Whether you’re a seedling or solidly planted in your sustainability initiatives, the latest practices, processes and products can assure the greening of your company well into the future.

You remember, as a kid, learning that money doesn’t grow on trees, right? The bad news is mom and dad’s revelation may still sting in your professional years in flexible packaging. But who ever said your company can’t cultivate some bottom line results by planting some seeds-that is, implementing sustainability initiatives?

Today’s sustainability seeds take different shapes. The budding sustainability trend now is markedly different from the ones you’ve seen before. The increased greening of companies, corporations committing to sustainability goals, has met the Greenback, and sustainability movements-more focused and honed than ever-now address two objectives: planet and profit. Whatever objective a company chooses to pursue or wherever you’re at with your sustainability projects, three basic vehicles-practices, processes and products-will get you there.

Power meters, the horizontal rectangular components between each switchgear cabinet, let plant management know how much power is being used by circuits. When you implement energy efficiency improvements, the power meters will reflect that.

Photo courtesy of Schneider Electric

It's in the way that you use it

No matter your role in flexible packaging, chances are your monthly outgoings, emissions and costs, are directly related to energy. Schneider Electric, a global energy management consultant, has found that the average industry can reduce its energy usage-including water, air, gas, electricity and steam-by 10% to 20%. How?

“We have several points that our clients meter,” explains Jim Plourde, national business development manager for Schneider. “They’re monitoring the main service entrance and downstream from there. They meter at the substation level and even further downstream, like a lower voltage panel. They might actually meter at the device itself.”

Plourde explains that the more an industry understands where, how and when energy is being used, the more control it will have to drive emissions and expenses down.

“By simply installing a monitoring package, a company will save 2% to 3% right out of the chute, simply by making people aware of their energy consumption,” says Plourde. “Once they begin to analyze time of use, sequence motor load and implement energy efficiency measures based on their monitoring system, they’re typically realizing an additional 5% to 15% or even 20% energy savings.”

With any energy efficiency project, Schneider Electric considers return on investment and points out that many customers realize this vital point in a matter of months. An additional benefit notes Jarrett Campbell, Schneider Electric’s market segment manager, is not just making the most of energy, but making the most of components.

“A couple of machine builders at Pack Expo put our power logic power monitors on their machines,” says Campbell. “Over time, we saw a change in the draw and power over the life of the servo motors. By looking at this power signature over time, you can predict the lifespan of the motor.”

Campbell explains that instead of changing a motor out after a set number of hours like preventive maintenance requires, why not change it out when the power draw that is expected over the lifetime reaches 98% of the traditional threshold that motor is able to sustain?

“You can gauge your maintenance activities based on the real reasons why the motor’s failing, not just some period of operational time,” explains Campbell. “We’re on the tip of the iceberg of energy management with machinery and factories. It’s really an area where people are going to spend a lot of time over the next few years.”

While Schneider Electric seeks to change how plants consume energy, a non-profit group, Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), seeks a similar transformation of how packaging is designed, transported and ultimately made economically and environmentally prosperous. SPC accomplishes this with COMPASS, short for Comparative Packaging Assessment, an online software tool that helps designers, engineers and manufacturers assess a package’s human and environmental consequences.

“When selecting packaging materials, packagers need to consider the environmental impact of a package’s entire lifecycle,” says Minal Mistry, COMPASS project manager. “This design-phase tool provides the information for this lifecycle approach and helps packaging professionals understand the full implications of how design decisions fit within their company’s broader sustainability objectives.”

Three years in the making, the online design-phase tool was first released as a beta version to SPC members in late 2008 and went public in March. The interface examines a package’s content and design, then provides comparisons of packaging designs based on a set of human and environmental impacts from energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, content (recycled or virgin), solid waste and more.

“COMPASS provides users with the information needed to weigh their objectives for sustainability with packaging design options,” says Mistry. As a software application, Mistry points out that COMPASS won’t directly impact flexible packaging converters and their operators, but it will help packaging engineers and designers understand the implications of material selections.

Safe for the environment and the finest screen flexo plates, this plate cleaner features a convenient roll-out reservoir for safe storage of the neurotoxin-free chemistry and can be operated automatically by only one person.

Photo courtesy of OEC Graphics

Clean to go green

While taking a holistic look at your sustainability situation and goals may reveal ways to achieve results, drilling down to specific points in your operation and implementing sustainable processes can also bring success.

When operating, the printing press generates both revenue and emissions, and printers know this. But during downtime, what does the parts cleaning process cost? And what about those costs that don’t show their red face on the company ledger?

“Customers often don’t know the cost associated with that operation,” explains Steve Buch, general manager for ArmaKleen.

Buch’s company-a joint venture between Church & Dwight, makers of the Arm & Hammer brand, and Safety-Kleen Systems, manufacturer of anilox roll cleaning systems-markets ArmaKleen, an automated, cost-effective parts cleaning system. ArmaKleen units use a line of low volatile organic compound (VOC), water-based cleaners aimed at removing inks and coatings from press parts in lithographic, flexographic and gravure printing lines.

“There’s a Part A and Part B to this mixture and they’re mixed together 50/50, typically heated from 120° to 170° F.,” says Buch. “It can be used in almost any type of parts washer: an immersion system, spray system, ultrasonic system.”

The chemistry, Buch says, has no California Prop 65 chemicals (a list of substances known to cause cancer or birth defects) and typically leaves a customer’s plant as non-hazardous waste for off-site disposal.

