One of the highlights of the label industry’s year is the AWA Label Release Liner Industry Seminar, held annually just before Labelexpo in both Europe and the US. It attracts a high percentage of industry participants across the value chain who come to update their knowledge and to network.

This year’s event in Brussels—with Dow Corning and UPM as platinum sponsors and Blue Star Silicones and Wacker as gold sponsors—offered a complete program, highlighting the key issues facing the label release liner segment. It represented an opportunity to discuss a combination of leading-edge processing and converting practices, the status quo in recycling of spent label release liner, and the product identification and decoration technologies that today compete with pressure-sensitive labeling.

Market overview

Setting the scene, Corey M. Reardon, president and CEO of AWA Alexander Watson Associates, provided an overview of the global release liner market—one of the core verticals in the company’s market research and consulting activities.

The release liner industry is characterized as consolidated on the supply side and highly fragmented on the demand side, he observed, making it “challenging for companies on the demand side to have any influence on market dynamics.” Pressure-sensitive label stock commands a 49% share of global release liner usage, with food and beverage together representing 37% of the end-use market.

Release liners are continuing to adapt to efficiency requirements for modern converting, as Mikko Rissanen, business development director of UPM Label Papers showed. With its roots firmly in forest products, UPM has pioneered many practical routes to enhancing the profile of paper release liner substrates in terms of lower basis weights that still deliver high performance. Rissanen said that the company is currently exploring nanocellulose Biofibrils technology, which promises several benefits for the future.

Linerless technology

The benefits of linerless pressure-sensitive labels were the topics of a panel discussion that included an update on the reuse of film liner as laminating film. In this situation, spent clear film liner is adhesive-coated inline and applied over the surface of the printed labels as a protective laminate, thus creating a genuine contribution to sustainability. A representative of flexographic press manufacturer Nilpeter said that the company has manipulated its press technology to accommodate reusable film liner.

A downside of linerless raised by the audience was the fact that the label shapes which can successfully be achieved are limited to more or less simple rectangles. A panelist pointed out that clever design and print—particularly on clear film-based labels—makes this argument irrelevant today.

End-of-life solutions

The overarching issues of release liner recycling and end-of-life solutions prompted a panel discussion moderated by Calvin Frost, chairman of Channeled Resources Group, a company with 40 years’ experience in the field. As he explained, it is the label converter who is in the front line when it comes to creating the problem of release liner waste for the brand owner customer—after all, the converter delivers the self-adhesive labels. Echoing the entire industry, Frost added, “Wouldn’t it be great to offer a solution?”

The panelists looked in depth at the current solutions base and the many challenges raised by organizing collection schemes and identifying the right personnel in end-user companies who can instigate such schemes. There are already valuable supplier-instigated schemes in place for the re-collection of their own spent liner, but creating an industrywide solution remains on the wish list.

Achieving quality products

Robyn Buma, global procurement director, paper, for Avery Dennison, considered paper and film release liners in labels and graphics applications from the standpoint of product quality. Covering multiple suppliers across all regions, her three-year research identified interesting key trends.

Paper liners showed a moderate improvement in the top quality issues experienced—wrinkled, damaged, dirty material, and silicone release issues, for example—during the period. Film liners, however, exhibited a significant improvement trend across the same parameters. She urged suppliers to apply the highest standards of quality control, and robust and systematic problem-solving processes and actions.

Hans Oerley, business development manager for Dr. Schenk Inspection Systems, identified one route to achieving quality pressure-sensitive film labels: the installation of automatic inline optical inspection. He said that with a ROI of just two years, the company’s EasyInspect and EasyMeasure systems can identify defects, especially in adhesive and silicone layers, at an early stage during the production process. This ensures a high-quality result and significantly reduces downstream waste in both film label materials and silicone coatings.

Advances in silicone coatings

An expert panel on silicone coatings addressed the industry’s prime mission of creating as stable as possible a release liner for customers’ needs. The key question was: what are the alternatives to silicone?

The panelists agreed that it would require a massive investment to develop a new chemistry superior to the “weird properties” of silicone that have proved so useful to the industry. Also discussed were the use of platinum as the cure catalyst; the advent of UV silicones; low-temperature silicone curing; and options such as activatable adhesives. 

Competitor technologies

Dan Muenzer’s review of the label technologies that are competing with pressure-sensitive set the seminar program in context, presenting many examples of how brand owners are using labels to communicate and to differentiate their products. Muenzer, who is vice president, marketing, for Constantia Flexibles, pointed to advances in variable printing exemplified by Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign and Heineken’s multiple label designs for Indio beer.

As for the competition, in-mold labeling, flexible packaging, and direct-to-container print are all taking their toll. But, Muenzer had good news, too, such as Budweiser’s conversion from cut-and-stack labels to pressure-sensitive using a metallized film for greater efficiency and reduced cost. The pressure-sensitive label industry is also contributing real innovation in terms of non-contaminant label stocks for application to PET bottles, he added.