Creation: A sustainable pre-press process is one of the keys to truly eco-friendly packaging – Creation

29 Jun 2018

From coffee cups that can’t be recycled to the scourge of single use plastics, the media has been frenzied since the turn of the year in damning plastics and packaging in its various forms.

Consumers, whether reading social or traditional media, or listening to Government musings, are of the view that all packaging should be eliminated if at all possible. If truly required, then packaging should be ‘natural’, ‘renewable’, ‘recyclable’ or ‘compostable’, whatever those terms may mean in reality. Sustainable packaging is the goal, however it is achieved.

As an industry, we can spend an awful lot of wasted time trying to convince wider society that packaging primarily has an ecological role in protecting and preserving goods in the supply chain. However, that argument simply falls on deaf ears compared with the outpourings of concern around excessive landfilling, lack of recycling capability and marine litter in the media today.  It’s a brave person or company that stands up for the principle of packaging in the current vitriolic media environment.

In truth, with the obvious poor exceptions to the rule, the UK packaging and print industry has been focussed on sustainable packaging design for many years.  Whether use of renewable materials, light weighting, compostability or recyclability has been the strategy of choice, a wide range of packaging producers can cite examples of significant changes and improvements in their products and processes that have been in existence for a long period of time; so the media outcry can feel a little unfair.

Change is happening

We are already seeing a (some may say kneejerk) reaction and a switching trend emerging. Brands are demanding more ‘natural’ designs to appeal to their disgruntled consumers and retailers are seeking plastic free alternatives to respond to the environmental challenge (whether they’re using recycled plastics or not).

We are undergoing a period of fundamental change and challenge in the industry, which at Creation we welcome. Change is good. Change makes things even better and forward thinking companies will step up to the plate with radical thinking.

However, as a collective packaging industry, we now know it is core, rather than an additional requirement on the brief, to deliver packaging that is sustainable. Moreover, at Creation we believe it is also vitally important to address the sustainability of our entire supply chain, if we are ever going to repair our image and reputation in the wider community.

We believe that sustainable packaging is actually the end result of a series of activities that in themselves must be sustainable. We specialise in the pre-press environment and believe that truly sustainable packaging needs to be developed responsibly in the first place, not just made from renewable, recyclable or eco-friendly materials.

Matt Francklow, Managing Director of Creation Reprographics recently stated: “Sustainable packaging isn’t about grand gestures; it’s about small incremental steps by literally thousands of people in supply chains around the world having sustainability front of mind, that will bring palpable change to the entire packaging design, development and production process. It is the work of these people, not the “beau geste” headline grabbers, that will ultimately make the difference.”

In this blog, we would like to share what we believe to be the key principles of sustainable packaging development, in terms of the packaging origination and pre-press process.

1. The original 3Ps of Packaging are now 4 – Protect, Preserve, Present, and Post Consumption

Packaging originally had three core functions: to protect goods from damage, preserve them in transit or storage, and to present the product in an attractive way to entice the consumer to buy. What now has to be added is that once its work has been done, the remaining pack must be as harmless to the environment as we can possibly make it.

As packaging science and technology has become ever more sophisticated, packaging has also developed the ability to connect, engage and educate. However, the three core principles still remain. If the product is damaged, has deteriorated or is unattractive at the point of sale, then it doesn’t matter how sophisticated the solution, the packaging is deemed ineffective.

In terms of effective sustainable packaging design, the starting point always has to be an assessment of what the product is to be packed. Is it a liquid or a solid? What does that mean for barrier performance or closures? Is it a medical or pharmaceutical product that requires extensive legislative management and traceability? Or is it a fresh food item that demands sophisticated barrier performance to arrive on shelf in a condition acceptable to the picky shopper?

Fundamentally, if product waste occurs as a result of poor thinking around the fundamental packaging format, then the material sustainability argument is already lost.

Think of leaking packs on shelf, bruised fruit, dented aluminium cans, off odours or burst packaging; product spillage and waste occurs across the transit, retail and home environments. The result is the consumer then doesn’t select it in the first place or disposes of the product without use. Either way, whether the packaging was designed with sustainable materials or not, the situation is wasting resources.

To give a sense of the scale of this issue, just in the food sector, three major WRAP studies published in 2013 and 2016 estimated annual food waste arisings within UK households, hospitality and food service, food manufacture, retail and wholesale sectors at around 10 million tonnes, 60% of which could have been avoided.

