The Concept of Labelless PET Bottles: A Leap Forward or Dead on Arrival?

First Published: June 26, 2023

As we move slowly toward an environmentally conscious future, new and innovative strategies are constantly being developed to address the growing global waste crisis.

One such solution is the concept of labelless PET bottles. These are bottles without any traditional labels, potentially offering an effective waste reduction and recycling enhancement method.

This idea seems to have gotten an amount of interest of late – lots of blogs and social media posts and regulatory changes in some countries, so let’s take a look at this.

Can’t Bottles and Labels be Recycled Already?

Basically, yes, they can, but it’s not that simple.

The plastic film labels used on PET bottles are usually recyclable, but unless they are made of PET (many labels for these applications are made of polyethylene or polypropylene) to match the bottle material, they must be identified and removed to be recycled separately. Of course, the consumer could remove the labels, but that is asking a lot.

As a result, automatic techniques have been developed to separate the bottles and labels during the initial phase of the recycling process.

This is the part of the process that could be eliminated by using labelless bottles as an alternative.

Understanding Labelless PET Bottles

Labelless PET bottles are a step away from the conventional design that features printed information or plastic labels adhered to the bottle surface. Instead, these bottles incorporate unique technologies like laser etching or direct print methods to impart relevant product information. The absence of adhesive and separate plastic label elements simplifies recycling and reduces environmental waste.

Advantages of Labelless PET Bottles in Recycling

  1. Efficient Recycling: Traditional labels often prove problematic for recycling plants. They can impede the recycling process due to the adhesives used to attach them, leading to contamination of the recycled plastic. With labelless PET bottles, eliminating labels and glues leads to a cleaner, more efficient recycling process.
  2. Material Reduction: Labelless technology reduces the use of additional materials like inks, adhesives, and label films, thereby decreasing the overall carbon footprint.
  3. Quality Control: When PET bottles are recycled without labels, the resultant recycled PET (rPET) is of higher quality, with less contamination from labels and their residues.

Problems with Printing on Bottles

Despite the environmental advantages, there are challenges in transitioning to labelless PET bottles, particularly with printing the product information.

Current direct-to-bottle printing technologies might not provide the same level of detail, color vibrancy, or flexibility in design as traditional labels. This could affect branding efforts and product visibility on store shelves

Laser Coding: I’ve read that laser coding could solve this problem – even printing product information and nutritional data on the bottles.
Have you ever seen a laser code on a PET water bottle? Although a large proportion of these bottles have a production code printed by a laser, unless you’ve looked really hard, you’ve probably never seen one. The CO2 laser coders produce a low contrast mark, usually very small.

With current laser technology, this one small line of characters is all that can be printed at production line speeds.
In addition, it is currently not feasible to print UPC barcodes (or the new GS1 2D barcodes) onto PET bottles at production speeds. In particular, the barcodes must be printed on an opaque background to be scanned reliably, not on transparent plastic.

Printing on the Caps: This might be feasible, using high-speed thermal inkjet or even UV or green-wave lasers – especially if all that needs to be printed is a QR Code. Using the GS1 Digital Link encoding, it would be possible to use the single barcode for point of sale and for allowing the customer to access product information. Of course, not everyone has access to a smartphone with a QR Code reader, so the product information wouldn’t be available to all consumers.

Digital Printing of Bottles: The technology exists to print metal beverage cans with full-color digital inkjet. These systems can produce excellent results, but are currently mainly used on small-volume print jobs (such as craft beer applications) due to the slow cycle time.

Cost Concerns: The upfront cost of transitioning to labelless technology can be high. Companies must invest in new equipment and technologies, reconfigure production lines, and possibly face a higher per-unit cost until the technology becomes more widespread and affordable.

Regulatory Compliance: The changing nature of product information regulations might challenge labelless bottles. Unlike traditional labels that can be updated or replaced, direct-print methods might not offer the same flexibility to adapt to new information requirements.

Despite these challenges, labelless PET bottles is an interesting idea in sustainable packaging, offering a potential solution to enhance recycling efficiency and reduce environmental waste. These obstacles might be overcome as technology evolves, opening the door for wide-scale adoption of this innovative and eco-friendly packaging method.

At the moment, the momentum behind the concept is mainly in Asia and Europe, it will be interesting to see if any progress is made in the United States.

In the meantime, the use of labels is undoubtedly going to continue, and we’ll hopefully see progress with recycling the current packages as well.

Further Reading

Domino Printing Blog

Coca-Cola Introduces Labelless PET Bottle

Nutraceutical Business Review Marking Labelless PET Bottles

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