Sustainability for Inks and Printing

By Dr. Don P. Duncan, Director of Research, Wikoff Color Corporation | 06.09.09

The idea of products and packaging that are “sustainable” is at least two decades old, but has been re-energized with the public focus brought by Wal-Mart.

Figure 1: Sustainability pathway of an ink.
The idea of products and packaging that are “sustainable” is at least two decades old, but has been re-energized with the public focus brought by Wal-Mart, among others, since around 2006.

The first public splash on the topic was in 1987, when the Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations, published its report which defined sustainability for the first time:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

That’s a wonderful thought. No one wants their grandchildren to be forced to live a lesser life than we live, owing to our wastefulness. Despite this motivation, the steps one must take to reach this goal are not clear at all. So, except for those active in the environmental movement, there was little notice taken of this very large goal until some large retailers decided that sustainability could have significant short-term value in addition to the original long-term value proposition. This gave the concept both an offensive and defensive component.

Green or Greedy?

The offensive, short-term component of sustainability is about reducing waste (read “cost”) and increasing efficiencies. By decreasing the amount of raw materials coming from sources of limited supply (ensuring against cost increases as supply drops), by reducing the amount of energy required for manufacture (directly reducing cost), by reducing the transportation energy requirements (directly reducing cost), by reducing the amount of waste created in manufacturing (reducing cost) and by reducing the time and trouble it takes to dispose of the product after its useful life is over (cost again), lots of cost is squeezed out of the system.

Large retailers are expecting all of us to keep some of these savings and pass some along, and the retailer will keep some and pass some back to us as consumers. It’s a win-win for everyone from a purely financial, business perspective.

The defensive, long-term component is about future generations being able to meet their own needs. By decreasing the amount of raw materials coming from sources of limited supply (ensuring extended availability for future generations), by reducing the amount of energy required for manufacture (reducing pollution and reducing fossil fuel demand), by reducing the transportation energy requirements (reducing pollution and reducing fossil fuel demand), by reducing the amount of waste created in manufacturing (reducing pollution) and by reducing the time and trouble it takes to dispose of the product after its useful life is over (improved compostability and biodegradability), lots of environmental gain is added to the system.

We get to live our lives, and our children will also get to live quality lives. It’s a win-win for everyone from a purely environmental perspective.

Everybody’s Getting
Into The Act

This happy confluence of interests between Green and Greed has created an enormous amount of energy in the marketplace over a very short period of time. There are many groups promoting their ability to “contribute” to this great goal. Some are trying to help, and some are just trying to make a buck.

There are some fairly new industry associations (like the Sustainable Packaging Council and the Sustainable Green Printing partnership), some existing associations who are active in the Sustainable discussion (like the Paperboard Packaging Council, RadTech International and IntertechPira), lots of companies offering training, some independent groups acting as certifying bodies (like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Green Printing partnership) and several private companies offering “certification” services, which can be the ugly underbelly of the process.

Great Goal,
Where Do We Start?

We’re printing ink manufacturers. We need to offer our customers increasingly sustainable inks so that they can print increasingly sustainable packaging, labels and advertizing.

Figure 1 shows an outline of the sustainability pathway of a single ink, represented by the larger dot in the center of the figure. There are lots of raw materials used in a single ink, and each of those is manufactured from other raw materials, each of which is represented by a dot. Some of the earlier chemical raw materials are used to make more than one of the intermediate raw materials.

Ultimately, the path leads back to the original, naturally-occurring raw material.

To the right of the ink dot are the different printed materials made with an ink, and then the packagers, final consumers, etc.

This is just one ink. Each printed article will normally have four to 12 different inks, and there are millions of different printed articles. The number of “dots” in a single real-life package is in the thousands. Considering the annual output of a larger printer, the number of dots will be in the tens of millions.

The big six printing processes (litho, flexo, gravure, inkjet, screen and coating) together with the many different ink technologies available (like oil, water, solvent, UV and EB) make this a really complicated situation.

Five Dot Components

Each dot has at least five components: raw materials, energy input, waste output, the intended product output and the transportation of that product to the location of the next “dot.” The sustainability message is being passed upstream, from right to left in the figure. The retailers explained it to the packagers, who told the printers, who told us.

We now have to tell our raw material suppliers, who tell theirs, and so on. We each need to quantify all five dot components for our piece of the puzzle. When each participant knows where they are on the dot components, they will be able to define areas to improve. When each customer (a dot to the right) knows the dot component status of their suppliers, they will be able to make good decisions about what types of raw materials to use.

Making Good Decisions

This is the tough part.Making good choices about manufacturing processes, raw material selection, location of manufacturing plants (to minimize inbound and outbound shipping) and final product disposal require information.

Everyone connected to your dot, both for input and output, needs to know your sustainability facts – not just your story, not your policy, not a feelgood position paper – they need the hard facts on total energy requirements, carbon footprint, waste and raw material options. Otherwise, we’re just guessing, and guessing does not drive out waste.

We Used To Guess.....

People genuinely want to know the right thing to do. It’s been too complicated to really know, so we, as a planet, did things that felt right, that made intuitive good sense, or simply were things that were doable.

This led to the growth in consumer recycling, in application of lean manufacturing principles, in the increase in renewable raw materials and in expanding the number of biodegradable/compostable products.

Are these the right things to do? Maybe, but we really don’t know! Consider some advantages and disadvantages of these four “green” trends (see Table 1):
Now We Need to Learn

It’s still very complex, but everyone up and down the supply chain must figure this out in order to survive. If our competitors get it right, they will have reduced cost to a degree that we cannot compete.

Passing Fad or
Permanent Focus?

Some still say, “It’ll just go away” or “It’s a lot of defensive work – where’s the ROI?” or “It really is too complex to know” or even “Wal-Mart is just PR grandstanding.”

This is an education issue. Those who haven’t spent much time on the topic raise these concerns.

At every stage going upstream in the supply chain, these are the first concerns expressed.

The truth, the eye-opening revelation, when one finally “gets it,” is summarized by these four conclusions:
1. Eliminating waste and thereby cost is a competitive advantage.
2. If my competitors do it, I have to.
3. There’s lots of energy now from the business side and the environmental side – if we’re ever going to figure this out, now’s the time.
4. It is the right thing to do, both economically and socially.

Dr. Don Duncan joined Wikoff Color Corporation in November 1996 and has been the director of research since November 1997.Dr. Duncan came to Wikoff after 18 years with Westvaco Corporation. He has been involved in work for the graphic arts industry since 1981.

Dr. Duncan is a native Texan and received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from North Texas State University in Denton, TX.He then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry. Dr. Duncan is the holder of two U.S. patents, the author of more than 30 technical papers and a frequent author in the graphic arts industry trade journals and presenter in graphic arts-related conferences.

Dr. Duncan is an active member of TAGA, RadTech, FTA, TAPPI, ASTM and the American Chemical Society.He currently serves as co-chair of the Printing and Packaging Focus Group, a committee within RadTech, as well as on the board of directors for TAGA.