This has a value of over £17 billion a year and is associated with around 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Around 85% (by weight) of the avoidable food waste arises in households and food manufacture, although waste arising in one part of the supply chain is certainly influenced by other parts of the chain.

Poor packaging design is certainly not a main contributor of this problem, poor supply chain efficiency and a consumerist society certainly is, but packaging certainly plays its role in minimising waste at each stage of the supply chain – whether farm or factory to the home – and the initial pack concept is the start of the packaging sustainability journey.

Read more about the UK food waste issue at WRAP

2. Design with the supply chain process in mind

So now we have decided what product needs to be packed and what that means for the pack format. The next stage is to address whether the pack can be fundamentally designed to endure the needs of the supply chain it will experience.

The reason for challenging this step of the pack development process is that all too often we see new products designed for supposed environmental or sustainability benefits that then fail in what can be a demanding supply chain environment. A material or format change can often create unanticipated impacts and waste elsewhere or indeed, not actually be any more sustainable when the entire supply chain impact is considered.

Take light weighting of packs as a classic example of the challenge. Lightweight a pack too far by reducing the gauge, weight or size of the pack to reduce material usage, and suddenly the packer processer or retailer can experience a wide range of new issues. For example, increased in-transit damages, stacking and storage problems or aesthetics issues that affect retail sales. Improving the environmental design of the pack must ensure that the industrial nature of today’s dynamic global supply chains can be maintained.

This cannot be resolved in a binary manner; there is no ‘absolute good’ and ‘absolute bad’. Every decision is made between competing factors, which on balance produce good decisions. The danger of the headlines is that people believe there ARE absolutes.

There needs to be checks and balances to every pack development consideration. Switching, for example, from a PP tub to a multi-layer pouch will often benefit the light-weighting story but actually reduce the amount of material that can be recycled. The tub takes less energy to produce in production but the pouch is more efficient to pack and transport.

There is no simple answer and the truth of the matter is that every packaging format has an environmental virtue, depending on which lens you choose to look through. However, in today’s heady times of driving packaging change and innovation, critical adultthinking is needed to ensure we are not simply storing up waste and environmental impacts elsewhere. The best pre-press work is needed to ensure that good decision making further back down the supply chain is not negated at a later stage and can even be enhanced. Say it again Matt!

Sustainable packaging isn’t about grand gestures; it’s about small incremental steps by literally thousands of people in supply chains around the world having sustainability front of mind, that will bring palpable change to the entire packaging design, development and production process. It is the work of these people, not the “beau geste” headline grabbers, that will ultimately make the difference.” 

3. Digitalize the workflow

Tackling the complex topic of sustainable packaging development must mean addressing the efficiency of the pre-press process. In fact, digitalization of the entire packaging development and approval workflow process is actually a key contributor to packaging environmental efficiency.

The reality is that time equals carbon. We all know that time is money and that it can be wasted easily. Wasting time, energy and materials rerunning print jobs because of errors, actually drives the carbon footprint (and cost!) of a job skywards.

Many of us in the industry have experienced the dash to the press side in the middle of the night to get a job back on track, the call for an urgent meeting due to on press problems or the multiple meetings to brief a job and manage the development of the project from the start. This, often unnecessary, repetitive work means toing and froing, burning inordinate quantities of fossil fuels up and down the motorway, and often isn’t even considered in the carbon footprint calculations for packs.

Essentially by automating the entire pre-press workflow process, we can eliminate duplications, roadblocks and errors to achieve reductions in time and waste in both the pre-press and on-press environment, ultimately contributing to the LCA of the pack.

At Creation, we have invested in Esko Webcenter®; a flexible, secure, online portal to ensure all pieces of the packaging puzzle are stored and distributed from one, easy to use, organised location. With around the clock accessibility for clients, who can review, annotate and approve graphics files at anytime and from anywhere, human errors and waste in terms of time and materials are eliminated and speed to market is increased.

The environment is the winner when pre-press digitalization is correctly implemented.

4. Use fixed palette and composite printing to be eco-friendly

So now we have decided what product needs to be packed, what format it will be in and the supply chain has been considered to avoid waste. We’ve also implemented automated workflow to drive out hidden inefficiencies that hinder our ability to operate sustainably.  We’re on our way to becoming a truly sustainable pre-press process.

The next stage is to address whether the pack can be graphically designed with some basic principles front of mind to drive eco-friendliness.

Simplicity, efficiency and the ‘less is more’ philosophy need to come to the fore if we are going to truly design packaging sustainably.

