Understanding the Role of Inks in Sustainability
Inks and coatings are manufactured to improve eco-efficiency in the pressroom and deliver value that benefits brand owners and consumers.
The word “sustainability” is all the rage these days. On the one hand, 56% of U.S. consumers want more sustainable packaging, according to Asia Pulp & Paper. On the other hand, consumers are hesitant to simply trust a brand claiming to be “green.”
Consumers today are savvy. With all kinds of hard data right at their fingertips to investigate whether a green claim is true or not, brands need to do more than simply use phrases like “green,” “environmentally friendly” or “sustainable” in their marketing.
Packaging printers, in particular, have to show a willingness to follow the guidelines and standards set by global retailers like Walmart, Target and Home Depot. These companies and others make it a priority to partner with brands that utilize printing converters who integrate environmentally friendly practices.
Much of the design and standards for packaging today are driven by retailers. Walmart, for example, wants packaging that is safe, affordable, recyclable and optimized, while promoting sustainable materials. Target expects packaging to meet the guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greener Living Sustainable Packaging Program, utilizing recycled or renewable content and no chemical of “high concern.”
A brand that takes dedicated steps to vet and study the environmental practices implemented by their suppliers and partners will be rewarded by consumer and retailer loyalty.
What Does “Sustainable” Mean?
Using printing inks as an example, a converter’s definition of a successful “sustainable ink” could be as simple as how well the ink and materials interact with each other to synergize the printing process. For example, inks that improve productivity on press or reduce waste could be seen in a converter’s eyes as green.
That definition, however, is quite nebulous. Three key regulatory terms that are commonly used in the packaging industry are biodegradable, bio-renewable and eco-friendly.
Biodegradability is the ability of a material to be broken down by microorganisms. More relevant for sustainability is compostability, where that microorganism breakdown occurs within a set time, and with the important parameters of water, oxygen and temperature defined.
Unlike industrial composting facilities (temp 55°C to 60°C, EN13432), home composting conditions refer to environments where products compost at lower temperatures so they can go into any ordinary compost heap at home. The temperature in a garden compost heap is lower and less constant than in an industrial composting environment. This is why composting in the garden is usually a more difficult, slower-paced process.
Sun Chemical offers a comprehensive and growing range of TÜV Austria-certified compostable solutions that can be used on a wide range of substrates. In order for one final packaging product to be home compostable and/or industrially compostable, the substrate and all of the applied components also need to be home compostable and/or industrially compostable.
According to the USA National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM), a bio-renewable ink is derived from tree, plant, insect and/or animal materials. These can include resins, gums, oils, waxes, solvents and other polymer building blocks.
NAPIM’s Biorenewable Content (BRC) program assigns inks an index number, which gives an independent verification that an ink contains a certain percentage of bio-renewable content. An index number of 60, for example, means that the ink contains 60% bio-renewable content. For the purposes of the BRC program, NAPIM also considers water as a renewable component in an ink.
For its part, Sun Chemical has responded to the industry challenges by rolling out a line of inks that meet the bio-renewable standards that the industry, retailers and consumers are looking for.
Sun Chemical’s SunVisto® AquaGreen water-based inks are formulated with high levels of bio-renewable sourced resins. The inks also deliver the required critical performance attributes needed across a range of paper packaging applications.
Organizations like NAPIM already rate water-based inks highly because water is renewable; but by moving beyond just water with higher levels of bio-renewable resin content, these inks truly do meet the smell test of environmental claims of a “greener ink.”
Eco-efficiency refers to sustainable materials management for packaging. Many programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred® Program, offer incentives for businesses to increase the usage of renewable agricultural resources in their products.
Most of Sun Chemical’s sheet-fed offset inks contain a high proportion of renewable raw materials derived from wood and vegetable oil sources, such as soy, rapeseed, sunflower or coconut. The degree of renewable carbon can be assessed by the C14 test method, which is usually used to determine the age of historic findings. According to this test method, most of Sun Chemical’s SunLit® and SunPak® series of inks, for instance, exceed 70% bio-renewable materials. “Old” carbon is mainly comprised of synthetic organic pigments.
Inks that meet these requirements should be free of, or only have trace levels of, heavy metals and reduce volatile organic compounds that are released in the atmosphere. They certainly shouldn’t include any EPA-designated toxins, such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and chlorofluorocarbons.
Designing Inks that Improve the Eco-efficiency of Processes
On a macro scale, printers need to deliver packaging to their brand-owner customers that meets retailer green scorecard demands, including lower-weight packaging to reduce gas usage in trucks, extended shelf life and waste reduction, improved recycling streams, the ability to meet compostability standards and more.
On a micro scale, printers also need to do their part to show environmental stewardship by reducing volatile organic compounds and waste, streamlining processes, and reducing inventory.
Inks and coatings are manufactured to both improve eco-efficiency in the pressroom and deliver value that benefits the brand owner and, ultimately, the consumer.
For example, many converters use a variety of ink systems for the different printing presses in their shop. Having a single ink that can be used on multiple platforms would not only help printers improve their environmental positioning but allow them to maximize pressroom efficiency and productivity, which ultimately improves the bottom line.
The packaging market’s need for products that deliver enhanced shelf life, as well as sustainable and compostable metal-free solutions, can be addressed through a revolutionary approach that replaces current barrier technology with printable oxygen-barrier coatings.
Consumers and brand owners alike expect PET bottles to be recycled, but far too many end up in landfills because the label wouldn’t come off. To solve this challenge, Sun Chemical developed a deseamable adhesive that helps recyclers improve recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) yield without process changes or investments in new equipment.
Acknowledged as a “Responsible Innovation” by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), this technology enables the removal of the shrink sleeve label from the container during the whole bottle wash step, prior to sorting, in the wet recycling process.
Meeting the Compliance Challenge
Brand owners and their supply chain partners have the responsibility to ensure safe packaging and compliance with all regulations worldwide. Focus on food safety is now at an all-time high, and brand owners need to scrutinize their supply chain from all angles to minimize risk.
The term “migration-compliant packaging” is commonly used to designate materials used in the packaging structure that don’t contain components that move from the packaging into the product. The levels of compounds that do migrate should be below the amount that has an effect on the properties of the packaged product.
New UV and electron-beam inks for primary and secondary food packaging need to be compliant with the strictest global standards in the marketplace, including Nestlé food packaging requirements and Swiss Ordinance chemical composition requirements. They also need to meet the latest photoinitiator-safe packaging guidelines, including no inks made with Bisphenol A (BPA)-based materials.
Ink suppliers, converters and other converter partners can play a key role in helping achieve a brand, retailer and/or consumer’s sustainability initiatives or requirements. No matter the desired approach — biodegradable, bio-renewable or eco-friendly — working together to achieve sustainability objectives is really a win-win for everyone. Consumers have peace of mind. Retailers and brands are trusted for going above and beyond simple greenwashing. Converters and suppliers, such as ink manufacturers, benefit too, because being sustainable is also good for business.