PLA shrink labels get the 'green' light

Lauren R. Hartman

January 30, 2014

11 Min Read
PLA shrink labels get the 'green' light


Four-year-old AgroLabs, Inc., Hillside, NJ, a manufacturer and marketer of healthful, nutritional products, has been a driving force in human nutrition, combining product innovation with clinical science. The subsidiary and nutraceuticals business of Integrated BioPharma, Inc. distributes these products nationwide through mass market, grocery, drug and vitamin retailers. Integrated BioPharma is a group of companies serving the varied needs of the health care industry. Through its nutraceutical business, the company creates, develops, manufactures and markets products worldwide.

AgroLabs says it's committed to bringing consumers products and research that are accurate and targeted to provide maximum health benefits.

It's also interested in the environment, and ethically harvests its products to ensure the safety of the environment, while promoting use of environmental packaging for its health and nutrition products—a growing product trend on the market.

Introduced in 2006, AgroLabs' Naturally brand of liquid dietary supplements includes Naturally Pomegranate, Naturally Thai Mangosteen, Agrolabs Cranberry and Naturally Noni. The products, which have a two-year shelf life and keep refrigerated for 60 days after opening, are available nationally in clubstores in 32-oz glass bottles. A 24-oz size is available regionally through mass merchandisers, health food stores and other health product retailers.

Soon after the introduction of the beverages, the company decided to move the bottles from paper pressure-sensitive labels to full-body shrink film labels made of polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polymer made from corn or plant sugar. A culmination of about six months of research and application, fueled by the desire to curb dependence on finite environmental resources, the breakthrough labels are converted and printed in rollform by Seal-It Inc., a div. of Printpack (, which says the AgroLabs' application is the first use of its PLA shrink labels for a beverage such as these supplements. Seal-It began working on the project nearly a year ago and trials took place over the summer.

Each full-sleeve label provides convenience, with the look, feel and performance of petroleum-based films, yet is made from a 100-percent annually renewable, natural resource.

One of the fastest-growing segments in labeling, shrink labels seemed to make sense for AgroLabs. Shrink labels made from annual crops seemed to make even more sense. While the proprietary, long-neck, flint glass bottles remain structurally the same as before, the move to PLA labels coincides with its decision to eliminate the use of a printed, paperboard folding carton containing each bottle.

The full-sleeve labels provide ample room for graphics and product information. “The initial thought about packing the bottles in cartons was to protect the glass, and it would continue the product theme with a full-carton graphics design, but we replaced the carton because the bottle breakage is minimal during shipping,” explains Christina Kay, vp of logistics at Integrated BioPharma and vp/director of AgroLabs. “We decided, as a company, to be more eco-friendly. We made the switch to PLA labels and wanted to 'come out of the box,' if you will, to start using more environmentally friendly packaging. The PLA label is a biodegradable product. Since we already use recyclable glass containers, it made sense to label them with these custom sleeves, which aren't harmful to the environment.”


Attractive and eye-catching, the new shrink sleeve labels began appearing on the 32-oz bottle size in November 2007 and will appear on the 24-oz bottle in early 2008, Kay says. The labels help to reinforce the “purity,” “natural” and “close to nature” commitment and positioning of the Naturally line of liquid nutritional supplements, while the biodegradable PLA film requires less heat to shrink the label onto the package, says the co. That can increase line efficiencies and save energy and resources.

The film in AgroLabs' case is called EarthFirst®, made by biopolymer resin converter Plastic Suppliers, Inc. (, Columbus, OH, using NatureWorks LLC's ( Ingeo™ biopolymer resin made from plant sugar. Plastic Suppliers spent considerable research and development time on the project and got input from EarthFirst cobranding partners like Seal-It in engineering a commercially viable, shrinkable material for packaging applications such as folding-carton windows, bag windows, bag laminations, container lidding, twist-wraps and floral wraps, as well as shrink film. Seal-It reverse-prints the film for Agro's 50-micron (nearly 2 mils) bottle labels by gravure in eight colors at the Printpack converting plant in Farmingdale, NY.

Seal-It says the film has proven to be competitive with most petroleum-based films in both its characteristics and its cost. Seal-It began offering EarthFirst PLA labels commercially just more than a year ago and says they are heat-shrinkable and suitable for any shrink-sleeve labeling project. The NatureWorks resin technology involves harvesting starch stored in natural plant sugars that is fermented into lactic acid. The lactic acid is used to create clear plastic resin pellets, or PLA, that can be used for rigid packaging and film.

NatureWorks (formerly Cargill Dow) christened its first large-scale production facility in Blair, NE, in 2002 for the manufacture of PLA, with an estimated output of 300,000 million lb of resin per year—half of which was slated for packaging applications. Unlike polyethylene terephthalate or petroleum-based plastics, products made from EarthFirst PLA film have the flexibility to be disposed of in several ways, such as commercial composting. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) approved EarthFirst PLA film as a compostable material, which undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with other compostable material and leaves no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.

According to Rich Eichfeld, vp of business development for Plastic Suppliers, his firm first began making PLA film nearly four years ago: “We had considered using it prior to that, but it was too costly. Once NatureWorks LLC's manufacturing methods gained economies of scale, it became more feasible for us.”

