It’s no secret that the popularity of eco-friendly products has skyrocketed in recent years. As a result, brand owners are constantly evaluating consumer trends, and converters are often asking themselves, “How can I be more green?” To narrow the focus in a sometimes overwhelming market, John Goeden - president of Precision Color Graphics in Franklin, WI, USA – says that there are three main trends for printers to focus on regarding eco-friendly packaging: customer demand for sustainability, better functioning and renewable materials, and better functioning manufacturing processes.
Goeden says there is an unprecedented customer demand for eco-friendly packaging that is driving today’s innovation and giving way to forward-thinking products. “This allows customers to choose packaging that demonstrates excellent shelf stability and yet still breaks down in a compost within 90 days,” he says.
Options for sustainable packaging include materials produced through the marriage of paper and film technologies, Goeden says, as opposed to petrochemicals and other hazardous materials.
“A lot of polymers that are inside traditional packaging are processed from oil and petroleum coming from all over the world,” Goeden says, “which then gets refined and continues on elsewhere to get extruded – creating a more expensive and dirtier product that doing it domestically.”
Goeden adds that the US has made significant strides in producing its own eco-friendly packaging materials, which is not only good for the environment, but the economy. Precision Color Graphics introduced in 2010 its Ecoterah line of “Earth-friendly packaging made from annually renewable plant resources.” The materials are made from paper, water-based adhesive and a biopolymer sealant layer. Production is 100% domestic and US-based farmers and suppliers provide all materials, including corn.
Goeden says that responding to customer demand for eco-friendly packaging is an on-going process, and one that has provided a number of challenges from the start. Specifically in regards to how sustainable materials like biopolymers perform during the manufacturing process.
“Early-stage biopolymers did not machine well due to poor COF (coefficient of friction), which made them tacky and prone to tears on the production line,” he says. “Working closely with the manufacturer, we shepherded the evolution of biopolymers that would perform better on forming ploughs to reduce tearing.
“We also sought to make the biopolymers softer and more subtle to the touch in order to reduce flex cracking — something that is of particular importance in the manufacturing of food packaging products in which a strong barrier is required to keep food fresh and improve shelf life.”
One potential drawback of eco-friendly, renewable material is the initial cost. Goeden says that his company receives inquiries nearly every week for its sustainable packaging, but some companies hesitate at the slight increase in cost. “These companies say they want to be green, but if it costs 3% more, suddenly they don’t want to be green. I think it’s a bit of a catchphrase. People want it, but they don’t want to pay any more for it.
“The thing is,” he says, “the first generation is always going to cost a little more. As you start using it more and more, the price goes down. A couple of our customers have seen that when they switched over to compostable, their sales have risen by about 30%. Plus, it brings you a brand awareness much faster than the packaging you’re in right now.”
Better manufacturing processes
Goeden adds that while brand owners have answered the call to provide more sustainable products, they have discovered a number of unforeseen improvements in the manufacturing process.
“One such improvement was discovered during the examination of seal characteristics,” he says. “Switching from plastic packaging materials to bio-polymers, for example, meant that the package would seal at a lower temperature. This enabled machines to run faster and lower temperature. Improved speeds also meant improved throughputs and less wear and tear on the equipment. And because the machines could seal at cooler temperatures, money can be saved on utilities — an added benefit no one had anticipated.”
Goeden says that when designing a better functioning package, a better functioning manufacturing process will be a welcome part of the planning. For his part, Goeden says he had his company certified as a Green Tier Company through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Though it took nearly a year for the certification, he says it was well worth it. “Its an ongoing process, and we’re still doing more to make ourselves more green,” he adds. “We’d like to see more companies doing it. It’s a smart thing for the planet and for the bottom line. We’ve only been doing it a year and a half and we’ve saved a good chunk of dough just by going green.
“We didn’t have to spend a ton of money doing it, and some of it was just stuff we should have been doing all along, like putting lights on a timer and making sure that equipment that’s not in use is either shut down or powered down to a minimum. Those are all functional things for the manufacturing process.”