A few years ago there was a bit of a buzz around intelligent packaging. The excitement was based on the fact that with the addition of printed electronics and an online connection, packaging and food processing would be revolutionised. Smart packaging would use near-field communications to be more efficient and more engaging. The package would warn you if the food was going off, or it would tell the retailer the rate of sales, or the most popular time of day for sales. There was even an argument that claimed such packaging was more environmentally friendly, because it could cut food waste. In fact it might discourage shoppers to know that according to an electronic sensor a piece of beef was on the turn, rather than being well hung.
The environmental impact of textile production is starting to get more attention. Manufacturers and developers within the graphics industry want to sell digital printing systems for direct-to-garment (DtG) and general textile printing, so they are especially keen. How they frame their messages is tricky though. There is an inherent conflict between the on demand, have-it-now-and-toss-it mentality, and the model that encourages resource conservation. A throw-away culture is bad for the environment, but it suits digital printing and sells more print. But digital printing involves much shorter supply chains and so much lower emissions. Reconciling the two in the textiles sector is a major challenge for our industry.
Digital printing of textiles gets a lot of hype these days. Technology developers and service providers alike are searching for the next killer app for digital printing systems. The sustainability of these solutions is touted on the basis that they undermine and essentially subvert traditional printed textile production systems, which have a heavy environmental impact. But perhaps the more serious impact happens after production, when textiles are thrown away either for recycling via charity shops or just as waste. In the European Union (EU) alone 4.3 million tonnes of textile waste gets burnt up or landfilled every year. Even though hundreds of thousands of tonnes of new textiles come to market monthly, hardly any of it contributes to a circular economy.
Set up in 2019, PrintCYC is an initiative for recycling and processing printed plastic film waste. It has the support of Huber Group, a leading ink manufacturer and numerous other participants in the plastic film supply chain. The group’s goal is to provide cost-effective and useful new materials made from postindustrial waste. Huber Group and its partners describe PrintCYC (which rather oddly stands for Printed Polypropylene (PP) and Polyethylene (PE) films for mechanical recycling) as “a value chain initiative for the recyling of printed films”. The group includes machine makers and other film specialists as well as Huber.
Companies in the graphics industry are not particularly keen on certifications, generally citing cost and hassle as reasons not to bother. This is short sighted because certifications provide various assurances, not least for safety and process reliability and quality assurance. We are seeing a rising number of certifications in the business, particularly as packaging innovations grow. These are for digital printing systems using ISO 12647-2 (Process control for offset printing) as well as for materials and consumables such as inks.