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Doing More With Less

By: Andrew H. Dent, PhD
Posted: January 19, 2011, from the January 2011 issue of GCI Magazine.

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There are even water-soluble solutions from companies such as Plantic that offer a very quick and easy way of disposing of the material—dissolve it in your sink. Starch has the advantage of being low cost (bringing down the cost of biopolymers from their sometimes unaffordable prices), stable in price compared to the seesawing of commodity prices these past few years and, oftentimes, a waste material from other processes such as food production. Expect to see more starch being introduced as a raw material as its use moves from food to beauty packaging.

Using less has also been a mantra of some of the innovative packaging solutions seen of late, and EcoCradle, a foamlike cushioning material from Ecovative Design, has been a favorite. An effective replacement for expanding polystyrene custom molded foams, Ecocradle is produced from regionally available agricultural by-products that are high in lignin (cotton burrs, rice hulls and buckwheat hulls, for example), which are used to grow fungal mycelium—the roots of mushrooms. Producing the material is an extremely low energy process because it is grown in the dark, with no watering and no petrochemical input. The organisms grow in seven days, forming miles of tiny white fibers that envelop and digest the seed husks, and bind them to form the final product. The entire process uses approximately 10 times less energy per unit of material than the manufacturing of synthetic foams, and the product is 100% biodegradable and compostable.

Inks and Coatings

In the inks and coatings, innovative printing processes that avoid the use of foils (and thus enable complete recycling of the paperboard by simply de-inking) have shown that metals can be removed from packaging decoration without sacrificing metallic effects. One such process has been achieved by Henkel with its Mirafoil product. This liquid coating consists of tiny aluminum platelets applied by flexographic printing, followed by a UV curing step. An additional colored ink layer is added to create any metallic color, and the coating can be applied to precise areas of the packaging. The ink is volatile organic compound (VOC)-free, and can be printed onto any smooth, coated paper surface, including recycled paper, and also onto a variety of polymers.

Reducing energy during the print curing process has been achieved by Roland DG of the Netherlands with its UV-LEC 330/300 process, a low-heat LED UV ink-jet printing process that adds texture and relief to prints using less energy. A variety of materials—paper, synthetic and real leather, textiles, foils, BOPP (biaxially oriented polypropylene), PE, PC and PET films with a thickness of up to 0.039 inches (1 mm)—can be used as printing substrates. The equipment used in this technique can also cut complex graphics after printing with an integrated cutting plotter, and the printed films can be stretched over corners and edges without burr formation or tearing. In addition, matte or glossy transparent coatings can be applied. The multilayering of inks added during this process allows for the creation of an embossed surface effect, much like Braille. For those who want to go one step further than vegetable or soy with their ink choices, Thai company Panorama SOY Ink Co., Ltd. is offering post consumer recycled vegetable oil inks. They consist of 45% post consumer vegetable oil, 21% pigment and 34% rosin; are VOC-free; and have good rub-resistance, high gloss and good color strength. They dry and set faster and have better dot sharpness compared to regular inks, and can be used for printing on paper and plastic.

The ability to thermoform compound curved geometries from paper-based sheets also allows you to do more in terms of shapes and effects, and the Swedish company Billerud has created a product called FibreForm that can do just this. Using FSC-certified wood fibers in a sheet that has good stretchabilty on thermoforming machines, it is suitable for food contact and can be printed and coated for decorative effect.

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