According to Waste Online, the UK produced an estimated 9.3 million tons of waste packaging in 2001 – 5.1 million tons came from households and the remaining 4.2 million tons came from commercial and industrial sources. In addition, the Clean Air Council reports that almost one third of the waste generated by the US is from packaging.

The evidence is clear – there has never been a greater need to employ greener labelling solutions, especially as retailers work hard to meet green targets and achieve zero packaging growth.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

"In this day and age, there is huge scope to ‘green-up’ the whole packaging supply chain," says Checkpoint Systems apparel labelling solutions (ALS) UK sales director Matt Neville, "from selecting the materials, to printing and finishing." When it comes to focusing on just labelling, the same principles apply –follow the three Rs "reduce, reuse and recycle".

Checkpoint Systems, a global leader in apparel labels, offers retailers and manufacturers a single source for branding, labelling and security solutions while also ensuring that an environmentally friendly approach is taken. Neville recommends labels made from paper should be "made from 100% post-consumer waste (PCW), or have a high recycled content". He also recommends the use of speciality papers made from renewable resources such as cotton, hemp – even paper made from bananas, grass and elephant waste exist – and if these don’t exist use one that has an FSC or PEFC accreditation. "All Checkpoint’s ALS print-shop sites are FSC approved and offer the full chain of custody," says Neville.

Over-packaging reduction

Over-packaging has become an increasing concern to consumers and manufacturers and as a result it has become just as important to streamline the labelling as well as the packaging – void space and unnecessary materials within packaging and labels need to be avoided.

"The UK produced an estimated 9.3 million tons of waste packaging in 2001."

This type of packaging is what Angus Middleton, technical director at Renaissance Regeneration environmental consultancy and founder of the Method label, a promotion and production branding enterprise, has always pioneered. Having been voted one of the top 20 eco-heroes of 2010 by At Home magazine (alongside al Gore and Prince Charles) and interviewed on eco subjects from climate change to retail greenwash for publications such as the New York Times and the Independent, the importance of recyclable packaging has always been clear in his mind.

One of the first eco-packaging projects he was involved with was a CD release of the Megatripolis club album in 1996. "The CD box was made from hemp cardboard," he says and the CDs were loose inside within hemp paper sleeves – and were folded instead of glued to reduce resource use. Printing was done with natural inks as far as possible.

Reducing the environmental impact of labelling is one of his key focuses. So much so that Method is currently in talks with a major supermarket brand over labelling on tins that would emulate the way tins were labelled in the war when paper was in short supply. The challenge is how to list all the nutritional values, which require more space and more packaging. This type of problem could be resolved and labelling reduced, he believes, if consumers used technology to behave in different ways. "If consumers were prepared to go to a website for further nutritional value information it would make sense – it’s all down to incentives and legalities."

Recycling and natural inks

Using "natural, non-toxic and plant-derived inks" is a key factor in producing environmentally friendly labels says Middleton. "There are quite a good variety of sustainable and natural inks, so it is possible to get more or less whatever finish you want," he says, although he also points out that there could be a price implication as some of the higher level natural inks tend to be more costly.

"There has never been a greater need to employ greener labelling solutions."

Checkpoint Systems is now focused on working with textiles that are grown without the use of pesticides or insecticides and weave woven labels with yarns that are made from organic cotton, bamboo and recycled polyester. As well as an environmentally friendly approach, Checkpoint offers clients full-colour customisable labels, integrated EAS and/or RFID and a wide variety of design possibilities – including the printing. "When it comes to printing, avoid heavy foil blocking, lamination, UV varnishing or printing with conventional mineral oil-based inks," says Neville.

"Instead, opt for vegetable oil-based inks, aqueous varnish, screen printing with water-based inks or more simple finishing effects like die-cutting and embossing to add interest to the swing tag."

When it comes to clothing labelling, Middleton believes a major issue at the moment is that clothing labels are often multimaterial and not recyclable. "They should be made entirely recyclable," he says, "so don’t use metal studs etc in label booklets and make the string a paper twist or other recyclable alternative." He also points out that sometimes the small size of the label means it will not be recycled in some districts, but go to landfill as they will be too small to process into recycling streams. "This can be avoided by making multiple small sheets into one large, folded sheet."

Reuse of materials

According to Waste Online, the most direct way to recover packaging is by reusing it in its original form – a lifecycle analysis can be employed to analyse the environmental impacts of each stage of a product’s life from raw material extraction to final disposal. "Packaging that can be used again and/or in other ways is very much in demand," says Neville. "Indeed, carrier bags that are made from reusable materials are now becoming more popular, especially amongst the larger retailers."

For Middleton, reuse is one of the best ways of making labels environmentally friendly and he believes that detachable labels and those that can peel off can provide a dual purpose to consumers – information about the product they are buying along with a second use. "Detachable labels are good, especially as you can print on the reverse of the label for promo stuff, recipe ideas and so on," says Middleton. "The label will need minor attachment points and ‘tear here’ perforations or something similar for wrap-around labels, which are the most common type of label."

He also believes that children’s products are a perfect market for this type of environmentally friendly labelling strategy as they can be peeled off and stuck on to other objects – a marketing and environmentally friendly strategy all in one. "The love children have for stickers will make pester purchases common and the labels will be reused, so halving the environmental impact." This will also make recycling of the glass or card easier.

"Over-packaging has become an increasing concern to consumers and manufacturers."

Reduction of packagin waste through IT

One of the most environmentally friendly ways of approaching labelling for retailers is to employ LCD screens on shelves. This is what ZBD – a leader in the design and supply of electric shelf edge labels for the retail industry – has produced. This "epaper" option requires no battery power and allows retailers to update pricing, product and promotional information dynamically and at point of purchase.

Retailers will not only reduce their impact on the environment, but also save on printing costs, energy to print, toner and paper.

ZDB’s electronic shelf labels have been implemented in retail stores all over the world, including Tesco, Dixons, John Lewis, the new Coop store in Hungary (the country’s third-largest retailer) and earlier on this year the Shell store near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The Shell shop previously used paper labels throughout the store, but the introduction of the labels has meant that retailers can optimise and operate a more environmentally friendly business. "They are an idea environment for smart retailers who want to engage in dynamic pricing and price optimisation," says David Rogers, sales and marketing director at ZBD. "Our solution enables retail operations to use this technology quickly, easily and at low cost."

The reduction, recycling and reuse of materials have been employed by retailers and manufacturers all over the world to meet targets of zero packaging growth and other sustainability goals and packaging reduction targets – and extends not just to labelling, but all the way through the supply chain. "Packaging serves a number of distinct purposes: identification of contents and their use; product protection and facilitating effective use of storage or display space," says Neville, confirming that greener labelling solutions must follow the three Rs if they are to successfully meet today’s waste reduction targets.