Synthetic Substrates

By Catherine Diamond | September 8, 2011

The proliferation of synthetic substrates on today's market is a result of not only their sustainability and eco-friendly factor, but also their strength and unrivaled durability.

Nearly 40 years ago, when oil prices were high and deforestation was the environmental buzzword on everyone's lips, the petrochemical and forestry industries came together to create a product that was both affordable and eco-friendly. Synthetic substrates were the result. Since then, synthetics have exploded onto the market. They look and feel like paper, but perform as a film. Because of their appearance, durability, resistance to tearing and ability to withstand outdoor elements – including UV light – they're used in countless applications. Save for withstanding heat during specific printing processes, it seems there's nothing a synthetic can't do.

To gain a fresh perspective on the role of synthetics in the industry today, we asked some of the leading manufacturers and distributors to tell us about their products and the future of the synthetics market. What follows are their responses.

Arjobex, a subsidiary of the Arjowiggins Group, manufactures a synthetic paper called Polyart as part of its labeling and security business unit. First introduced in Europe in the 1970s, Polyart was the first plastic medium designed for all professionals in the graphics industry. Arjobex, which is headquartered in Paris, introduced Polyart to the North American market in the 1980s. Its North American headquarters is in Charlotte, NC.

"Polyart is a bi-axially oriented high density polyethylene that, for standard commercial use, has a clay coating applied to both sides," says Bruce Gordon, product services manager. "Because of the bi-axial orientation, there is no grain direction. The clay coating that allows the product to resemble more of a matte coated commercial sheet allows a printer, in most cases, to use paper inks instead of specially formulated oxidizing inks for synthetics. Our material is compatible with aqueous coatings and UV coatings, as well."

According to Gordon, Polyart's major end users are consumer product companies for label applications and any product that requires durability and resistance to the elements. That includes maps, menus, luggage tags, horticultural tags, and POP/POS imaging. The major barrier in terms of usage is not the product itself, Gordon says, but cost. Additionally, challenges arise when printers assume that all synthetics are created equal. "Printers and converters need to work in tandem with their respective ink and coating suppliers in order to make sure that proper inks/coatings are used on Polyart," he says.

Gordon maintains that Arjobex's outlook on the synthetic substrates market is most certainly positive. He cites the company's eco-friendly statement for those concerned; in the case of consumer applications involving plastic containers, he says they can actually reduce waste because synthetic labels and plastic containers can often be recycled together.

"As long as there are needs for material to withstand outdoor or hazardous conditions, there will be a need for synthetic films," he says.

Charter Films
Charter Films – based in Superior, WI, USA – engineers, extrudes and manufactures mono- and multi-layered coex films for its customers. Its base resins include low, medium and high-density polyethylenes, linear and ultra-linear low density polyethylenes, EVAs, single site catalyzed polymers, polypropylenes, surlyns and specialty polymers.

According to Brian Verkuilen, product manager for Charter Films' tag and label markets, the company manufactures a high-density polyethylene film that is strong in cold temperatures, UV resistant, offers unreinforced hole strength, and is capable of being both stapled and sewn.

"Polyethylene definitely has a leg up on polypropylene with regard to strength," he says. "We sell a lot of films to people that print and use it as a synthetic paper." Charter Films' end products include turkey tags, steel tags, lumber tags and produce tags. According to Verkuilen, the produce tag market has grown quite significantly over the years.

"That market has literally evolved because those products used to be in a big plastic bag, but it keeps getting whittled away as far as packaging materials at grocery stores," he says. "People are selling fresh fruit, but they still have to have a bar code on it."

Verkuilen emphasizes the importance of bar codes for the synthetic market, pointing out that "every single thing in Home Depot or Lowe's has a bar code on it." Years ago, he says, the emphasis was on the packaging of an item. The focus has since shifted, and the label (or bar code) has become the focal point for both the manufacturer and consumer.

Aside from packaging, Verkuilen says that thermal transfer printing has made the biggest impact, by far, in the synthetic market. "It suddenly opened the door for synthetic papers to be used not only as static information, such as a logo, but for variable information, like bar codes," he says. "It changed the game forever in terms of synthetic papers."

In terms of the future of synthetics, Verkuilen believes that it will continue to evolve in a way that is mutually beneficial for both converters and consumers.

"I think because print technology keeps advancing just as fast as materials, I think that the new wave of synthetic papers won't have all the fancy coatings on them because they won't be required, and that will make them more economical for the converter and the end user," he says.

