Sustainability has become a buzzword in almost every industry today, with activists like Greta Thurnberg and the Extinction Rebellion penetrating consumer consciousness and keeping the issue at the forefront. Even before these activists became household names, this trend was building for some time. Innova Market Insights research in 2019 noted that 85% of US and UK consumers expected companies to invest in sustainability in 2019, up from 64% in 2018. Concern for environmental sustainability has even overtaken ethical and social concerns when choosing a brand, according to their study.
The printing and converting industry is no exception to this trend. Industry leaders labeled 2019 “a sustainability tipping point for packaging” as brands and manufacturers commit to sustainable product and packaging development with a range of initiatives, while maintaining food protection and durability. This includes waste reduction through upcycled ingredients and post-consumer recycling, as well as improved biodegradability and new technology like mono films and innovative inks. When it comes to flexible packaging, particularly in the food industry, manufacturers are looking for more environmentally friendly alternatives to multi-layer films, or at least a reduction in the number of structures and lamination layers.
In parallel, the printing industry has become more competitive and consumer standards have risen. Brand owners expect quality and repetitiveness across their SKU portfolio – a challenge that requires a more comprehensive approach to quality assurance practices. As consumers demand sustainability and top quality from brands, brand owners in turn are demanding it from their suppliers. There’s no longer a choice: To succeed, converters must be able to show and tell the environmental performance story that brands want to hear, and meet ever-tougher requirements on quality, cost and turnaround times.
Production waste – a hidden environmental cost
Recyclability and biodegradability have received a lot of attention, while another challenge to sustainability in the printing industry, production waste, has largely been ignored
Reprinting is the biggest culprit in production waste. When printing errors necessitate a reprint at any stage in the process, substrates, inks, and energy all go to waste. For example, prepress errors, incorrect revisions or language, or defective plates or cylinders can mean entire jobs need to be reprinted.
An inefficient makeready process is another culprit. The more trials and adjustments needed to reach the right registration, pressure and color, the more inks, media and time are wasted.
In addition, significant waste can be created during production runtime if print defects are not detected ahead of time. Beyond any packaging that must be discarded, energy is wasted, and sometimes the product itself also goes to waste.
How can you reduce waste while meeting industry quality standards?
Automated inspection can make a huge difference for converters committed to more sustainable production. For example, AVT 100% Turbo HD inspection solutions include a print quality verification module that compares the current print job to the signed digital PDF and helps converters avoid wasteful reprints by ensuring that image quality and content issues are picked up before even the first print.
Powered by sophisticated machine vision algorithms, the system automatically monitors color matching and consistency and verifies crucial graphics parameters like color-to-color registration and print quality. It classifies possible print defects and suggests corrective action in-process rather than after the defective items have all been printed. This can reduce substrate waste, saving plastic-film-based materials (e.g. PP, PE, PET and BOPP) and laminates in the case of flexible packaging applications; and saving liner, base paper and hot foil when printing self-adhesive labels. It also minimizes inks or solvents wastage, and saves energy by improving machine efficiency, which in turn reduces air conditioning requirements.
Seven-color process and “extended gamut” is another trend that has sustainability benefits for labels and packaging converters. Unlike traditional print processes, which can use hundreds or thousands of different inks, and thus result in large amounts of unused leftover ink, this technique prevents waste by using only seven colors. But the sustainability benefits cannot come at the expense of quality or precise color. Because it monitors and measures color inline to ensure color quality and prevent waste during makeready and runtime, automated inspection in conjunction with inline color spectrometry is critical to better controlling the process.
The future is here…. Be prepared
Consumer – and hence brand owner – demand for sustainability is a growing trend that is greatly impacting the packaging industry. Converters must adapt to the new industry demands to stay competitive. Luckily, there are tools to make the process easier. With cutting edge automated inspection, converters can significantly reduce their production waste, saving money and improving their sustainability.