Sticking With It | Going Green

Industry expert Ingrid Brase reports on the state of recycling as it pertains to tape and label adhesives.

Over the past many months, climate change and global warming have been the topic of many news stories. Scientific evidence continues to mount that supports claims that greenhouse gases and carbon emissions are causing the earth to warm with dire consequences predicted for our future. The waste in landfill keeps growing, presenting its challenges as well.

So, this brings into focus, how do we reverse the trend before it is too late? And, of course, nearer to home, where does the use of adhesives fit into this?

Before we begin to explore the current state of affairs and I share some of my thoughts on our future, let’s begin with a few key definitions. These are taken from the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guides. Their objective was to provide consumers with a set of guidelines so they can understand advertising claims and navigate in the “green space.”

First there is RECYCLING. Recycling is defined as a product that can be reused. From the FTC: “it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream … for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.”

BIODEGRADABLE is another frequently used term. According to the FTC definition: a product is biodegradable as long as it “will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” In other words, the item will continue to disintegrate into small pieces until micro-organisms consume it.

Then there is COMPOSTABLE: the Green Guide states there must be scientific evidence that the materials in the item break down, or become part of, usable compost in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting facility or home compost pile.

Specific to adhesives is another term, RECYCLE COMPATIBLE (or RECYCLE FRIENDLY). Simply put, here the product in question may not be recyclable but does not interfere with recycling. For example, if a label can be completely removed from a glass bottle, allowing the bottle to be reused, then the label could be described as “recycle friendly.”

When it comes to adhesives and all things “green,” the largest advances have been made in packaging focused applications. This can be attributed to market pressures from consumers who have demanded that products be more environmentally responsible. Consequently, large brand owners all have embraced environment platforms. As an example, Procter & Gamble has a sustainability tab on its website that takes you to a page outlining its programs. Nestlé speaks about citizenship, with environmental programs a large part of this approach. Both cite examples related to reducing packaging and reducing waste to landfill.

There Is Work To Be Done

So back to the main question: Where do things stand on how adhesives impact the environment, recycling, etc.? There are some real success stories to celebrate but sadly things are not as far along as maybe they could or should be.

One of the largest success stories for the development and use of recycle compatible adhesives is the simple postage stamp. As a bit of legend has it, after a successful letter writing campaign from students related to the fact that the postage stamp was interfering in paper recycling, in 1995 the U.S Postal Service began a program to develop environmentally benign adhesives. The objective was to develop products that would allow paper fiber to be recycled.

Thirteen adhesive companies participated in this effort, which included developing a three-step protocol to screen adhesive candidates starting in the laboratory, moving to pilot studies, with eventual qualification at the mill level. Their work led to developing a portfolio of recycle compatible adhesives (RCAs) that are used not only for the postage stamp but also in a variety of other label applications. The adhesives themselves are not recycled but rather harvested as large particles so they can be removed from the paper fiber slurry.

The test methods developed for screening have been adopted by TLMI (Tag and Label Mfrs. Inst.) as guidelines for RCAs. Laboratory testing is done by the Forest Products Labs of the USDA.

More recently, the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) highlighted the need to develop labels that could be removed from plastic containers. Here the ideal objective is for the adhesive to remain with the label and be removed during the wash process, the first step in plastics recycling. Alternatively, the adhesive could dissolve in the wash water and not interfere in the downstream processing of the plastic as it melts and is reprocessed.

The focus has been on PET used packaging applications like beverage bottles and thermoform containers. If adhesive or label residue remains on the plastic container, then the quality of the recycled PET is compromised. APR certifies the labels as recycle compatible based on their protocol. The website provides a listing of labels that have passed the screening test. 

So, some success but there is still much work to be done. While there is great awareness of the issues, there is not much activity and push toward widespread commercialization of some of the approaches that can be taken. Why is that? Well, you need to “spend green to be green.” Right now, many of the potential solutions come with higher pricing, making the final products high priced.

The drop in oil prices over the past few years also has had a severely negative impact on many of these initiatives. Recycling, once seen as a small but effective alternative revenue stream, is now no longer as attractive. It is tough to find homes for recycled material. Technology exists to manufacture adhesives from bio-sourced materials, but these come at premium pricing. Since this is emerging technology, many of products are made at current smaller scale. In some cases, they also require capital investment in alternative processing to be commercialized.

Adhesives can be made that are biodegradable, but unfortunately the technology is not yet available to switch on when it needs to begin to break down. This would be the ideal solution: an adhesive that sticks and keeps the label or packaging tape in place during use but then can be triggered to breakdown when no longer in use.

I spoke with several large adhesive manufacturers, and while none will reveal the details of their current activity, it is apparent they are all watching this space. They follow the trends and have enabling technology to respond as the market drivers change. For now, recycle compatible is their focus, offering products that allow glass, plastics, and paper packaging materials to be processed for reuse. Hopefully, with continual push to improve recycling and protect diminishing resources, one day we will have truly green adhesives!

Thanks for joining me as we explore this opportunity for the future. Let’s all keep Sticking With It…

About the Author

Ingrid Brase is a technical market strategist recognized for her ability to translate technical needs into business solutions. Her understanding of pressure-sensitive adhesives and their use is complemented by her strengths in strategic marketing, project management, new product development, and key account management. She is available for consulting or contact assignments in these areas. Ingrid’s expertise is a result of more than 20 years of experience in the p-s adhesives business. She was most recently the market segment director for Henkel Corp., rising to that position after various assignments in the p-s business unit. She began her career as a research scientist then progressed to market-focused roles. Ingrid earned her MBA at Rider Univ. and holds a BS in chemistry from SUNY/Oneonta. She has served on the board of directors for TLMI and AIMCAL in addition to chairing technical teams for both trade associations. Ingrid is a well-known speaker and author on topics related to adhesive use. To learn more about Ingrid or contact her, visit, e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call her at 609-558-9760.


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