DuPont Tyvek
"DuPont Tyvek is a unique print media known for its lightweight strength, outstanding printability, tear resistance and recyclability," says Annette Kim, national marketing manager. "Stronger than paper and more versatile than synthetic films, DuPont Tyvek delivers a combination of lightweight strength and excellent print quality."

Tags and labels produced on DuPont Tyvek

According to Kim, Tyvek has been widely used in wristbands, tags and labels, race numbers, maps and durable documents. She adds: "We see growing demands of digital print technology with a strong emphasis on shorter print runs and higher print image qualities and environmentally friendly products."

Kim says that DuPont goes a step further than simply marketing a product as eco-friendly. Through a partnership with Waste Management, DuPont offers its customers a national shipback program specifically for Tyvek. Customers can purchase a $15 recycle kit that holds up to 250 square feet of any Tyvek end product, covers all postage and handling, and gives the customer the ability to ship their recyclable materials directly to Waste Management. Customers then receive certificates indicating the number of pounds of Tyvek that they have recycled. The kit is available at www.recycletyvek.wm.com.

"This is the major differentiator," Kim says. "We go beyond just saying something is recyclable. We have a way for our customers to recycle the materials so they can then be converted into a second, useful product."

Kim believes customers' interest in eco-friendly products and processes will continue to be important. The future of the market, she says, is bright, particularly as products become more specialized. Morris adds that growth will likely be seen "in areas that meet very specific technical requirements along with sustainability demands."

Masterpiece Graphix
Fenton, MO, USA-based Masterpiece Graphix supplies its customers with a full line of synthetic materials along with the ability to customize resins, plastics and final constructions. The three flagship specialty substrates that are unique to Masterpiece Graphix are the company's Premium Synthetic Paper, Premium Clear PET and Premium Wall Graphix.

Masterpiece Graphix's Premium Synthetic Paper is the company's lead product for applications in which tear, chemical and moisture resistance are critical components, and which require a bright white finish. According to the company, the easy converting properties of the product make it ideal in applications such as menus, children's books, hang tags, safety tags, and horticultural use. Premium Clear PET provides performance similar to the Premium Synthetic Paper, but is optically clear. This product is also available in sheet form through Masterpiece Graphix's strategic partner, Transilwrap. Premium Wall Graphix, though not traditionally considered a synthetic paper, has been used in markets ranging from wall graphic appliques, floor graphic overlays, removable labels, children's stickers, and specialized "sticky" applications in which the end use is intended to remove and reposition the product repeatedly.

According to Theresa Davinroy, marketing manager, the company's major markets are prime labels, menus, hang tags, safety tags, children's books, photos, gift/loyalty cards and in-mold labeling applications. Davinroy says that new markets for synthetic papers are developing daily.

"As the paper markets become more mature and competitive, converters are looking for ways in which to add value, increase margin, and provide a new product for the end user," she says. "We have seen a large increase in the use of synthetic papers for durability, special effects and value-added services."

Sheets of synthetic stock at Masterpiece Graphix
Though synthetics are in high-demand, different materials will react differently to heat and pressure. "As a general rule of thumb," Davinroy says, "synthetics will have a high propensity to exhibit problems such as tail end stretch, heat related registration issues, and, in extreme cases, melting, shrinking and wrinkling."

To avoid any issues throughout the printing process, Davinroy recommends that customers "be aware that some synthetics are not compatible with finishing systems such as laser diecutting."

"I recommend that for any printer looking to make the switch, they do a thorough test of the product from start to finish to guarantee problem-free converting," she says.

Transilwrap Company
Transilwrap – a Franklin Park, IL, USA-based manufacturer, coater and converter of plastics in the thermal laminating, printing, industrial, specialty packaging and graphic arts markets ¬– manufactures and distributes a range of synthetic products for its customers. The company manufactures PRO-Print, and distributes MXM, Tyvek, Teslin, and Trans Tear Resistant.

According to the company, PRO-Print is an extruded, mineral-filled polypropylene that can be easily printed using flexography, offset lithography, gravure, digital UV, and screen printing. It is used in the horticultural industries, for magazine and special edition covers, tamper-evident packaging, point-of-purchase and point-of-sale displays, high-end packaging, maps, and lumber tags.

