23 July 2018 Business

Not so plastic fantastic

Plastic is now a hot issue across all industries and print has to do something about its dependence on single-use and hard to recycle materials. And there is the threat of legislation if the industry cannot find eco friendly alternatives to polywrap.

The printing industry has a problem with plastic. Not to the extent of the packaging industry which is in the cross hairs of activists from all directions, but it is real enough. And the biggest problem is polywrap.

While nominally recyclable, the vast majority ends of the wrapping material up in landfill. Publishers, brands and agencies are making it clear that this has to change, because consumers have made it clear that throwing plastic away is simply not acceptable. Print therefore has a problem with what is a very useful material.

Polywrap is almost universally used to carry subscription magazines to readers, to convey direct mail or keep the weekend supplements together for newspaper publishers and retailers. Anything sent through the post is likely to have used polywrap, a low density polythene film. And polywrap is under fire.

The material is flimsy and while it can be recycled, few councils will collect it from the kerbside and consequently it will usually end up in landfill or worse. This is a problem that has been ignored for many years; although some organisations have insisted on more ecological solutions and alternatives have existed for at least a decade.

Polystar, one of the largest suppliers of wrap, has been able to offer biodegradeable films or films made from starch, but there have been few takers. Its standard film is produced from 100% recycled polythene and can be reused if processors can be found. Its Biofilm is made from sugarcane and is deemed to be carbon positive, it says.

Another supplier, Polyprint in Norwich will supply both plain films, and also flexo printed reels for both mail packs and magazines. It will process recovered film that is returned to it before sending it on for recycling. But it does not collect any film.

J&C Environmental will collect and manage film along with other waste streams, but this does not tackle the problem of individual polywrap bags.

The swing against the use of plastic wrapping was mentioned as a factor in the demise of Sunline Direct Mail, a company which had one of the largest fleets of polywrapping lines in the country. The administrator’s report will verify any impact from anti-plastic sentiment.

Certainly suppliers of the film material have been inundated with inquiries about alternatives in the weeks since the transmission of the Blue Planet episode with plastics in the ocean. The television programme is held up as the inflexion point for awareness of the plastic problem for the general public.

The outcry after the footage of turtles swimming through plastic waste has led to a clamour that something needed to change and to further media coverage, including a memorable front cover for National Geographic magazine.

The image of a plastic bag as an iceberg was striking and conveyed the message about the problems associated with plastic. The publisher is also to wrap editions of the magazines in the US, UK and India in paper rather than plastic. All editions will be mailed in paper by the end of 2019.

However, until this point any take up of environmentally friendly films has been limited. Starch or sugar based films degrade on contact with water, have a limited shelf life and are opaque rather than clear. Publishers believe it is important to show consumers the front cover of any magazine, even business to business titles.

The biodegradable films contain a UV reactive component which breaks the film into smaller pieces that are more easily broken down. It is clear and has many of the same attributes of standard polywrap, though will have a shorter shelf life unless stored carefully. Both, however, are considerably more expensive. And financial expediency for most publishers or direct mail users will take precedence.

However, the government wants to cut back on single-use plastics and is considering taxation as way to encourage this. It has asked for feedback from a wide spread of industry bodies. The Periodical Publishers Association has replied pointing out the benefits of both lightweight polywrap and the denser clear polypropylene film that is used to wrap and protect consumer magazines for on shelf display and to hold in place inserts or promotional gifts.

In its response to HM Treasury on ‘Tackling the Plastic Problem’, the PPA points out that plastic wrapping is “a critical component of a successful and efficient supply chain for magazines”. If the government is gearing up to tax the use of non recoverable plastic, the PPA is pleading to be taken as a special case “because of the lack of alternative solutions available in the market”.

It points out that there are many single-use plastic items in circulation where replacements are readily available, bamboo instead of plastic cutlery, paper or textile bags instead of plastic, reusable coffee cups and drinks bottles and so on. But polywrap continues to “offer the most reliable and cost effective means to ensure our print product reaches consumers as intended”.

The PPA’s Sustainability Action Committee says it has investigated alternatives, but falls in with Defra to say that oxy-biodegradeable products are not a solution only adding to landfill problems. Nor are starch based films an appropriate substitute, having a shorter shelf life, being considerably more expensive and producing methane during the composting process.

Eliminating plastic, either sending the magazine without a protective wrapping or in an envelope, is no solution either as this lacks the versatility of plastic, adds to labour costs and can result in damage to the magazine.