During EarthFirst's year in development for use in shrink film labeling, Plastic Suppliers asked Seal-It to test EarthFirst PLA TDO film on its converting equipment. Demonstrating excellent printability and machinability characteristics, the label film is now available from Seal-It in 2- and 2.4-mil thicknesses. The film is scuff-resistant, compliant with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and offers about a 75 percent shrink in the transverse direction.

Luxurious and vividly colored, the revised label graphics for AgroLabs, designed by Pelham, NY-based Made by the Girl (, showcase a lush illustration of the primary fruit ingredient in the drink on a graduating background in color-coded tones keyed to the fruit ingredients, such as warm reds, oranges and yellows or deep purples, golds, greens and plums or pomegranate pinks, reds and creams. On some of the bottles, the shoulders feature an eye-catching swirl design in deep colors.

The full-body label for AgroLabs' Cranberry nutraceutical beverage features a scenic lighthouse landscape illustration and a cluster of cranberries against a graduated blue/green background. The AgroLabs logo appears at the bottle shoulder for each of the flavors, followed by the brand name, product description and the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity per oz, or ORAC statement.

“We just began including the ORAC statements on the products with the conversion to the new PLA labels,” Kay says. ORAC is a method of mesuring antioxidant capacities of different foods, according to the bottle label.

The back panels tell the product story, list the supplements' health benefits and in some cases describe the prime ingredient's history. Also listed is a facts statement and an understanding of the ORAC scores of the beverage.

148851-pdx0801agro2.jpgWith a main goal of “changing the world, one healthy person at a time,” according to a company slogan, Agro recognizes the importance of package sustainability and the environment. Now, its bottle labels also include a statement headed with, “Where's the Box?,” followed by, “In an effort to help protect our environment, reduce trash and conserve, AgroLabs has redesigned our products without the box. Furthermore, the shrink label used is made from corn, so it is environmentally friendly as well. We embrace the tremendous responsibility we have, as leaders in our industry, to use our talents, resources and technologies to provide the finest products in a manner that protects our precious environment.”

Adds Kay: “We have done shipping tests on the bottles without using the printed carton and the shipping damages are no greater. The new labels are quite scuff-resistant and provide colors that are vibrant and glossy.”

While she admits that AgroLabs experienced a learning curve with the new labeling format and some challenges involved in adopting PLA labels, representatives from Seal-It and Plastics Suppliers helped sort through the production issues and sleeve application.

“We found out that some colors don't work very well and there were some production issues to start with,” she notes. “But the graphic distortion is minimal on our packaging. We avoided putting graphics in those areas that cause distortion, such as the neck area. And Seal-It provided us with grid film so that we knew where most of the distortion would take place. We had samples made with our art before we went to press so all in all, the package development took only a few months.”

Paul Pritchett, sales and marketing manager for the Seal-It Div. of Printpack, says that the performance and characteristics of PLA are competitive with traditional petroleum-based films. “Seal-It's labels are one-hundred-percent PLA. There are no special handling requirements for PLA versus any other film. PLA behaves similarly to other shrink films and yet it's different in that it has a higher shrink percentage on the container than most other films. Also, the shrink initiates at a lower temperature in the heat tunnel.”

Seal-It's converting process is similar, he observes, to those for petroleum-based films. “PETG is the only other shrink film that has a comparable or slightly higher shrink,” he says. “We also offer PETG [shrink labels] and have significant experience working with that substrate. PLA is suitable for all shrink sleeve-packaging applications. It has excellent printability. We have thoroughly tested PLA, but prefer to keep our test methods confidential. Overall, working with PLA has been smooth. Our experience with it is that it machines well.”

The key petroleum-based plastics that compete with PLA, both in film and rigid container applications, are polyethylyene terephthlatate glycol (PETG), recycled PETG (RPETG), polyvinyl chloride and oriented polystyrene (OPS). Each has its advantages. PVC is less expensive and is highly machinable, but it continues to raise pollution issues because it is said to emit small amounts of vinyl chloride monomer during compounding.

Popular outside the U.S., OPS is generally less expensive than PETG and as a shrink film, tends to performs smoothly, PD is told. But OPS and PET aren't without their own environmental concerns in terms of acidification, eutrophication and photochemical oxidation.

AgroLabs uses a contract packager near Dallas to apply the bottle labels, PD is told, and they needed new applicating equipment parts and shrink tunnel parts to run the PLA sleeves. “The significant aspect here is that we were looking at the environmental issues,” Kay points out. “Retail buyers like the new bottle labels for the environmental benefits.” As of presstime, the newly labeled bottles were just making their way into stores. “They're so new that we haven't gotten a response from consumers yet,” she relates. “We hope that people like the new design and appreciate that fact that we are looking toward more environmentally friendly products. The 32-ounce is just going into clubstores now, but the 24-oz size currently available in stores isn't labeled in PLA yet.” Kay says the package for additional products in the Naturally line will more than likely incorporate PLA labels. “We have three new items that will be available in the PLA label in 2008,” she tells PD. “We plan on working with Seal-It in the future. Our next project is to redesign labels for our 16-ounce line.”

More information is available:

Seal-It, Inc., a div. of Printpack, Inc., 800/325-3965.

Made by the Girl, 914/740-3318.

NatureWorks LLC, 877/423-7659.

Plastic Suppliers, Inc., 800/722-5577.

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