Sophie Matthews-Paul looks at how environmental issues are shaping the rigid print media offering.
Greener issues might not be the primary driving forces for businesses working through an economic downturn but there's not the slightest doubt that environmental prerogatives and pressures will continue to dominate the world across all industries and domestic spaces. Wide-format digital print, no matter the ink type, plays only a minor role compared with giant factories spewing noxious chemicals into the atmosphere and creating vast volumes of waste which no-one wants. Nonetheless, print and the material on which it is produced presents an easy target.
Recycled papers seem easy to quantify but, where natural and man-made rigid materials are used in different types of industrial and commercial areas, there is undoubtedly a feeling of pressure to reduce unnecessary use and generate applications where recyclable and recycled substrates can be used. As consumers, everyone is aware of the reduction being generated in reduced packaging; taking a more minimalist approach results in less waste and a keener involvement even for Joe Public to become injected with greater enthusiasm towards caring for his immediate environment.
For display producers a sizeable chunk of work onto rigid materials is used within the retail, event, service and POS sectors. Everywhere there are examples of production from exterior advertising such as architectural, wayfinding and interpretive signs through interior modular units and basic directories used in public buildings down to output which is purely in place to tempt the consumer to spend money. None of these examples is a waste of material; each plays a part in the role of providing information and, in truth, since digital print onto rigid materials happened a decade ago, accuracy of production runs has been honed to an exact number of prints.
Recycled products used within the sign and display arena are not particularly new but many have been fine-tuned and improved in recent times, with many of these also being used with success in other industries, such as for building and sound-proofing. The marriage of these substrates with print has been particularly relevant as the move to UV-curable inks has made it a more realistic prospect for them to be used in the display arena, although many were also suitable for screen-printing before the development of today's inkjet machines.
Going against the moves to more eco-friendly objectives is, of course, the fear of additional cost to the PSP. End customers, in recessive times at least, are unlikely to accept an increase in the price of their orders regardless of the environmental benefits involved. Those who already use green procurement officers in their purchasing structure tend to be more willing to pursue eco objectives which form part of an overall corporate view on reducing carbon footprints etc. Smaller businesses buying in print are mostly dominated by cost per square metre and will need considerable convincing before altering their purchasing practices.
In terms of inventors wanting to produce biodegradable display components and cartons, patent applications go back for the best part of 40 years. Particularly with rigid materials, any greener option has to evolve prior to it hitting the drawing board. Concepts and designs these days can be orchestrated to optimise every inch of substrate being used, with computerised layouts being employed to get the best out of step-and-repeat and nesting capabilities. Contour cutting has also made it easy to facilitate eye-catching yet practical applications which don't merely rely on a square or rectangular image and intricate elements can be arranged on a single sheet to eke out the best use of the material.
The truth is that the greater the numbers of print companies opting in to recycling schemes, the more cost effective they'll become. In economic terms, energy use is also being targeted as an area where considerable savings can be made across industries and the threat of additional taxation and forfeits for the non-green contingent might have to be brought into play to encourage more people away from landfill and to their local recycling centre.
Greener rigid materials go much further than the grey-centred boards available in yesteryear. But print service providers need to grasp the principles relating to the point at which a recyclable substrate loses its eco-compatibility. This depends on what is being added to the display in the way of inks, laminates and self-adhesive vinyls - some of these will render the end application unsuitable for anything more than landfill waste. Certainly old favourites, such as Correx, is 100% recyclable if printed but this benefit is removed if PVC films are used to decorate the surface.There is a growing choice of high quality substrates that come with good environmental credentials, and this selection isn't restricted to dull, unexciting materials with limited potential for innovative displays. An obvious example is Dibond, a product manufactured by Alcan which needs no introduction to anyone who has even the most basic knowledge about aluminium. Used in products ranging from drinks' cans through to aircraft, as well as in heat sinks for items like CPUs, this natural metal in an alloyed form numbers amongst its benefits the fact it can be recycled. Dibond comes in the form of a composite sheet and, as well being suitable for many display relayed processes including UV-curable printing, it is 100% recyclable.
Recyclable materials which might have evolved in a different industry are now finding markets in the display area, and Dufaylite is a good example of a fire resistant honeycomb panel which is becoming popular within the display market. Its strength to weight ratio is determined by a cellular core and, as well as being suitable for doors and elements of caravans and boats, the variety of thicknesses available has made this a popular addition to display portfolios.
PVC's reputation within the display industry has been enhanced with the use of products, such as Foamalux Xtra, manufactured by Brett Martin, which is a rigid closed cell foam-board. Surprisingly, this product contains between 80 - 100% post-consumer industrial sign waste and brings with its after-use recyclability. With closed-loop options on the increase, and making good sense environmentally, Priplak R100 is made from 100% recycled polypropylene generated from user sites and remanufactured into new products. Similarly Robert Horne has developed its Revive display board which is made from 100% recovered fibre. A minimum of 65% is post-consumer waste and the product has evolved since its original introduction in 2000, now being available in a variety of sizes and thicknesses to suit all methods of display production.
Environmentally friendly rigid substrates tend to bring with them visions of reduced weight and lower durability in display areas but this is not necessarily true. Certainly using less of a component will make for lighter results but, depending on construction, its overall strength isn't necessarily compromised and also has the benefit of reducing delivery costs and weight related logistics. Handling and installation is also simplified and, of course, boards that aren't heavy could be seen as representing less of a hazard once in place.
Print service providers are sometimes sceptical about the content of the substrates they're buying, and need to check that each material if used in combination with another process will maintain its eco status and make it suitable for recycling. The only way to get a straight answer is to double-check with the manufacturer or supplier and, if necessary, check the component parts of the combinations of material being considered.
Printing with UV-curable ink direct to rigid substrates has already been instrumental in reducing hazardous chemicals and removing VOCs and the marriage of today's printers with greener materials is certain to grow, complemented by the environmental benefits associated with recycling.