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Trending in a New Direction - Now Durable Labels Can Go Greener, Too

Vinyl (PVC) has long been popular in the durable labeling arena. As its environmental impacts become more apparent and less tolerated around the globe, however, many manufacturers are looking for alternative label materials to take its place wherever possible. Consequently, polypropylene (PP) films are quickly taking center stage to fill that gap in both primary labeling and advertising. For durable labeling, however, vinyl has remained a mainstay because the market is yet to see a polypropylene that meets performance requirements…until now.


Chainsaw

Why PVC?

Vinyl’s history may have begun in the recording industry, but since that time, it has seen worldwide use for everything from cable insulation and piping to blood bags, tubing and, of course, durable labels. The versatility of vinyl lies in the plasticizers that can be added to create the level of rigidity or flexibility desired, making it suitable for labels that must conform to application surface topography as well as those applied to flat surfaces. It is also outdoor durable and inherently printable. While other films may have some of these properties, historically, none have had them all.

Why NOT PVC?

While PVC may be fantastic from a functional standpoint, there is much debate about its safety due to the toxicity of certain vinyl feedstocks, the byproducts of its production, and the many additives required to make it usable. Of particular concern is a group of chemicals called phthalates which are often used as plasticizers to make vinyl flexible. Furthermore, due to the many additives in PVC, it is generally more difficult to recycle post-consumer material back into the supply. This is not to say that PVC cannot be recycled, but there are more barriers to overcome to avoid the landfill. 

On the positive side, the PVC industry has made strides in removing some of the most harmful chemicals from its formulation; however, polyolefins such as polypropylenes do not require additives such as plasticizers at all, making their production more eco-friendly and post-consumer material more recyclable.

Market Pressure to Go Greener

With all the different chemicals in the “phthalate family,” to make a sweeping statement about the effects of all possible phthalates in all possible vinyl grades would be ill-informed. However, the perception of consumers - that these chemicals, and PVC in general, are hazardous to the environment and human health - is putting pressure on manufacturers to minimize its use. This is not great news for PVC. 

In fact, the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission has proposed regulations on certain phthalates, and they continue to review and prohibit more phthalates. The same is true in Europe, as the restriction of phthalates under REACH expands, having a worldwide impact. Furthermore, communities across the globe are putting PVC avoidance policies in place. Countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden have limited its use and/or banned it from their landfills. PVC packaging is banned or restricted in numerous countries, including Canada, Spain, South Korea and the Czech Republic. Such legislative interventions, as well as consumer demands, are paving the way for substitutes to replace PVC. In fact, manufacturers like Estee Lauder, Apple, Microsoft, SC Johnson, Honda and Toyota are phasing out PVC from all or portions of their products (chej.org) in response to market pressure, and it’s possible that more OEMs in more industries will eventually follow suit. This will in turn require their suppliers to seek non-PVC alternatives.

What does all this amount to? 

As to the pros and cons of PVC, the jury is still out. However, the pressure on the labeling industry to find alternatives continues to mount. Whether the challenge be increasing governmental regulations, legitimate environmental hazards, or simply a tainted public perception, the labeling industry will evolve as the market requires more sustainable solutions. Toward that end, FLEXcon has developed a first-of-its-kind durable polypropylene film that meets the performance requirements for durable labeling in the Consumer Durables, Electronics, Industrial, and Transportation markets.

How Does FLEXcon’s New PP Stack Up?

Polypropylene films have been around for years, but historically they have not offered the outdoor durability and robust performance characteristics needed for durable labeling applications. Until now.

Durability. Resistance to weathering from the sun’s powerful rays is paramount for durable labeling applications – one of the characteristics that makes PVC ideal, and any true alternative would need to stack up in a side-by-side weatherability comparison. Our weathering studies comparing FLEXcon® NEXgen™ PP films to our flexible white and frosty clear vinyls revealed no significant performance difference between the two film types. We assessed total color change (Delta E) and physical degradation in the films over prolonged exposure. FLEXcon NEXgen had comparable performance to control PVCs for each color (Note: a Delta E value below 2 is not observable to the human eye and, therefore, would be considered a successful test result). Additionally, the white PP resisted structural degradation just as well as the white PVCs, and the frosty clear PP outperformed the PVC control, which cracked before reaching 2250 hours.

PVC PP Test Results

Flexibility. The stiffness of PP is very similar to our flexible PVC, making it suitable for the same end use applications where conformability is necessary.


Printability. While PP may not be inherently printable, advancements in our topcoat technology allow PP to offer consistent surface smoothness and excellent ink adhesion, resulting in exceptional image quality for virtually all the ways vinyl can be printed and more. 

Laser Die Cutting. PP can be laser die cut whereas PVC cannot, offering the freedom to create unique label shapes and easily change them without the cost of expensive dies. 

Stability. The plasticizers in PVC tend to migrate to the surface over time or after exposure to heat. The result is an oily-like residue on the surface of the film that negatively impacts ink adhesion and can also react with the adhesive to cause failures. Because PP does not contain plasticizers, these issues do not arise.

Opacity (white films only). Optical density (OD) is a measure of opacity – the light-blocking capacity of the film. A higher OD means the film is “less see through.” High OD in a white film is desirable to cover anything that might be beneath the label, such as a colored surface or an old label. The values for our white PP and white PVC are equivalent. 


Haze (frosty clear films only)
. The percentage of haze describes how much light scatters from a clear film, providing a measure of how clear it is. Our frosty clear PP is equivalent to PVC.

Cost. Pricing of our PP is comparable to our flexible PVC for durable labeling applications.

Given the perceived environmental and human health hazards of PVC, it’s likely only a matter of time before regulations around the globe restrict its use to the point that most manufacturers will phase it out, at least to some extent, requiring their suppliers to adopt alternative solutions. The good news is that with equivalent or better performance and no cost differential, FLEXcon has made switching to PP for durable labeling applications a viable option for printer/converters who are seeking more eco-friendly solutions, and as the label industry continues to evolve.