, virgin paper. This type of coated paper is essential in the manufacturing process of a sticker. An adhesive (typically an acrylic emulsion adhesive) is actually put onto the release liner itself before the face stock is placed on this treated release liner. When this cools down, a sticker is born.
An out-dated technology
In 1935, R. Stanton Avery, the founder of popular Avery Labels, invented the first self-adhesive label with a peel-off backing. Since his invention, many advancements have been made in stickers; primarily around how customized they are, print quality, face stock materials, strength and durability of adhesive.
However, very little innovation has been made on the release liner itself, which (technically) makes sense from a production standpoint because it’s the part that gets thrown away and not the end product being marketed to the user.
But unfortunately, for every sticker you see, a release liner has likely been landfilled. Silicone release liners are extremely difficult to recycle and only a handful of locations will accept this waste, where they must go through special machinery that separates the silicone from the paper. Of these locations, some will simply convert the material into energy, which is better than landfilling, but certainly not an ideal outcome. Other facilities will convert the liners back into usable materials.
A challenge for eco-conscious businesses
For an ecommerce company looking to green their supply chain, the release liner has remained a vexing challenge for quite some time. Since most companies utilize shipping labels on their packages, it’s genuinely difficult to ship without using release liners. And yet it creates significant waste—something we know from firsthand experience. In the past, we’ve used UPS labels which generated 405 lbs of landfilled waste each year.
Another use case where release liners are ubiquitous: the strips that keep the seal on your mailer “sticky” until you are ready to use them. Because we ship a lot of orders in our own supplies, we experienced first hand the frustration of having to landfill (what felt like) mountains of silicone paper strips.
There had to be a better way.
Developing an eco-friendly alternative to the release liner
Research and development
We love when the packaging problem we are trying to solve for other companies is one we face internally as well—necessity is the mother of all invention, after all. Which is why we entered 2018 with the goal of improving the sticker/label options on the market.
Our ideal solutions:
Recyclable release liner;
Release liner made with recycled content
If neither of these solutions was possible, we were open to a compostable solution but recognized that composting non-food packaging was certainly not the ideal outcome.
When we began this process, we knew little about the intricate nuances of the manufacturing process of release liners, adhesives, and sticker face stock.
We earned a fast education as manufacturers all but laughed at our request to create a release liner without silicone or other additives. To them, recyclable release liners were a “cute” dream, but impossible. They had perfected—and invested heavily in the machinery for—the now common process of how pressure-sensitive labels are produced.
We then turned to the recyclability factor. As with most materials, we knew silicone release liners were technically recyclable but were considered “hard to recycle.” As such, most households and businesses do not have access to properly dispose of the material.
We spoke with TerraCycle, EcoCycle (our waste management company), and TLMI (an industry association for label manufacturers) to better understand the challenges associated with recycling release liners.
Then we connected with the Fox River Fiber Company— a company that had repurposed their machinery to create de-siliconized pulp (DSP) from 100 percent release liners, which results in a very pure paper, and a great feedstock for recycled paper. This can now be used to create 20-30 percent recycled paper.
We also learned about Convergen Energy, who has invested in technology to be able to take in silicone release liners as feedstock for cleaner-burning fuels (pellets). This fuel can be used as a substitute for traditional fossil fuels such as coal or other solid fuel used in a boiler.
It was an incredible experience learning about (and sharing!) some of these new recycling innovations. But there were downfalls. The main one: you must have a lot of release liner to work with them—multiple gaylords worth. Almost a boatload, literally.
It’s a great solution for a high volume user of labels or a label manufacturer that ends up with a lot of waste. However, it’s not feasible for a small to mid-sized business.
For this reason, we released a new product and service offering: 100 percent recycled stickers on a traditional release liner, but we would take back the release liners and send the material to a repulper/energy converter when we had enough volume in stock.
This was a big step for EcoEnclose and many of our clients—but we knew there were issues with the offering. We’d have to hold onto release liners for a long time in our warehouse before getting to the volumes needed to send to recyclers, given that our customers don’t go through that much release liner.
We also recognized that the carbon footprint of customers shipping release liners back to us, and then us routing them to Michigan, weren’t ideal.
Launching the world’s first zero waste release liner
Then we found the right partner. We connected with a manufacturer who was in the process of patenting what we view as the holy grail: an uncoated release liner that’s made with 100 percent post-consumer waste. And it’s curbside recyclable with paper.
It isn’t just a new release liner, it is an entirely new, innovative way of producing a sticker. How, when and where the adhesive is applied to the liner and the face stock is completely different.
We were in eco-heaven!
We raced to launch new, innovative products:
Direct Thermal Labels (virgin facebook, recycled and recyclable liner)
Zero Waste Stickers and Labels (100 percent recycled face stock AND release liner)
Flat Sheet Shipping Labels (100 percent recycled face stock and recycled/recyclable release liner)
But as with all new technologies, we ran into issues:
Adhesive concerns (because these eco-friendly labels and stickers are typically used on a recycled paper stock as well, there were some issues with the adhesive not being strong enough to stay on the packaging, which has shorter fibers than packaging made with virgin papers)
Label printer concerns (the direct thermal labels on this liner were sensor labels, and hadn’t been tested on every single label printer)
Custom prints were not always perfect—we ran into some color matching issues and some concerns about the brightness of the printed label
Educating our customers and their customers on how to recycle the liner
Those are just a few roadblocks we hit, and here’s how we overcame them:
We continue to refine the adhesive to work better with recycled content. Because we use these labels to ship our own packages to customers, we’ve experienced this improvement first hand.
We’ve worked closely on color matching and color guidance to yield beautiful prints.
We’ve invested in printing the release liner itself with information about the unique recyclable nature of the material.
These are just a few of the research and development issues we encountered, but we worked through them. Within a month of launching the product, our customers had made these direct thermal labels work on dozens of different printers across five different label printer brands.
Unlike some partners, we don’t view roadblocks as a bad thing! We’re at the front lines of helping manufacturers test emerging technologies, and we are grateful for that position. We’re extremely privileged to work with customers who care so much about sustainability that they, too, are excited to work with us to get this technology just right.
Why this technology rocks
We (EcoEnclose) replaced our existing labels (which were free labels from UPS) with our own Zero Waste Labels. This change, while essential to our commitment to running a sustainable company, increases our costs by $2,000 this year alone, but will:
Divert 405 lbs of paper from the landfill
Create a market for 275 lbs of post-consumer paper waste
Save 3,000 gallons of water
Save 1000 lbs of CO2
This is just us - one company! To date, our customers have gone through 899,000 labels in just 8 months, which is the equivalent of saving 7,010 lbs of paper from the landfill!
Partner With Us
As we continue to empower ecommerce brands to be a force for positive environmental change, that means we’re always in research and development so we can test new products and bring them to market, as well as empower businesses to make environmentally smart packaging choices.
Let’s work together:
Are you looking to go zero waste with your packaging?
Are you a manufacturer interested in advancing your capabilities and testing our new earth-friendly materials or designs?
Are you developing a new earth-friendly material, formulation or manufacturing process -- but aren’t sure how to bring it to market?
Are you a sustainable ecommerce business that prides yourself in making thoughtful, earth-friendly decisions across your entire business? Do you stay on the cutting edge of sustainability?
If you're looking to implement zero waste packaging into your supply chain, we’d love to work with you! Contact us at [email protected].