Paper or plastic? The labelling compromise

Lion announced last month that it was removing shrink wrap plastic and plastic labels on its beer bottles.

The major brewer, owner of XXXX, Little Creatures and soon-to-be parent company of Stone & Wood, said that the decision will be phased in over two years and remove 630 tonnes of plastic per year from circulation by cutting down plastic in its two largest sources of plastic packaging.

Lion’s head of sustainability Libby Davidson said that the business had already begun to transition cans to paperboard alternatives.

“Our cans will be out of shrink and in Cluster-Pak by the end of this year,” she told Brews News.

“It will take us a little longer to transition bottles into Cluster-Pak but if we can get there faster, we will.”

The brewer is also moving away from plastic labels on beer bottles and replace these with alternatives such as biodegradable or paper alternatives by the end of the decade.

The moves by Lion come as the industry as a whole continues to search for ways to be more sustainable in all areas of brewing, distribution and hospitality operations. But the realities and demands of packaging can be different for every brewery, and each choice seems to be a compromise.

Plastic versus paper labels

While the battle between cans and bottles seems to be moving generally in the direction of cans, there are sustainability considerations when using either.

There is also a perception in the industry that using either paper or plastic labels on packaging is more sustainable when it comes to recycling, with paper labels generally thought to be the better option. But Brad Low from Rallings Labels Stickers and Packaging explained that this was not necessarily the case.

“Most of our work is self-adhesive labels,” explained Low, “and when you print a label you have three parts to it, a liner, a layer of silicon, then a polypropylene label face top, then between those to have a glue. When it goes through labelling machine, it pulls the labelling back on itself, which hits the can or bottle and sticks it on.

“The silicon backing sheet gets chucked in the bin. Lots of brewers talk about wanting to be sustainable, but what they don’t get is that whether they have a plastic or paper label, the silicon backing sheet goes in the bin and can never break down. Other countries recycle it back it into the liner, but here in Australia it goes into landfill.”

Chris Kelly of East Coast Canning agreed that there isn’t much difference between them.

“There’s no difference. Paper labels are pretty rare in craft – most labels are polypropylene,” explained Chris.

“I’m no chemist, but I understand that PP is a bloody good plastic, but it’s plastic nonetheless.

“I am sure that emerging label substrates can provide a more sustainable platform for label printers, however there will always be waste in this system such as backing papers, or sometimes even PET backing.”

Shrink sleeves can also be a problem, Kelly explained, and they might end up incorrectly recycled, as sensors in recovery facilities may identify the aluminium can as a PET bottle mistakenly.

Similar issues occur in the recycling of many aspects of packaging, including PakTechs – which Endeavour Group and the IBA have teamed up to help combat.

“There is some evidence that labelled cans in high concentrations can cause plant fires at aluminium recycling facilities, and in the USA some facilities have been diverting shrink sleeved and PP labelled cans to landfill which is a tragic waste of an extraordinary raw material,” explained Kelly.

“I believe that once we begin processing our own aluminium entirely onshore, similar discoveries may be made.”

Low explained that some brewers have asked whether or not they could peel the stickers off to make them more valuable as a recycled item, but this causes other problems, primarily in relation to Australian Container Deposit Schemes.

“[If you peel that off] no one gets their 10 cents back – it’s got to be attached. Either way an aluminium can will end up in the same place as the can with the label on.”

While there may not be much of a difference when it comes to recycling or incinerated labels, paper labels do come from a sustainable and renewable source, explained Lion’s Davidson.

The guidelines of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), of which Lion is a member, classifies glass bottles with plastic labels as “recyclable with reduced value” because more glass stays attached to the plastic label and cannot be sorted.

“While some fragments of plastic labels are incinerated if it is small enough to get through the sorting process at the glass recycling plants, if it can’t be sorted there is a paper/plastic waste stream from the glass recycling plants that must be landfilled meaning the plastic persists in the environment.

“We accept it is very challenging to recover paper labels during the recycling process but these will biodegrade naturally over time whereas a plastic label will not.

“We have begun transitioning some Brands from plastic to paper labels, such as Boags Premium and Boags Premium Light which changed earlier this year. We’re also looking at other innovative solutions to the issues, such as biodegradability,” she said.

In other, generally colder markets such as in the Northern Hemisphere, paper labels on bottles with water-based glue are not so uncommon as they are in Australia.

“Really, the most environmentally friendly label you can get is paper with flour and water glue, or a water-based glue of some kind,” explained Low.

“It’s a piece of paper, dye cut with no backing sheet. Then they put the label on it, and it dries to it.”

But in Australia, with its harsher weather and transport conditions and penchant for cooling beers in an Esky full of ice, paper labels and water-based glue seem an impracticality. But there are other options that suppliers are looking into.


Currently in the market, plastic labels for bottles and cans, and shrink sleeves for cans are some of the most common packaging options for brewers.

But the suppliers are looking at more sustainable options going forward, namely direct-to-can printing.

“We’ve been looking at can printing machines for the past 18 months to two years, and so has Chris [Kelly],” explained Low.

“That’s definitely the way to go, but it’s bloody expensive!”

There’s also the logistical issues that come with the technology, which is not necessarily mobile, and thus contributes to a company’s carbon footprint.

“If you have a plant in Brisbane printing cans, we produce those cans and get them palletised to send down to Victoria, Tasmania and Sydney, it’s still a lot of shipping with empty beer cans,” said Low.

“But it’s definitely a more sustainable way – we’re still not quite there yet, because we can’t just jump on a plane and have a look at the machinery.”

East Coast Canning received a grant earlier in the year to invest in direct-to-can printing equipment which is currently on order.

“Our machinery will use zero plastic, and never waste a drop of ink on a bad can,” explained Kelly.

“It is the future, and will always be the ultimate – we identified that several years ago and have been working towards this big leap ever since.

“Even the concept of digitally printing with no washouts like on a traditional can decorator is a serious tick on the sustainability side.

“With our current labelled can volumes, assuming no growth, we will instantly remove the need to add 14 tonnes of plastic per annum to an infinitely recyclable container. It’s a no brainer.”

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