Let’s take flexographic printing of a simple pack as an example. Can we graphically design the pack with sympathy to the printing process likely to be employed? If we cram in 14 colours, there are ramifications for the sustainability of both the pre-press and on-press situations.

With 14 colours, there will be a large range of photopolymer plates required and a number of new spot inks to be ordered delivered and stored. There will now be significant downtime wasting valuable energy and resources and of course, there will be the more obvious materials and wash up/solvents waste involved in the complex job changeover.

If the job can be run with fewer colours, with a fixed colour or extended gamut process design, and used in a composite printing situation, the whole problem is reversed.  Less ink stock keeping units are required and in fact, economies of scale in production are now experienced at the ink manufacturer as well. Less transportation, storage, downtime and energy are needed, along with fewer plates and a reduction in solvents. The commercial advantages can be significant, for both converter and brand owner, but many brands and retailers do not realise the cost and environmental benefits.

Let’s be honest, designing for print is a key skill in itself and the printing game can be horrendously complex when you consider the variations on every job. Each print run can involve a different ink set, plate, screen and run length, which if not managed carefully, can have considerable sustainability disadvantages.

Our job at Creation is to ensure that the pre-press environment is optimised not just from a cost and quality perspective but that the right decisions are being made for the environment too. Sustainable packaging is not just about choosing the right substrate; it’s about choices made at each step along the development supply chain from pack origination to press and beyond.

5. Flexographic plate selection is not sexy but it can be green!

Another simple change at the pre-press stage, that can support a pack’s environmental credentials, is to print it with a more environmentally friendly photopolymer flexographic plate solution.

A great example of the industry stepping up is the development of the Asahi AWP®water washable plate. Creation was the pioneer in its use in the UK flexo print market and adopted the technology because of its significant environmental advantages, as well as premium print performance.

The Asahi AWP is a unique platemaking technology that eliminates the need for high temperatures in processing i.e. reduces energy use and does not use VOC solvents in the washout process. So often we hear environmentally friendly products have performance compromises, but actually the AWP is considered a premium plate solution in the flexo industry.

AWP offers excellent ink transfer for great ink coverage and consistent plate reproduction for precise registration and consistency. It enables reduced make-ready with fast run-up to colour due to its dot stability and predictability and to cap it all, offers 33% less plate production time required compared with solvent based plate making.

In the same spirit, Creation also offers the DuPont Cyrel®Fast Easy EFE Plate which has built in flat top dots designed for high quality half tone, line work and solids printing and has an engineered surface for higher solid ink density without the need for micro screening. Suitable for flexible packaging and labelling, the DuPont Cyrel Fast Easy is also produced without solvent wash out and finished plates can be completed in less than one hour with no drying step, minimising energy usage.

Creation has not stood still in driving its pre-press environmental credentials. Along with its two environmentally friendly plate solutions, the company has also invested in Kongsberg table technology. This investment ensures accurate cutting of plates for printers minimising plate waste and set up times on press.

The company also uses the system for plate packaging design to optimise plate pack sizes for shipment, minimising inventory, packaging materials usage and storage.

We are making simple steps at Creation but are leading the way to sustainable pre-press production.

6. Ready for production – the final green step

Whether the chosen pack is to be recyclable, made from renewable or recycled materials, compostable or simply lightweight, it has a fundamental role in protecting, preserving and presenting goods efficiently.

Across all packaging formats, in a typical consumer product lifecycle analysis, packaging represents about 3%-5% of the carbon footprint from farm or factory to consumer use (see INCPEN data).

The image of packaging today however, as the root of all evil, is totally disproportionate to its environmental impact – our farming, fishing, transportation, refrigeration and production processes are causing far more contribution to our global environmental issues than packaging ever will.

The real truth is that packaging is a green technology in the first place but that argument is lost and we all have a responsibility to ensure that the packaging we use is appropriate, efficient and sustainable, in whatever definition required.

As a result of our philosophy, Creation has taken the step to become ISO 14001 accredited in 2018, leading the way for the pre-press industry to contribute to environmental standards that benefit the entire packaging chain.

Our company belief, and to reiterate the view of managing director, Matt Francklow, is that developing truly sustainable packaging is about addressing the entire design to disposal process and everything in between. It’s not simply a case of material selection and grand gestures but thoughtful consideration of hard and soft processes, resources, people and activities and ensuring that society works together to create sustainable outcomes that work for the benefit of everyone and everything.

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