However, the PPA does acknowledge: “Both consumers and publishers are keen to act to tackle the issue of plastic waste. One significant challenge is the lack of suitable recycling facilities for plastic wrap, where publishers have moved to lighter weight and recyclable packaging, but the recovery economy doesn’t provide adequately.

"We would welcome greater investment in kerbside recycling facilities to build capacity and manage plastic waste. This is essential for a holistic approach to tackling plastic waste, beyond single-use product.”

It had previously issued a set of guidelines in November last year saying that publishers should encourage consumers to recycle the polywrap at retailer collection points; not to use oxy-biodegradeable alternatives as these cannot be reused.

For polypropylene, the thicker films used to bag some magazines for newsagent display which are not recycled through local authority or retail schemes. Instead it says such material should be clearly labelled to keep it out of waste streams.

Currently few retailers provide the collection points that the PPA has hoped to encourage and would be needed to handle the polywrap – even if consumers understood that recycling is possible. Kerbside collection is necessary.

However, in the wake of Blue Planet, consumers are becoming very keenly aware of the polluting impact of plastic. The PPA’s stance will have to change. Packaging has been the main target of the flak and retailers and brands have scrambled to reassure their customers that they are taking the issue seriously.

Iceland has pledged to move its own products away from plastic packaging; Morrisons has replaced plastic bags in the produce area with paper bags; Waitrose and others have promised big reductions.

More than 40 business were quick to sign up to a UK Plastics Pact organised by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap). These are businesses responsible for 80% of the plastic used in packaging in the UK and they have committed to elimination of single use plastic by 2025 and that all plastic used should be recyclable by 2030. Industry organisations have also signed up in support.

The PPA is not currently among them. PPA director general Owen Meredith knows there is an issue, saying: “We need to find a workable solution and while some members have experimented with different types of film, made from starch or biodegradable plastics, there is no view yet about what a long term solution might look like.”

He explains that the government has pledged £20 million to fund research in this area, looking at an increased network of recycling facilities – clearly the preferred solution for the magazine sector. “Publishers are not flush,” he says.

“We want to understand best practice and we are working with Royal Mail.” But it is not collaborating, it seems, with the DMA whose members are also using polywrap to send out direct mail campaigns and would also have a strong interest in any levy or legislation that emerges.

The Sustainability Action Committee will continue to have heated discussions and seek acceptable solutions, though none has yet been forthcoming. Some magazine publishers are using greener alternatives: the National Trust members magazine is for example mailed in an environmentally friendly film based on starch and sourced from a supplier in Austria.

Its members’ pack, once wrapped in polypropylene, is now delivered in cardboard to mitigate the environmental impact. Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don put pressure on the Immediate Media magazine’s publisher when pledging on air to have nothing to do with plastics.

Investigations into alternatives that the committee can now recommend have become more urgent with some kind of shift in position anticipated before the end of the year.

Direct mail producers are not under the same sort of pressure and are more easily able to offer paper alternatives to plastic film. “Polywrap is not a massive issue for us,” says Andrew Law, sales and marketing director of Integrity Print. “If the market moved away from window envelopes that would be the greater challenge for us.”

The pressure on commercial print is not yet as great, but it is driving change. Antalis reports a flurry of inquiries about replacing plastic infill packaging with paper alternatives.

“We have been getting requests for products which are recyclable and are made from recycled materials. We sell a huge amount of fibre packaging and also sell a lot of shrink wrap,” says Matthew Botfield, Antalis UK sustainability manager.

“If a company is handling a lot of film it can collect it, store in bins and it has a recyclable value. And this makes sense because if it goes to landfill there can be tax and fines to pay. The best thing is to recycle and use the rebate received to offset the cost of collection.”

While polywrap, or low density polythene, is recyclable, a lot is needed to make collection worthwhile. The trend towards light weighting plastics in recent years has not helped in this regard: more covers are needed to achieve the 1 tonne of material that will interest the recycling businesses.

The value of any recovered plastic falls steeply with any ink coverage or if it is coloured. Clear high density polyethylene is valued at £300 a tonne, coloured plastic around a third of that. Mixed plastics half that again.

Where there is a concentration of the material for recycling, at the print plant or mailing house for example, collection is worthwhile. Indeed not recycling and sending the material to landfill in general waste streams would be both foolish and expensive as this will incur a landfill charge.

Exactly what comes back in terms of payment will depend on the condition of the material. Film with no or only light courage of print will command a better price than heavily covered films. “There is no value in black film,” says Botfield.

