3 Ways the Print Industry Can Support Environmental Sustainability Demands

By Richard Gearing


Brands the world over have made pledges and commitments relating to environmental sustainability factors, of which improvements to packaging play a significant part. For most these commitments are due to be met by 2025 and 2030—a timeframe that is leaving many brand owners scrabbling to make up ground.

In addition, brands no longer want to be seen to be working with suppliers who do not prioritise sustainability and who cannot prove their status as a sustainable company.
As a print supplier, what can be done to meet—or to get ahead of—brand requests as it relates to the packaging you produce for them? Below, we offer 3 sustainable considerations for the print industry:  
    1.    Substrates 
Whether you buy in substrates from third parties or have the capability and infrastructure to produce your own, the make-up of those substrates has never been more important. Recycled papers and boards, paper-based bags and wraps, and recyclable soft plastics will be in high demand as will home-compostable solutions.    

You also should be prepared to share details on the substrate’s composition such that recycling streams can be correctly identified and any on-pack claims about the packaging can be supported. 
Substrates that enable improvements in recycling—particularly in label-based applications—can have significant impacts. While a label accounts for less than 5% of a complete pack, it could be the one thing that prevents that pack from being recycled effectively.    

The use of substrates and adhesives that separate easily is quickly becoming paramount and will become more critical as such incremental gains could become the difference between not meeting, meeting, or exceeding stated commitments.
Identifying innovations in substrates presents a real opportunity too—particularly as brand owners are now more likely to consider non-traditional substrates and pack formats to reduce pack sizes, improve recyclability, use a substrate with a higher content of recycled material, or to be seen as pioneers by using substrates that can claim circularity. As experts on the substrates you work with daily and the structures and pack formats you create and deliver, you are well-positioned to identify opportunities to do things differently.
In addition, being able to present alternatives to pack elements that may previously never have been given much thought—such as plastic product windows on display boxes—may give rise to further innovation and generate new opportunities.    

Be it eliminating them completely, making them easier to remove, changing the material they’re made from or making them in a way that simplifies recycling streams, innovations to such elements will create a point of difference that could benefit you and the brand owner.
    2.    Inks & Colour, Print Methods & Machinery 
With changes in the substrates, think about the impacts in managing the inks and colours on them. Recycled boards and uncoated paper-based substrates are better for the environment, but they tend to absorb more ink, leading to changes in density and with knock-on effects on tones and shades.
In addition, the inks used may impact recyclability and could harm the ability to make certain claims, such as packaging being home-compostable. Soy-based inks are perhaps the most prominent alternative to traditional petroleum-based inks and are easily removed for recycling as well as being safe for home composting, breaking down as much as 400% faster than more traditional inks. 
Vegetable-based inks are also easy to remove for recycling and are particularly well-suited to recycled papers. Algae inks clean off flexo printing presses incredibly easily and offer darker and more UV-resistant blacks. Finally, water-based inks eliminate the need for chemicals and solvents and work particularly well in flexo applications.
Other opportunities exist in terms of converting to standard ink sets. CMYK is the obvious solution here, but Extended Colour Gamut (ECG) presents opportunities to standardize colours across a SKU set, thereby increasing the potential to rationalize printing plates by ganging up SKUs across a print run rather than running each SKU separately. This will bring efficiencies in ink use as well as cost benefits due to no longer needing to order special inks.
Machinery and technology could also bolster sustainable services, such as on-demand print and web-to-print. These are perhaps better geared towards digital print, but the approach enables all parties to avoid excess printed materials being produced, leading to unnecessary waste of substrates, ink, and resources. 
In terms of plates, water-washable plates eliminate chemicals from the plate-cleaning process, further supplementing the considerations and benefits regarding sustainable ink choices. Going one step further, laser plate cleaning could be adopted, thereby saving water too—an approach that can also prolong the life of anilox rollers.
Regenerative drive technology generates energy as machines run up and slow down. This energy is then stored for use during production. Many print machines can be upgraded to include this technology, resulting in more energy-efficient operations and making you a more sustainable print provider.
Finally, adding artificial intelligence technology in the form of camera-based impression and registration checks offers further opportunities to eliminate waste. These would likely catch print errors before an operator would, stopping machines much sooner and ensuring minimal loss of substrates, ink, and resources.
    3.    Industry Bodies & Recruitment 
Where relevant to your region, becoming members of initiatives such as Carbon Balanced Print enables you to prove your credentials relating to CO2 emissions and show that you are committed to using sustainable substrates.
Aligning with scoring platforms, such as EcoVadis, CDP and Sedex, will also provide you with an official score of factors, including your carbon footprint, greenhouse gases, and sustainable procurement practices—not only showing your intent to be transparent but also giving you a baseline from which you can develop an improvement plan.
Finally, the act of employing someone to manage sustainability within your business both proves your intent and gives your customers a point-person to speak to directly about this topic.
As you go on this journey and develop solutions, consider whether you could ‘open source’ your learnings too. Whilst it may feel uncomfortable sharing your pioneering developments, you will no doubt benefit in the long run from sharing within the print industry to bring the whole industry along a more sustainable path.
About Richard Gearing
Rich has spent more than 20 years working in packaging-related roles spanning FMCG/CPG, pharma, food & beverage and retail, with a recent focus on Sustainability and SGK's global rebrand. As a member of SGK's Consulting group, his work involves the effective onboarding of new SGK customers, identifying the potential to simplify client processes and ways of working, finding ways to amplify efficiency and speed-to-market and generally looking for opportunities to 'do stuff better'. Rich is a certified change management practitioner.