It’s a sticky situation

TAPPSA Journal release liner recycling

Is there enough being done to address liner waste in South Africa?

Labels are everywhere. Critical in the packaging value chain – whether on paper, plastic, tin or glass, whether for brand identification or ingredient specification, labels matter. But there are some unsung heroes that marry the labels to their products: release liners.

Label waste is a challenging material to recycle as it comprises layers of different substrates. Over and above the sticker label (facestock), there is adhesive, silicon and the liner material. The latter constitutes the largest amount of waste – before finished products even make it out of the factory.

It has been difficult to ascertain what initiatives the South African market is investing in to ensure the longer term environmental sustainability of the labelling industry. There isn’t an industry body that oversees the labelling industry.

According to Packaging SA’s Design for Recyclingi  guidelines, the use of a label or sleeve offers the opportunity to colour and decorate the surface of the container to a very high percentage whilst avoiding colour contamination of the main material.

This helps to maximise the value of the recycled material. Compatibility of the label with the package, from a recycling perspective, is very important and is covered under each material stream within the guidelines, available on Packaging SA’s website. (Their applications with various forms of packaging (paper, plastic, glass) along with the most suitable adhesives and glue, and their recyclability, gets quite complicated and too far-reaching for this article. For more information visit

As with any recyclable material, determining the volumes available for recycling and commercially viable uses for the recyclate is where things come a little unstuck, not least of which ensuring that the repulping process will result in a clean and usable feedstock.

In short, the silicon component of release liner would need to be removed; otherwise particles would play havoc on a paper machine. Heat would cause the silicon to melt into the paper and onto the rollers.

Closing the label loop with release liner recycling

In June this year, a three-way collaboration was announced that will see Avery Dennison providing South Africa’s Rotolabel with various FSC™-certified facestocks, adhesives and liners for conversion into labelling solutions for Woolworths Foods brand of products.

According to Mark Ellis, commercial director for Avery Dennison Label and Graphic Materials in Sub-Saharan Africa, the collaboration is the first of its kind in South Africa. “It demonstrates that sustainability can be integrated into almost every level in the label value chain – from procuring materials, manufacturing to retail,” he said.

While sustainably sourced paper for any purpose is a non-negotiable for conscientious brands, closing the waste loop is just as important.

Companies like UPM Raflatacii are tackling this issue through the RafCycle® programme but this is only in place in Europe. RafCycle® reuses byproducts from all stages of the pressure sensitive label lifecycle: process waste from coating and slitting operations, matrix and start-up waste from printing and die-cutting and liner waste from label dispensing. Through RafCycle®, paper release liner is collected, repulped and de-siliconised following which reclaimed high quality long fibres are returned into pulp and paper in UPM’s papermaking process.

Film or polypropylene (PP) liners are more recyclable in the plastic recycling process, being reground and granulated for various appliactionsiii.

Belgian company Reculiner pins European liner waste alone at approximately 350,000 tonnesiv. In 2016, Dow Corning, a Dow Chemical subsidiary, entered a partnership with Reculiner which has developed a recycling technology for converting paper release liner waste into a range of end products such as insulation material as well as composting and seeding media.

The words of Kris Verschueren, global market segment manager packaging & pressure sensitive industry at Dow Corning, strike a chord: “Although we as raw material producers do not generate waste directly, we are conscious that our customer’s customer and their customer beyond are faced with the fact that once the liner has served its purpose, it has to be considered as waste. Dow Corning wants to step up and contribute to the footprint reduction of the self-adhesive labelling industry.”

RecuLiner processes paper release liner waste into loose fibres which can then be used in various applications. For thermal insulation purposes, dry fibres can be blown into walls or alternatively sprayed onto walls together with a pressure-sensitive adhesive.

This technique, called Cellulose Fibre Insulation, entails very low heat transmission. Compared to other recycled paper normally used for this process, such as print newspapers, paper release liners are claimed to have the advantage of being made from ‘pure virgin’ fibres which have not been printed on and which have ‘a more consistent and uniform’ quality. Apparently, this results in a better and cleaner product which is easier to process.

Viable recovery is key

Prismm Environmental which has initiated the Zero Labels 2 Landfill schemev states that an estimated 120,000 tonnes of label waste are landfilled in the UK annually citing that mainstream waste contractors are not able to offer viable recovery options for bulky label waste.

According to FINATvi (the European association for the self-adhesive label industry), putting release liner recycling into action is as simple as separating your used liner; having it collected and recycled by a dedicated liner recycling service and getting certified for your contribution – all for less than the cost of landfilling or incineration.

But is it really that simple?

In digging a bit deeper into the matter, there seems to be a dearth of concrete information on the volumes of release liner going to landfill each year in South Africa as well as the technology available to repulp it for re-use. I was hoping to get more answers; but now I have more questions.

My enquiries yielded a rough estimate for local annual usage of 160 million square metres of material. With the average backing at around 58gsm, we would be looking at 9,280 tonnes per year, over a large geographic footprint, but surely this is concentrated in areas of manufacturing and packaging. If we are collecting other pre-consumer recyclables, why would it be an issue?