The cornerstone of PRO-Print's success, says Mike Reid, national marketing manager, is that it is a highly customizable product. PRO-Print is available in a biodegradable form, with FDA-approved resins, gloss and matte finishes, and in several roll sizes, he says. Additionally, PRO-Print has a high heat resistance (up to 350° F) and is microwavable. According to the company, its vacuum forming characteristics allow deep draw without excessive wall thinning and less post forming shrinkage.

Reid says that Transilwrap's clients have been moving towards synthetic products, and for good reason. "Synthetics are more durable, and there's no need for lamination when most printers can add a UV top coat. It eliminates a production step," he says. He predicts that the company's share of the synthetic market will continue to grow as the market as a whole is expected to continue an upward trend. He sees the biggest gains in the roll label and tag market, specifically wraparound labels, cut and stack labels, in-mold labels and generic tags.

Hop Industries
Hop Industries Corp. of Lyndhurst, NJ, USA, offers its customers Hop-Syn, which is manufactured from a mixture of polypropylene and calcium carbonate into a single layered substrate by high-speed calender extrusion. According to Brian D'Huyvetter, account manager, this method gives Hop-Syn a better dyne level for flexo and thermal transfer compared to corona treated plastic.

A seed packet constructed from Hop-Syn.
"Many customers understand that synthetic paper is waterproof and tear resistant," says D'Huyvetter. "However, our calendering process also allows us to change the composition of additives used to create a variety of grades to fit our customers' specific applications. For example, we have Hop-Syn grades that can vary in brightness, opacity, foldability and resistance to UV light."
Hop-Syn, which is FDA approved for direct food contact and toy safety approved at all grades, is used as horticultural tags for consumer product promotions and tear-resistant industrial tags printed with bar codes by thermal transfer. D'Huyvetter predicts that the company will see significant gains in the IML label market for injection molded polypropylene.

"Our heat-resistant in-mold label grades have found a nice fit there," he adds.

Though the company is proud of the versatility that Hop-Syn offers, there are some applications for which this product is not suitable. For example: high-temperature laser printing and direct thermal printing without applying a top coating. That being said, D'Huyvetter maintains that Hop Industries' client base is growing at a rapid pace because of Hop-Syn's printing capabilities, environmentally friendly properties, and the multitude of uses for synthetic paper. Such uses include lumber tags, horticultural tags, food labels, bottle labels, product warranty tags, ski lift tickets, in-mold labels, law labels, airline baggage tags, tamper-resistant tags, steel tags, ID cards, and wristbands, among others.

"Every year a dozen new applications come along based on the printing properties and diverse physical properties of the synthetic substrate," D'Huyvetter says. "It's also growing in demand because it's easier to recycle in the manufacturing process than paper and contains no cancer-causing chemicals or stearates that can be found in other commodity plastics that are well-established in the printing industry."

Granwell Products Inc., which is based in West Caldwell, NJ, USA, markets two types of synthetic papers under the Polylith brand. The company's P series is a multilayer, cavitated core product available two-side clay coated, one-side clay coated, and also comes in a range of uncoated grades with varying yield and strength levels. The G series is a mono-layer, clay filled sheet with titanium dioxide, which enhances brightness. It is available in a range of strength and yield levels from 3.2 mil to 25 mil in thickness. According to Vice President John Giblin, Granwell's proprietary GC-3 grade has one of the highest tear strengths in the industry at an excellent price and performance level. Each is available in both slit rolls and sheets.

Giblin says Granwell's synthetics are commonly used in pressure sensitive labels, tags, banners, signs, maps, and horticultural products, among several other uses. Synthetics have also recently broken into the digital printing markets, security labels and pilfer-proof packaging markets. Such diversity of use is what motivates Granwell to offer its customers a wide variety of synthetics, Giblin says.

"Customers don't have to settle for a 'one size fits all' concept," he says. "They can get a synthetic paper that is specifically designed for their application."

An array of labels printed on Granwell's Polylith

Though Giblin can't speak to the specific issues that synthetics present to printers and converters today, he says that the problems they faced 10 years ago are practically non-existent today; a good sign for the industry overall. He adds that the only applications that synthetics are not suitable for would be a low-cost, conventional paper application or an application that doesn't require the physical properties of synthetic papers. Because of their versatility, Giblin believes that the future of the synthetics market is strong.

"The future looks bright, since more and more printers and converters are discovering what synthetic papers can do for them," he says. "In addition, other geographic areas are now commonly using synthetic papers."
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