Simplifying packaging to enhance recyclability is a critical step towards more sustainable practices. Brands can achieve this by using easily recyclable mono materials, eliminating colors and additives, and reducing the complexity of packaging components.

However, there are situations where specific aspects of product packaging pose challenges for recycling. An example is external labels or shrink sleeves on bottles, which are essential for providing product information but can complicate the recycling process.

In this blog, we’ll explore the emerging trend of labelless or ‘label-free’ PET beverage bottles and discuss available options for brands seeking to move away from external labels while still meeting essential product marking requirements. This shift toward label-free packaging can contribute to more environmentally friendly and recyclable solutions.

What is a labelless bottle?

Labelless or ‘label-free’ bottles are packaging solutions made from a single piece of material, typically plastic or glass, without the addition of an external label or sleeve. This approach is gaining popularity for widely recycled packaging products, particularly PET bottles, where external plastic labels can hinder recyclability.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is one of the most recycled plastics globally, with recycling rates exceeding 50% in various regions, including India, Europe, and South Korea. However, there is still room for improvement. Removing labels from PET bottles is a significant step in this direction.

Labels are often non-recyclable, leading to additional plastic waste and necessitating their removal before collection or during the recycling process. Labels may be constructed from plastics other than PET, like polyethylene or polypropylene. Since many recycling facilities rely on machine optics to identify different materials, the presence of non-PET labels can lead to misidentification, affecting the recycling process.

Increasing PET recycling rates

The trend of labelless PET bottles is gaining traction, especially in the beverage industry, as governments around the world seek to boost PET recycling rates and enhance the quality of recycled materials.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Environment of the South Korean government initiated a campaign to encourage the kerbside disposal of transparent PET bottles. They also introduced legislation that will prohibit the use of external labels on bottled water starting in January 2026. Following this, ten major Korean mineral water producers committed to launching new product lines featuring labelless transparent PET bottles to improve the quality of recycled materials. In October 2021, The Coca-Cola Company introduced its first labelless PET bottles in South Korea, with these products being sold online in packs of 24.

Japan’s government has unveiled a plan to transition to 100% recycled plastic packaging by 2035. Japan already has stringent plastic recycling rules, requiring consumers to separate PET bottles from their labels and caps. The adoption of labelless PET bottles would simplify the process for consumers, and several of Japan’s prominent beverage companies are beginning to promote labelless packaging in their core brands.

In the European Union, Directive 2019/904 mandates the use of tethered bottle caps for plastic bottles by July 3, 2024. Furthermore, the directive specifies that PET drinks bottles must contain 25% recycled plastic by 2025 and 30% by 2030. Enhancing the quality and quantity of recycled PET is crucial to meet these regulatory targets.

What are the advantages of labelless PET bottles?

How labelless PET Bottles can help

Labelless PET bottles offer several advantages, including:

  1. Ease of Recycling: Labelless PET bottles are simpler to recycle as consumers do not need to remove or dispose of external labels separately. This eliminates the need for recycling facilities to accommodate label removal, reducing the risk of bottles being incorrectly identified.

  2. Waste Reduction: The removal of external labels from PET bottles has the potential to significantly reduce plastic waste. For example, the South Korean Ministry of Environment estimated that eliminating all labels from plastic water bottles could save the country 24.6 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, based on the sale of 4.2 billion bottled water products in 2019.

  3. Reduced Penalties for Manufacturers: Labelless PET bottles can reduce the financial burden on manufacturers in regions with plastic taxation. In the UK, single-use plastic packaging items with less than 30% recycled content are subject to a tax of £200 per tonne. PET bottles can easily contain more than 30% recycled content, but labels and caps, which typically do not contain recycled material, are taxed separately.

However, transitioning to labelless packaging poses challenges in ensuring compliance with regulatory labeling requirements and providing consumers with the necessary product information. Consequently, the adoption of labelless bottles requires innovative approaches to coding and marking for proper identification and consumer understanding.

What coding options are available for brands producing labelless bottles?

Labelless PET Bottles coding options

The choice of coding and printing solutions for labelless PET bottles depends on various factors, including regional labeling regulations and whether the bottles will be sold individually or as part of a multipack. Here are some potential solutions for individually sold labelless PET bottles:

  1. Direct Printing on the Bottle: Printing information directly onto the bottle using inkjet or laser printing technology. This can include essential product information, such as barcodes, batch numbers, expiry dates, and brand logos. It offers a clean and minimalistic look, ideal for labelless bottles.