Individual subscribers who receive their magazine in a polywrap bag are unlikely to have access to these sorts of collection and recycling facilities. It is reckoned that only one quarter of local authorities will accept the film in kerbside collection boxes which will accept PET and other rigid plastics.

The National Infrastructure Commission has this summer published a report into public attitudes towards recycling. It concludes: “There is public support for greater recycling, but frustration with the complexity of the process.”

The NIC wants 75% of plastic to be recovered and recycled by 2030 and suggest better design and clearer labelling can help, using “clear two symbol labelling” to show products that are recyclable and which are not.

Currently consumers must understand a range of different symbols produced by different industry organisations to indicate the recyclability or otherwise of the products, adding to the confusion says NIC. Hard to recycle plastics should be phased out.

Under pressure from customers, printers are asking about alternatives to conventional polywrap, either more environmentally friendly films or even papers. The switch has not yet occurred but it will.

“We are getting some inquiries,” says one magazine print director, “but publishers are put off by the costs. We have looked at the situation, but the demand is not there at the moment.” Others are checking the options through inquiries to polywrap suppliers and to suppliers of their wrapping machinery.

All suppliers of wrapping line technology have been answering calls from magazine and direct mail printers: can existing Sitma lines be converted to run paper instead of film? The answer is that for a price they can. The paper reel is pulled around the magazine just as film is and instead of using heat to weld the sides of film together, a glue gun applies a line of adhesive and the top is sealed against the bottom in the standard way.

Glue is also used as the package is cut at top and tail to seal the product, whether a magazine or catalogue. Inkjet is used to print the address and postal marks. As these will be clearer than on film, there is the possibility of larger mailing discounts, including Mailmark.

Certainly for subscription magazines there is the opportunity to print promotional messages on the carrier, perhaps even advertising, to mitigate any additional cost.

There is a productivity penalty in that a conventional paper wrapping line will run approximately 2,000cph slower than the film equivalent. Those magazine printers that plan to convert existing lines may have little choice.

“We are talking to existing users about retro fitting paper handling to existing machines,” says Dan Rainbird, national sales executive at Sitma’s UK dealer Engelmann & Buckham. “This is possible with more recent machines and is as much about the software changes as handling systems.” It will not be possible to convert older machines.

One challenge is that paper has a variability that polywrap does not have. Different publishers will want to use preferred grades, whereas the enclosing lines are suited to running the same material with a limited number of gauges.

Sitma is providing samples of finished items wrapped in various types of paper. “We believe that polywrap is on its way out,” says Rainbird.

This belief is strengthened in reference to countries which have never acquired the plastic habit in the same way as the UK, or else have different recycling structures that ensure that whatever is used, does not end up in landfill. Israel and Jordan for example mail all kinds of printed items in paper.

“Polywrap is on its way out,” says Simone Alberati at sales manager at CMC's mailing division, “everything is switching to paper.” The cost of making the change will be an obstacle. “The cost of a new machine specifically for paper is around £400,000, yet printers want to pay £50,000 for an upgrade.

“A more realistic cost will be £250,000. But then unless the machine is less than six years old, you have to ask is it worth it? Printers should buy new and something fully configured for paper. We sold a machine just last week for this purpose.”

Alberati believes that the market will be publisher led. “It will be a case of the publisher saying: ‘Do something or you will lose our business’.”

Direct mail operations are potentially better placed. Almost all will offer paper wrapping or envelope inserting alongside polywrap and can cope with a migration to the more easily recyclable paper material.

The Lettershop Group developed a means of paper wrapping for mail around a decade ago but found few takers says managing director Simon Cooper. Now that technology has been revived and improved with the possibility of printing in the company’s high speed Kodak Prosper 6000C inkjet press. This can decorate the outside of the package at litho quality in full colour.

Through its sister companies in the York Mailing Group there is access to both mailing, catalogue and magazines that might be wrapped in paper. It is also looking at the technology to provide publishers with inkjet printed, finished and wrapped in paper sleeves. It has been running tests for publishers and retailers.

“And with the paper wrap we can be up to date with the message on the outside,” says managing director Simon Cooper. “We can leave what is printed on the cover until the last minute, just a few days before it is mailed out.

“A majority of people now want to move away from plastic to paper. From our point of view we have the capacity to do that.”

It will not be an overnight switch, but the alternatives to polywrap are becoming viable. Films made from algae and other bio materials are in development and will become cheaper as production moves from the fringe to the mainstream. What is clearly a problem today need not be a problem for print tomorrow.

Gareth Ward

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