Are all Labels Biodegradable?

Throughout most industries, more and more businesses and organisations are looking to minimise their carbon footprint and have a stronger focus on environmental sustainability. In the label printing industry, one of the common measures taken to improve environmental sustainability is investment in biodegradable labels. But what does this involve? Aren’t all labels biodegradable or recyclable?

What are Biodegradable Labels?

Whether or not a label or sticker is considered biodegradable depends on the materials used to create it. Materials are generally considered to be biodegradable when they can be broken down into natural elements such as water and carbon dioxide by living organisms. However, it’s worth noting that, technically, all materials are biodegradable – even plastic, the key question is:

  • How long does it take to break down?
  • Under what conditions does it break down?
  • What does it break down into, and what gases are emitted during this process?

What are compostable Labels?

Labels or stickers are considered compostable if they are made of organic matter and can completely break down to make nutrient rich compost. The most widely accepted standard for composting is the European compostable packaging standard (EN 13432), which requires the materials to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months.

What are Recyclable Labels?

Again, this comes down to the type of material used, and the type of packaging onto which the label adheres.  Paper labels should only be recycled with paper or board packaging. If paper labels are placed on plastic bottles or containers, the adhesive residue should be washed off to make the recycling process much easier.

Plastic labels are usually made from Polypropylene (PP) or Polyethylene (PE).  Luckily, most packaging material is also made from PP and PE, so both can be recycled together.

However, not all labels and stickers can be recycled. This is mainly because that different recycling facilities have different capabilities, and some labels and materials may require more specialist equipment and sorting techniques than others.

What Materials are used for Biodegradable Labels?

There are a number of different materials that can be used to manufacture biodegradable labels; the three main types favoured by labels manufacturers tend to be:

  • Filmic Biodegradable Labels – The filmic material is made out of the cellulose from wood pulp (which should always be from a sustainable plantation). They are usually produced in a white or clear finish, and specifically suited to products where the complete packaging has to be 100% biodegradable or where the labels  come into direct or indirect contact with food
  • Biodegradable Sugarcane PaperThis label material uses sugar cane fibres instead of standard wood fibres. Typically, around 95% of the material is sugar cane fibre, with the remaining 5% made of hemp and linen
  • Biodegradable Wood-free Paper – This can sound a little misleading if you’re unfamiliar with the paper making process, as this paper is still made from wood pulp. Wood-free paper just means that the lignin has been removed from the pulp, which helps preserve the quality of the paper
What about the Adhesive?

A major component of label manufacturing is of course the adhesive. You would assume that all self-adhesive biodegradable labels use an eco-friendly adhesive; in most cases this is true, however it’s important to check that the adhesive meets the following criteria in order for the label to be considered fully biodegradable:

  • Be PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene) free
  • Be petrochemical free (chemicals derived from petroleum such as ethylene, propylene and benzene)
  • Be non-toxic
  • Be made from natural materials
Which Labels are not Biodegradable?

For some applications, using biodegradable labels is simply not an option. Labels that have to survive more extreme conditions, such as those used in the chemical industry, are typically manufactured from various types of plastic or plastic derivatives – often referred to as polymer-based labels. These materials tend to be far more durable than the biodegradable or compostable alternatives.

Label materials such as Polyester (PE), Polyethylene (PET), Polypropylene (PP) and Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) are less easy to manage in terms of their disposal. As with most materials, Polymer-based labels are still technically biodegradable (albeit over many years) but may have unwelcome residual effects – they are not compostable and not always easily recyclable, therefore require disposal through incineration for energy generation and/or landfill.

Choose the Right Labels for the Right Packaging

It’s important to not view sustainability in isolation. Making sure the end-of-life properties of your labels are compatible with the type of packaging for which they are intended will help to achieve more complete sustainable solution for your product.

It may sound obvious but if your packaging is recyclable, then it’s advisable to use recycle-compatible labels; and the same applies for compostable packaging and compostable labels.

Many recycling facilities will separate labels from recyclable packaging, as contaminants such as adhesive and inks can be removed during the recycling process. However, this is only practical as long as the labels do not make up a large percentage of the total packaging.

So . . .

To answer the question, no – not all labels are biodegradable, at least not in real terms. True – all materials will eventually degrade when left to the elements and given enough time, however, to be considered biodegradable in “eco-friendly” terms, labels have to breakdown into natural elements without any harmful emissions or residual effects.

The easiest way to ensure that your labels are easily and safely biodegradable, is to check that they meet the European compostable packaging standard (EN 13432). Your labels supplier or manufacturer should confirm whether or not their products comply with this industry standard.


The Labels Plus Solution

At Labels Plus, we’re leading the way in the UK with our environmentally friendly labelling solutions. Our biodegradable labels range include two types of filmic material, which are made out of the cellulose from wood pulp (sourced from managed plantations of course), as well as our matt white and semi-gloss wood free paper labels.

Our materials are biodegradable to EN13432 and certified OK to compost; our biodegradable adhesive is suitable for direct and indirect contact with dry foodstuffs.

With over 20 years expertise to call upon, Labels Plus are guaranteed to find the right compostable label for any requirement, at a price that offers our customers fantastic value.

Get in touch to find out how we can help your business minimise its impact on the environment.