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Can this 3M pilot project on liner waste recycling become an industry practice?

By N Jayalakshmi - October 07, 2022

A white paper by graphics major 3M pilot documents the processes and results of a pilot project initiated by the company. It highlights the why’s and how’s of recycling liner paper waste, a key element in large format graphics applications. The liner waste is potentially hazardous when dumped in landfills or incinerated. Liner recycling initiatives need to be scaled up to involve the entire ecosystem to make a meaningful difference.

Sustainability or an environmentally responsible way of doing business can no longer afford to be confined to the luxury of choice. It is necessary, given the accelerated rate of environmental impact and climate changes being experienced worldwide. More and more businesses, organisations and individuals are waking up to the fact that every small action or inaction of theirs in their daily life can have a long-term impact on the environment and, therefore, the quality of their lives. In sustainable practice, waste management is a highly critical area with substantial environmental implications. But any meaningful intervention in this area to yield visible, large scale and tangible results would require government regulations and industry ecosystems to work together to implement processes. The starting point for this would be pilot projects and case studies to find sustainable ways of waste disposal.

Graphics major 3M recently initiated a pilot project to evaluate sustainable ways of disposing graphic film and liner waste produced during conversion and end-of-life disposal of self-adhesive vinyl films. Of the waste produced, the poly-coated paper liner is a white densified kraft paper liner with a silicone release coating facing the adhesive side. The silicone side of the liner is designed to provide a non-stick surface. The paper liner is removed from the graphic film during application to the substrate and, after that, disposed of as waste.

Workflow of the Waste Liner Recycling - Picture courtesy 3M

Why recycle liner paper waste?

As the 3M white paper based on the pilot project explains, the liner paper has value only until it is with the end products (films). As soon as the product is applied to the substrate, the liner becomes waste. The liner paper waste is either incinerated or landfilled, which is hazardous and will pollute the environment. But if the paper liner is recycled, it prevents the need to use new raw materials, saves energy, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and waste in landfills.

Some quick facts here would help set the context better :

*Each ton (2000 pounds) of recycled paper can save:

  • 17 trees
  • 380 gallons4 of oil
  • three cubic yards of landfill space
  • 4000 kilowatts of energy
  • 7000 gallons of water.

*The above represents an energy saving of 64%, a water saving of 58%, and 60 pounds less of air pollution.

(*Source: 3M White Paper)

Also, as the team from 3M that was involved in the project points out further, while talking about the project and explaining the need to recycle liner paper, “Liner is an integral part of any self-adhesive film construction that gets discarded during graphic application. The most common liner construction uses paper and thus has a potential for being recycled. Due to the lack of a qualified process or mechanism, the manufacturers choose to discard the liner as industrial waste. A qualified process and collaboration between the manufacturer and recycler can help recycle this product, ultimately reducing GHG emissions, energy consumption, and environmental waste. Recycling contributes to the zero-waste strategy, which encourages the redesign of resource life cycles and lesser trash sent to landfills or incineration.”

Pilot project to explore viability

Given these facts, 3M embarked on the pilot project to recycle liner wastes. The objective of the project itself was to recycle and convert paper liner waste into a valuable form of the fibre-based product rather than be disposed of in a landfill and thus promote circularity and align with 3M’s strategic sustainability framework and sustainability goals.  

The team worked with a vendor specialised in paper pulp moulding to design and establish the recycling process and convert the 3M paper liner waste (coated with Polyethene)  into an industrial fibre-based product. The process meant integrating the unique design methodology of separating the Polyethylene content from the paper pulp, and the research methodology itself involved intense background study by the concerned 3M team.


The project demonstrated that discarded 3M paper liner could be recycled and converted to products that can be used in the following applications:

• Industrial packaging

• Farm packaging (Egg trays)

• Duplex Boards

• Paper-based pallet used in packaging,

• Packaging for  ceiling fans

• Wall Panels (Replacements for MDF boards)

Project takeaways

As the white paper points out, “3M generates approximately 3.6 million sq. ft. of paper liner waste every month (8,000 rolls sold per month X 450 Avg sq. ft), which creates environmental pollution and increases carbon footprint. This process helps in converting this waste into fibre-based moulded products. Recycling the 3M Paper liner waste is the need of the hour.”

Sharing some key learnings from the project and the challenges involved, the project team further adds, “The construction of a liner consists of layers of plastic and paper. To recycle paper and plastic individually, they need to be separated. It was a difficult task to find a recycler who could manage this effectively. The recycled products also need to pass certain tests, such as burst strength, among many others. For the recycled paper to meet the specification, the right blend of the paper from liner and other waste must be used. It was a challenging task to determine this and required multiple trials. Mass adoption of this process will require the qualification of multiple recyclers across India. Establishing this capability will be critical for this project to succeed.”

Indeed, projects of this kind can become an industry practice only when the whole ecosystem comes together and adopts best practices and standards.

As the 3M team sums it up, “India as a nation is committed to sustainable goals, and we believe that the graphic industry will be playing its part to help the nation succeed. From small beginnings come great things, and we at 3M hope the industry will contribute to adopting sustainable practices.”

3M Project Team members:

Aby Varghese

Ketan Das

Amit Rao

Rachita P

Sumit Joshi


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