Lamination has become the nation’s favourite way to enhance and add value to print, to provide an extra sheen as well as protection. Consumer magazines and book jackets led the way along with some packaging. Now lamination is the service that pretty much any printer can offer thanks to lower cost and easy to handle laminators. These are all thermal machines using heat and pressure to seal the paper and the plastic lamination film.
And herein lies the issue: the plastic film renders the sheet it is applied so much more difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. There is a big prize for the supplier that can come up with a way to separate film and paper easily, to produce a clear biodegradable film or to solve the problem in an entirely novel way.
It was not always like this. The original laminating film was environmentally friendly, being based on plant materials. And examples of cellulose based films can still be found on the oh-so collectable vinyl albums dating from the 1960s and 1970s before UV varnish began to take over.
The material, made from plant derived cellulose, is still available as Clarifoil, the original laminate and Cellogreen, one of the films that trade finisher Celloglas continues to supply. However, it is rather more expensive than the polyester BOPP films that dominate the thermal laminated market, says Richard Pinkney, Celloglas marketing manager.
“Cellogreen is biodegradeable and compostable and it offers some advantages over polypropylene. It is better to glue on and has a higher gloss level for example, but it is not as strong as polypropylene and is more expensive,” he says.
It is for those companies that need an absolutely clean and green bill of health. For most commercial printers there is little to worry about from lamination. In most waste streams the amount of plastic film used is not enough to cause problems. Even at Celloglas where makeready waste will carry laminating films or UV varnish, waste contractor Prism Environmental has no problems with collection, segregation and recycling.
“We are a zero waste to landfill company,” says Pinkney. “Nothing we produce goes to landfill. It’s either recycled or incinerated. So if the waste handlers we use are happy to take our volume of offcuts with polypropylene, it’s not going to be a problem elsewhere, where such waste will comprise no more than 5% of the waste in a mixed bale.
“It will be skimmed off along with ink layer,” he says. And there are more complex reasons for continuing to laminate. As well as adding appeal to a product, a laminated sheet is more resilient: pub menus will not need to be reprinted as frequently, thus reducing a cradle to grave impact of imparting information to diners.
There are now a range of films based on PLA, the starch derived material that is being used instead of conventional LDPE films for magazine wraps. PLA is biodegradable, but lacks the clarity of a conventional BOPP film, one of the key attributes that most users are looking for. Work continues to improve these films, but for clarity cellulose acetate based products exist and are understood, though are not always suitable for thermal laminators.
Graphic Imaging Films offers acetate products and PLA as well as standard thermal gloss and matt films. “The PLA and acetates can be considered environmentally friendly, the the PLA comes only as a gloss. Acetate films can be supplied for thermal lamination, but it is very expensive and it is difficult to work with,” says sales and marketing director Sandro Mosquera. “We are currently working on other green possibilities with our manufacturers. But that’s proving rather difficult.”
Production of acetates is also problematic as it is an energy intensive somewhat dirty process. Demand is likely to be limited.
There is an oxy-bio option in the GIF range, which although with similar characteristics to the PLA, comes in matt and gloss versions says Mosquera. There are also polyester products for encapsulation, this being a substrate that can contain up to 70% of recycled materials. However. Mosquera points out that with any more than 10% recycled content, the impact on the product can make it difficult for the customer to accept “because people do not want to compromise the clarity of the film”.
But if the products themselves do not really exist, there are ways to minimise the impact of lamination. The first is not to do any, but as one printer does, use alternatives like varnish effects, foiling and embossing. Used well (and with the right print technology) these can deliver the luxury look and feel that lamination is used to convey, even down to tactile effects from different varnishes.
Nor will all head for these green products. Lightweighting, but running a thinner film than normal will have a reduced environmental impact and retain the properties of a protective layer. “A lot of the manufacturers we have spoken to are not that confident of finding a solution with a like for like performance as standard film in the short term, so perhaps the solution is to use less plastic,” he says.
“There need to be ways to segregate and collect the plastics that are used and then to process them and an education effort to get individuals to take more responsibility for disposing of the packaging materials.
“From a Graphic Imaging Films point of view we can supply thinner films. These have been associated with greater production problems around the adhesive and sensitivity to temperatures and static. These are issues that are being worked on by our manufacturers,” he expands.
And the producers of laminators are also working so that their machines can cope with more environmentally friendly materials. Komfi, where sales are handled by Friedheim in the UK, has confirmed through its own testing with a local recycling company that a print laminated with a cellulose film is recyclable without special treatment. It is now running trial with different products to calculate which cellulose film it can recommend.
Printers are staging their own tests. Nationwide Print in St Austell has yet to find the perfect green solution to the lamination dilemma, but has used a biodegradable film on window envelopes. “It’s something that we would be really keen to look at,” says a spokesman. “But until now we have not seen or come across anything that we can use as an alternative. We have used biodegradable films instead of polywrap and on envelopes, but not yet on lamination. We are trying to make the efforts to sort it out.”
In the same sustainability vein, Celloglas has introduced Mirri Eco as a backless metallised film. The film is applied to the board that is to be decorated and the polyester peeled off to level the metal layer in position. This is generating interest among retailers for use in semi permanent displays, says Pinkney.
And Drytac is about to introduce a cellulose film for window display as decoration. This will come in a board tube with cardboard rather than plastic end caps and recyclable liner. After use the whole ensemble can be returned to the tube and recycled in the same process.
The unnecessary use of plastic in the industry is being phased out.
By Gareth Ward