If there is a will, there will be a way

If recycling technology does exist, why is their little effort in South Africa to explore it? It’s not exactly a new issue.

A paper published in 2000 by Venditti et al.vii, examined the ‘effect of release liner materials on adhesive contaminants, paper recycling and recycled paper properties’. The authors cited that release liner materials are considered to not be repulpable or recyclable with standard paper recycling technology. A 1996 German patent was however awarded for a pulping process which used a salt of monophosphoric acid esters to enhance the recycling of silicone-coated papers.

According to FINAT, siliconised paper based liners consist of high-quality wood fibre and are very suitable for recycling. Upon collection, (siliconised) liner is repulped in water containing chemicals to release the silicones from the fibres. This is followed by a flotation process normally used for deinking; this removes the released small silicone particles. The pulp can then be used to produce new products, such as fine and specialty papers (e.g. release liner, label face, postal, copy papers).

According to Calvin Frost of the Channeled Resources Group in Chicago, for the paper and tissue/toweling industry, spent silicone coated release liner is recyclable. “Certainly, one must make minor adjustments in the repulping process,” he says, which includes chemistry and screening modifications. “However, suffice it to say, if it can be determined that there is sufficient fibre available to justify minor modifications, it is well worth it.”

This recovered fibre is long and fine and more suited to towelling, tissue and fine paper applications. It does not belong in packaging grades which is where most recycled fibre in South Africa is processed and manufactured. “The repulping process is too coarse and the screens too large to capture the fibre,” explains Frost.

Frost asserts, “We have proved that we can eliminate 100% of the silicone coating.  In fact, there are several companies in the Western Hemisphere that are successfully recovering and reusing this fibre: Lenzing Paper in Austria and Fox River Pulp in Wisconsin, U.S. They have already developed recovery technology thanks to several experts from Finland and America.”

Extending producer responsibility

According to Mark Macaré of FINAT, a European study conducted in 2016 estimated the total release liner waste stream to be close to 350,000 tonnes of paper and little more than 26,000 tonnes of film.

Interestingly, the study also picked up that 72% of surveyed European brand owners will not migrate from self-adhesive – which means that the problem of label and liner waste is not going away anytime soon…well, except into a big hole in the ground!

A mere 38% of brand owners claimed they will demand environmental certification in the near future. Some 48% do not know about the available recycling options while 38% don’t recycle because of transportation and logistics.

Lining the way to a solution

For the local marketing, we still need to know:

  • What volumes are available for recovery?
  • What will the overall yield be?
  • What are the technology costs or process royalties?
  • What beneficiation opportunities exist for the recycled material?
  • How is the tissue process affected by this fibre – for better or for worse?
  • Collection of this material across a large geographic footprint, cost, carbon emissions associated with the collection and process, etc.
  • Is it financially worth it?

This is extended producer responsibility (EPR) at work. There are technologies being developed the world over to deal with recycling challenges. Coupled with the growing cost of landfilling and the increasing pressure for producers to be responsible for their products from manufacture to disposal, some attention needs to be given to this.

Rotolabel’s Grant Watson comments, “We, along with some of our key customers, are trying to find a solution to the backing paper waste, and the challenge is to be able to retrieve this cost effectively and have an outlet for this recycled material. There are alternatives to the glassine backing which is a polypropylene backing and PET backing which are easier to recycle but have a premium in cost.”

He explains that the challenge is the cost and carbon emissions of collecting this material and the volumes used by individual customers is extremely small. “The backing paper is an industry challenge and needs to be driven by the industry, which ultimately should be the two main raw material suppliers to justify the volumes and viability.”

Ralph Bhengu, country manager for UPM Raflatac in South Africa notes that they consider optimising the usage of natural resources, eliminating waste and reducing CO2 emissions as an integrated part of good business. “Our RafCycle® waste management concept is a good example of putting our money where our mouth is, as well as making circular economy a reality. We do not just recycle our own production waste, but offer our customers and end-users a recycling solution that gives their label waste a new life. With the success of RafCycle in Europe, we are now expanding to other regions. In South Africa we do not have UPM’s infrastructure to utilise the production waste in-house, so we have begun engaging with partner industries and individuals who we believe have the ability to recycle glassine liner. Only through working together across the value chain we can find local solutions to tackle this common problem.”

At last, a silver lining.


i Design for Recycling. 2017. Packaging SA. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 November 2017].

ii 2017. UPM Raflatac. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 November 2017].

iii Nyberg, E. Closed-loop recycling – a reality Release liner recycling takes the labelling industry out of business as usual. NarroWebTech. 2012.

iv Dow Corning forms liner recycling partnership with Reculiner. 2016. Labels and Narrow Web. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2017].

v The discharge of waste in Europe. 2017. Prismm Environmental. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2017].

vi FINAT on release liner recycling. 2017. FINAT. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 6 November 2017].

vii Venditti, R., Gilbert, R., Zhang, A. and Abubakr, S. 2000. The effect of release liner materials on adhesive contaminants, paper recycling and recycled paper properties. TAPPI 2000 Recycling Symposium Proceedings.

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