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A Joined-Up Approach to Adhesives and Sustainability

Tape and adhesive manufacturers are working to enhance the sustainability of their products, but collaboration throughout the supply chain and beyond is also critical.

While media headlines over the past 18 months have been largely dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on environmental impact and climate change has never been far away. More recently, it has come to particular prominence ahead of the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference that will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, as well as the extreme weather conditions experienced by several U.S. states.

For most businesses, sustainability has already been high on their agendas for many years. Such a focus is not being driven solely by legislators or the actions of climate activists. Consumers are increasingly finding a voice too, and they are voting with their purchasing decisions, demanding and seeking out sustainably designed products. For this reason, sustainability benefits are no longer a “nice-to-have” option but have become a “must-have” requirement.

Nevertheless, in the development or enhancement of any product, it is vital to remember why it is being or was introduced in the first place. The reason will usually be to satisfy a particular need or set of requirements, and the solution devised will often solve a problem or offer improvements or special benefits for end users.

This is undoubtedly true of the many different types of tapes and adhesives that have been developed over the years. These products’ diversity and versatility mean tapes and adhesives can provide effective solutions across a broad range of markets and applications, including, aerospace, appliance, automotive, building and construction, e-commerce, marine, healthcare, abatement and remediation, home improvement/DIY, and many more.

The range of materials and manufacturing techniques involved in the production of pressure-sensitive adhesive tapes enable the products to meet myriad requirements, from simply providing effective sealing to dealing with specific issues such as protection from water, moisture, and air vapor and flashing for the construction sector. In addition, the transportation industry involves special requirements such as wrapping and protecting wire harness assemblies, as well as the installation of commercial aircraft carpet. In the medical industry, tapes’ strength, flexibility, and ease of use deliver valuable benefits for wound covering, surgical drape, and attachment of patient monitoring devices.

Underlying all these applications is the need for the products to maintain a consistently high, long-lasting, and reliable performance while meeting stringent industry standards and specifications. For this reason, it is essential that any sustainability enhancements are introduced without compromising these benefits to ensure that every tape and adhesive solution continues to meet end-use requirements.

Sustainable Products

The good news is that the industry can and is doing a lot to focus on sustainability issues. One area is lightweighting, where the goal is to reduce the overall amount of material used in a given application. This is where technical expertise is particularly critical to ensure that a reduction in weight does not compromise performance in any way.

In aerospace applications, for example, there are goals to develop lighter weight carpet installation tapes that will help to further improve aircraft fuel efficiency. In the medical and healthcare sector, one focus is on the production of nonwoven materials and foam tapes with lower weight and density without sacrificing performance or patient comfort. Developing new adhesive formulations and substrates for flashing tapes in construction applications allows a reduction in material usage while still meeting building code requirements.

Another important initiative in the tapes and adhesives sector is the development of products with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This is leading to an increase in use of low-emitting materials, as well as water-based and solvent-free adhesives.

The industry is also looking to introduce more products that enable recycling, including everything from seam tape for medical gowns to tapes for the temporary hold-down of reusable carpets for the convention and airline industries, as well as products that incorporate recycled content. A recent product design enhancement involved the development of a self-wound flashing tape, which eliminates the need for a release liner. An important benefit is that it helps to reduce waste since it eliminates the need to dispose of the liner.

Sustainable Operations

Companies are also working to minimize the impact of their operations in areas such as increasing internal recycling and reuse, which in turn will reduce the amount of waste to landfill. Other initiatives include investing in technology for improved machine efficiencies, tighter machine tolerances, and actions to reduce electricity and water usage or introduce renewable energy.

At the same time, what all these examples demonstrate is that delivering effective sustainability solutions is a multi-faceted task. There is no silver bullet and no single action that can achieve all goals. What is vitally important, therefore, is that businesses take a holistic approach and work in partnership with their customers and suppliers as the world continues the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

Partnering with customers and suppliers that can support a company’s sustainability objectives and commitments is important. The use of returnable and reusable packaging is one example; others include returnable drums for adhesives and returnable racks or larger bulk packages rather than smaller cartons or boxes for high-volume supplies. Boxes and the cardboard cores for tape rolls can contain recycled content (up to 100% in the case of the latter).

By working closely with their customers, companies will similarly be able to align more easily with the customers’ sustainability goals. They can also help customers understand and navigate ever-changing legislation, which can differ from region to region and continent to continent.

What is also vital is having a wider discussion focusing on the whole question of sustainability. Consumers are demanding sustainable products, but their understanding of what exactly is sustainable may be limited or sometimes misinformed. Governments and legislators may not always be in possession of all the facts when deciding on the implementation of new regulations and requirements. Greater understanding is required in areas such as why a product is manufactured in a certain way or the implications of introducing any perceived sustainability benefit.

Sustainable Collaborations

Creating products that deliver on sustainability while retaining their functionality and performance requires a joined-up approach that includes the entire supply chain. Additional entities should also be involved, including governments, non-government organizations (NGOs), environmental organizations, and end consumers.

If we are to increase the recyclability of products, for example, it is essential that effective collection schemes are in place and consumers are encouraged to use them. This groundwork would help ensure the greater availability of recycled content, which could contribute to an increase the design and manufacture of products that are able to incorporate recycled materials. Such collaborative action will ensure that tapes and adhesives can continue to meet the needs of many different applications while supporting the sustainability aspirations of companies and consumers.

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