Sustainable development is the main trend in flexographic printing

While cost and quality issues have long impacted the use of environmentally friendly materials in flexo printing shops, brand and consumer demands are forcing a shift in our industry. Processors and suppliers alike are committed to creating a circular economy to help brands achieve their lofty goals.

From a height of 30,000 feet, society as a whole is striving for sustainable development. The United States alone consumes 5.1 earths per year, while the world consumes 1.75 earths per year. The world reached its capacity limit on August 2, 2023, demonstrating the untenability of our approach.

While 47% of the top 500 companies reduced emissions, the overall net gain was still 1.5% as 29% of the top companies increased emissions. Society needs to reduce emissions by 8% annually to meet the requirement of reducing temperatures by 1.5°C by 2050.

From labels to flexible packaging, there are inherent challenges. In flexible packaging, many films cannot be efficiently recycled, and end users are unwilling to pay twice as much for compostable films. At the 2024 FTA Forum and INFOFLEX, many industry experts detailed the various efforts made by suppliers to protect the environment.

However, the company is making great strides. For example, Emerald Packaging, which is certified as a California Green Business, prioritizes sustainability levels, practices, materials and compliance with legislation. The company also captures 99.9% of VOCs, and without these numbers the press cannot operate.

“99% of everything we do is recycled because our inks are reprocessed and solvents are recycled,” explains James Dye, press manager at Emerald Packaging. “We use automation in the manufacturing process to prevent Overmixing of chemicals and adhesives. Our machines also use less temperature, energy, water and overall resources to meet throughput standards.

“At Emerald Packaging, we have introduced 5% PCR in all resins and films in general,” Dye added. “Among our customers, our top three customers have committed to 30% using PCR.”

FTA polling shows that 87% of members have set internal sustainability targets. The company is currently tracking electricity consumption, landfill waste, water consumption and more, with the biggest contributor to waste being substrates.

Other challenges include perceptions of recyclable materials. Day said it was important to note that food waste accounts for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but there have been calls to ban extended shelf life packaging. Legislation is being introduced across North America to require single-use packaging to be recyclable by 2030.

“As a manufacturing industry, we need to push for legislation that is sensible and makes sense for producers, users and customers,” Day said.

Among other goals, the label and packaging printing industry needs to promote circularity, create recyclable packaging where possible, activate PCR supply chains by driving demand, and reduce sources through the design and manufacture of sustainable materials.

“We’ve made significant progress over the past five years,” said ePac’s Amy Golden. “PCR is already widely used and demand for sustainable packaging is rising from consumers, brands and processors.”

“There are many associations around the world dedicated to design guidelines and good practices, such as RecyClass, Ceflex and our APR in North America,” adds Ashish Datt of Siegwerk.

The move to LED boards has also become a focus for flexible printing. Allie Ayers of DuPont says that for a trade shop with an average plate consumption of 13 plates per eight-hour shift, energy savings of 41% can be achieved; for a converter with an average plate consumption of 6 plates per shift, 41% can be achieved. Save 59% energy. The reduction in waste can be traced to the elimination of the need to replace mercury-containing UV lamps every 800 hours.

“DuPont is continuing to invest in thermal plate processing, which is common in narrow markets,” Ayers added.

Hot plate processing reduces electricity consumption by 81% and VOC emissions by 99.8%.

Miraclon’s John Anderson also focused on the role of flexo printing plates in sustainable development. “For me, flexo and flexographic printing are very important and they are a key part of sustainability,” he said. “The question is what happens to the printing plate? What happens to the printing press outweighs the role of the printing plate in sustainability. I agree, LED is the future, but we need to explore how to make it work better for brands and end users.

“The board is making the entire process from slitting, laminating and even extrusion more efficient,” he added.

The autumn meeting of the FTA will also emphasize sustainability. Anderson said the industry needed to support initiatives such as the Waste Recycling Alliance.

“We’re moving toward doing more with less,” Anderson explains. “We have to reduce dot gain and keep it consistent, and control unnecessary ink spread. To me, the number one enemy is spot color. The more we turn to overprinting, the better we will be. Spot color is the key in flexo printing The most expensive option to run as the inks are expensive and the throughput is high, plus you need to change anilox rollers, extra drying, etc. which slows down the printing speed.

“Making our presses more efficient and more profitable,” Anderson concludes.

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