Worries about climate change and an over-dependence on fossil fuels have led to a sudden rise in concerns about the environment and energy security among European consumers, which is likely to become even more intense over the next few years.
Retail groups and brand owners have responded to these anxieties by demanding that printers and other suppliers ensure that their products are more than compliant with environmental regulations. They are being asked to meet new voluntary standards, some of them drawn up by the retail companies and consumer product manufacturers themselves.
“In sectors like sheetfed, the great majority of printers in most of northern Europe now want the choice of being able to buy inks which can be regarded as eco-friendly,” said Willem Rose, a marketing manager at Royal Van Son, Hilversum, Netherlands.
Politicians in Europe are now becoming more active in trying to improve environmental standards in certain sectors like the printing industry and its suppliers.
“While the commercial environment is under pressure, environmental pressures of a political kind are being felt,” said Nikolaus Broschek, president of the European Rotogravure Association (ERA).
Countries within the EU have been introducing their own eco-labeling plans for the printing industry. Scandinavian states have brought in the Nordic Environmental Labelling Licence (the Swan Label), which denotes that printed matter complies with the system’s stringent environmental requirements.
Government departments in some northern European countries are now laying down specifications for printing contracts which demand the use of particular types of paper and inks and other consumables.
Some retail and consumer product companies are even setting their own targets for recycling and the use of biodegradable packaging.
Sainsbury, one of the UK’s biggest supermarket companies, was expecting by the end of 2007 to have all its organic foods wrapped in biodegradable packaging. This objective would be extended to all fresh produce by 2009. In addition, it would like the biodegradable packaging materials, including the inks, to be compostable at the homes of consumers.
“There is no doubt that the process the retailers have started in green packaging forces all suppliers to study their own processes and procedures to see what can be done to improve – or minimize – any negative environmental impact,” said Jesper Goul-Jensen, head of biomaterials products at R. Faerch Plast, a Danish packaging company.
While printers are acknowledging the necessity to become greener in order to fit in with the needs of their customers, they are not rushing to reorganize their activities. Nor are many of them looking to use environmentally compliant inks which are, for example, based on renewable materials like vegetable oils.
“Only a relatively small proportion of printers – probably around 10 percent – are actually demanding inks based on renewables,” said John Adkin, European product director for sheetfed and UV inks at Sun Chemical. “Most printers are interested in these types of inks, but that is not the same as actually asking for the inks.”
Surveys of the UK’s 11,000 printers have found that only a small minority have adopted the ISO 14001 standard, which provides a management system for improving environmental performance. Even among the country’s top 200 printing company, only 24 percent were complying with the standard.
Nonetheless, some of the larger printing services companies across Europe are taking a lead by stipulating that their suppliers must raise their eco levels. Communisis, a leading London-based print and print management company, has told all its suppliers that it expects them to adopt ISO 14001 and to have energy and waste reduction programs.
Communisis recently handled the printing of the membership magazine of the UK’s Co-operative Group, the world’s largest consumer co-operative and one of the country’s greenest brands. The printing job involved the use of recycled paper and the sourcing and testing of vegetable inks which did not need the application of solvents or chemicals to clean the presses.
“As a green brand, it’s vitally important for us to lead and to demonstrate what we are doing within the area of waste reduction and sustainability,” said Anne Byrom, the Co-operative Group’s production manager.
Gravure printers have responded to the desire for greener printing by reducing to minimal amounts emissions of toluene solvents, about which there are health concerns, and switching to resins based on renewables. Nearly 95 percent of toluene in gravure printers is now reused while approximately 85 percent of resins in gravure inks are derived from tall oil rosin, gum rosin or other renewables, according to ERA.
Ink companies in Europe have been responding to these trends by conforming to eco standards in their own operations and also by providing products which enable printers to protect the environment.
Stehlin Hostag, the Swiss-based arm of the Huber Group, which adheres to ISO 14001, has reduced its packaging by 80 percent in two years. It has virtually eliminated the traditional method of the loose handling of dry pigment by pumping it instead from silos directly to the production batches. Use of automated pumping and dispensing systems throughout its production processes have enabled it to cut wastage levels to well below 1 percent.
The company also markets a range of sheetfed process inks with resins based on vegetable oil and free of mineral oils.
By 2006, Sun Chemical had reached a target set four years previously of having 80 percent of its ink products in Europe based on renewable materials. In early 2007, Sun Chemical introduced the world’s first sheetfed offset metallic inks which are vegetable oil-based and also completely free of mineral oil. The company claimed that they not only met strict environmental requirements but also provide improved runnability and metallic brilliance.
“Our objective has been not just to develop products which are more sympathetic to the environment but also meet the needs of the customer,” said Mr. Adkin. “They perform as well as, if not better, than conventional inks.
“They have a number of distinct benefits,” he added. “One of the biggest, for example, of vegetable oil ink is their enabling of 4-over-4 perfecting in sheetfed printing so that a sheet can be printed on both sides in one pass. This is because of the better drying profile of the vegetable ink. They also work well with challenging substrates like recycled paper, which can be variable in composition.”
A Costly Move
Nonetheless, a big move by European printers into inks derived from renewables rather than petrochemicals is not going to be cheap.
For renewables, the outlook seems to be one of continuous increases in raw materials costs because of intensifying competition for agricultural crops between producers of food and animal feed, biofuels and industrial chemicals like those used in the manufacture of inks and coatings.
Over the past year, soya bean and soy oil prices have gone up by more than 40 percent, palm oil by in excess of 50 percent and rapeseed oil, Europe’s main domestically produced, vegetable oil, by more than 20 percent. The boom in biofuels is being seen as a major contributory factor to the increases.
The European Oleochemicals and Allied Products Group (APAG), representing the makers of fatty acids, glycerine, alcohols, fatty esters and other renewables, is urging the EU to abolish subsidies and other incentives like tax exemptions on biofuels derived from certain oleochemical raw materials.
“We need to have a level playing field,” says Hermann Keller, a member of an APAG task force on the issue and a product manager at Cognis Oleochemicals, Dusseldorf German.
“Biofuels producers are pushing up the prices for our raw materials and next year we may not be able to meet customers demand due to shortages of some renewables,” he warns.
Supplies of animal fats, which is major source of renewable raw materials for chemicals used in inks, coatings and other products, are in particular being undermined by the surge in demand for biofuels.
“About 10 to 15 percent of animal fats used for oleochemical production are being diverted into the making of biofuels and could potentially go as high as 25 percent within a short time,” said Mr. Keller.
Biofuels are even having an impact on the price of tall oil, which is used to make rosin for ink and coatings resins. Paper companies which provide the crude tall oil as a by-product from paper and pulp manufacture are now making biofuels from it because of the financial and tax incentives. Furthermore, they are charging purchasers of tall oil for non-fuel use a premium based on the loss of the incentives.
“In the supply/demand balance for tall oil, biofuels are a big factor,” said Ian Anderson, UK sales manager for Forchem, a Finnish tall oil producer which has just announced a 20 percent increase in its prices. “Users of rosin resins for inks are fortunate because we have to compete against prices for gum rosin, supplies of which are not influenced by biofuel demand.”
A common feature between renewables and petrochemical-derived raw materials is that they are both currently subject to steep rises in prices. “Now that we’ve moved over to vegetable oil inks, there’s no going back,” said Mr. Rose at Van Son. “Despite the rising cost of raw materials, ink producers will continue to strive to reduce the mineral oil contents of their inks to as low as possible.”