  2. Sleeving Technology: Applying a tamper-evident neck sleeve with a printed label that contains mandatory product information. This approach allows for detailed information to be displayed while maintaining a label-free appearance on the bottle body.

  3. Innovative Bottle Designs: Creating bottles with integrated, permanent, or embossed markings that convey essential product details without the need for external labels or printed codes.

  4. QR Codes and Digital Watermarks: Using QR codes or digital watermarks on the bottle’s surface that can be scanned with a mobile device to access additional product information, instructions, or promotional content.

Each solution should align with the specific labeling regulations of the region where the bottles will be sold and meet consumer expectations for transparency and information access.

Laser marking on PET bottles

Laser coding technology can be effectively used to mark PET bottles, providing essential product data and information, such as nutritional details, composition data, batch codes, barcodes, recycling logos, and various graphics and text. When choosing a laser coding solution for PET bottles, brands should consider the following factors:

  1. Beverage Type: The type of beverage in the PET bottle can influence the choice of laser. For clear liquids like water, a laser that achieves a high contrast code is necessary. In contrast, dark-colored liquids such as colas and soft drinks may require a different laser technology.

  2. PET Wall Thickness: The thickness of the PET bottle walls varies between different beverage types. For example, still water bottles typically have thinner walls compared to carbonated beverages and soft drink bottles. Brands should select a laser that can effectively code the bottle without compromising its structural integrity.

  3. Recycled PET Content: The percentage of recycled PET used in bottle manufacturing can impact laser coding. Impurities in recycled PET may affect the material’s ability to absorb the specific wavelength of certain laser types, potentially affecting the quality of the code.

Brands should choose a laser coding solution that aligns with these parameters to ensure clear, legible, and durable codes on their PET bottles, meeting both regulatory requirements and consumer expectations.

Printing on bottle caps

Printing directly on bottle caps is a viable option for brands to convey essential information, branding, and even machine-readable codes on their products. When choosing a printing solution for bottle caps, brands should consider the following factors:

  1. Cap Material: The material of the bottle cap is a crucial consideration as different inks and lasers are suitable for various plastic types. The choice of technology will depend on the cap material used in production.

  2. Cap Color: The contrast between the bottle cap and the code is important for legibility. It affects the choice of ink type and the suitability of different laser technologies. Brands should select an ink or laser that ensures high contrast for clear and readable codes.

  3. Code Requirement: Brands may need to print linear barcodes, scannable 2D codes, or other information on bottle caps. This will impact the choice of high-resolution ink or laser coding solution to meet specific coding requirements.

  4. Coding Stage: The stage at which bottle caps are coded is also a key consideration. While it’s relatively simple to code loose caps, brands with production lines that require cap coding post-fill will need a product handling solution to ensure accurate and high-quality coding.

Brands should carefully evaluate these factors to choose the most appropriate printing solution for bottle caps, considering the unique characteristics of their products and production processes.

Branded blow moulding

Managing branding on labelless bottles is an important consideration for brands aiming to maintain product recognition and brand identity. There are several options to ensure branding is preserved on labelless bottles:

  1. On-Pack Laser Coding: Brands can use on-pack laser coding to incorporate branding elements such as logos and text directly on the bottle’s body. This allows them to maintain brand identity without the need for external labels.

  2. Bottle Caps: Branding can be featured on bottle caps, with options for logos, text, and machine-readable codes. This approach provides additional space for branding and information.

  3. Blow Moulding: Brands can incorporate branded shapes and logos into the bottle design during the blow moulding process. This method allows for unique and eye-catching bottle designs that are integral to the packaging.

Each of these methods offers brands the flexibility to maintain branding while transitioning to labelless bottles, aligning with sustainability goals and simplifying recycling processes. Brands should choose the approach that best suits their branding needs and aligns with their overall packaging strategy.

Labelling systems for labelless bottles: what you need to know

Choosing the right technology for marking labelless PET bottles is a crucial decision that should align with a brand’s specific requirements and goals. As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, it’s essential to discuss your needs and preferences with your coding and marking partner to develop a bespoke solution.

Domino has extensive experience working with leading beverage brands to create tailored solutions for labelless bottles. If you’re considering labelless PET bottles as part of your sustainability initiatives or regulatory compliance, or if you’d like to explore this area further, please feel free to reach out. Domino can provide guidance, product sampling, and support to help you implement labelless coding solutions effectively.

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[v] Paul Earnshaw, Tesco, Sustainability in Packaging, Sustainability in Packaging Europe, 2nd November 2022.

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