Like ArmaKleen’s product for cleaning anilox and applicator rolls, OEC Graphics’ Plate Cleaner offers the same effortless, economical and environmental benefits for cleaning flexographic plates. Used photopolymer plates are laid upon a tacky transport plate, which automatically conveys the ink-laden plates into the plate cleaning machine. Inside the machine, the printing plates are first soaked in a Polywash solvent to begin the dissolution of ink. To maximize efficiency, this cleaning agent is continuously looped through the system. The plates pass beneath an oscillating brush that is gentle enough for the finest screens. A second solvent treatment then removes any remaining ink before the cleaned plates are routed through an in-line drying station where the process is completed, about five to 10 minutes after the plates were initially fed into the machine.

Naturally, OEC’s Plate Cleaner helps printers achieve sustainability goals by extending the life of their plates, cutting down on the number of plates that end up landfills. But as Jennifer Navin, vice president of marketing and communications at OEC Graphics explains, the solution plays an integral part, too.

“The solution is run down over a two month period,” says Navin. “The end solution is super-saturated with inks and sludge, so it is not suitable for sewer. It gets put into a non-hazardous waste material bin and then goes to [an off-site] recycler.”

Ink used in variable data applications becomes part of the package and features low or no VOCs, a much more sustainable choice.

Photo courtesy of Videojet

Solid performance in solventless

A leading trend in sustainability revolves around the elimination of VOCs, and likewise, solvents. Flexible packaging adhesives have been at the center of this movement since it took shape in the 1970s in Europe where suppliers sought ways to combat an energy crisis. Today, the same predicament has returned and is complicated by increasing line speeds and tighter cost requirements.

Rohm and Haas’ answer to this challenge is Mor-Free L 75-164. Recommended for general and medium-performance packages, as well as challenging hot fill applications, the 100% solids adhesive delivers in multiple ways.

“You don’t have to have drying ovens for them,” says Nancy Smith, commercial development manager for Rohm and Haas. “You’re not shipping around excess weight of materials that are just going to get evaporated off. You have no emissions associated with solvent-free adhesives.”

Smith explains that the curing mechanism is purely chemical and the lamination cures quickly once prepared. “Converters have been able to put zippers in pouches within 24 hours and ship it for a high-temperature hot fill type application within three days.”

Solventless technology is also at the heart of Unifoil Corp.'s recent product, UltraLustre, a patented transfer-metalizing process used in recyclable packaging. Unifoil chief executive officer and president Joseph Funicelli explains that the product, designed for non-porous substrates like plastic packaging, offers numerous environmental benefits and that the process uses 100% solids, meaning no emissions, no solvents, and because the product is electron beam curable, no water. The company applies an adhesive coating to the substrate, transfers the decoration to the substrate and then the decorating film is reused. In large volume applications, where reuse may be difficult, Unifoil recycles the base carrier into new products, explains Funicelli.

“In some worlds, there’s not a competitive product yet,” says Funicelli. “Ink doesn’t give you the ‘pop’ you need. For the amount of ink you’re putting down with a metallic-type ink, to grab attention on the shelf, it’s not even close. We generally see a 10% to 15% bump in consumer appeal" according to end users.

The solventless trend has seemingly affected all ends of the industry, including the application of variable data and the inks used in this process. John Kirschner, director of marketing for Videojet’s supplies business, explains that an ink used in variable data consists of roughly 80% solvent that eventually evaporates.

“What we’ve done, deliberately and increasingly, is selected solvents that represent a lower VOC,” says Kirschner. “So perhaps one savings, if you use an ethanol-based ink, is fewer pounds or grams into the atmosphere than with a higher-volatility fluid.”

For some converters, the switch to a sustainable variable data ink may be much to do about nothing since the printed code doesn’t represent a large part of a package’s real estate. But Kirschner believes there’s no time like the present for printers with a list of sustainability initiatives.

“It’s a change that you can implement quickly, unlike changing a production process or changing the packaging materials,” says Kirschner. “We can consult with a customer that bought a printer five or 10 years ago. With that ink jet printer, we can simply go through an ink change procedure.

“People have recognized that sustainability is not a light switch, it’s not something that you didn’t do yesterday and now you do it today. It’s an evolving process. While customers are working on their mid- to long-term goals, we’ve been able to help them in the short-term as well.”

There's a new kid in town-PHA

In bioplastics today, familiar starch-based materials and polylactic acid (PLA) dominate. Lowell, Mass.-based Telles aims to soon add more letters to the bioplastics alphabet: PHA.

Under the name Mirel, polyhydroxy alkanoate (PHA) will enter commercial production at a plant near Clinton, Iowa, beginning in second quarter 2009. When 110 million pounds annually enter the supply streams, what can you expect?

“Like the petroleum-based marketplace, you have different materials that do different things,” says Bob Findlen, vice president of sales and marketing at Telles. “Mirel is completely biodegradable in all environments. Not just the industrial composting environment, but also in backyard composting.”

Another shortcoming of several bio-based resins today concerns heat resistance, but as Findlen explains, Mirel’s got you covered.

“Mirel’s got great heat resistance,” says Findlen. “Some of the materials today are limited in the market space they can go after because of that heat issue, whether shipping products in containers across the country or the end use application itself. Mirel has a heat deflection temperature of 266° F. (130° C.), so it can be used in hot water and microwave applications.”

While the product is being targeted mostly at brand owners looking to reach out to green consumers, it’s only a matter of time before the product replaces conventional plastic materials currently being used in some extrusion lines...without significant modifications.

“We can use existing conventional processing machines, let it be film, thermoforming or injection molding,” notes Findlen. “You can use the same equipment that’s out there today being used with petroleum-based materials.”

Whether your sustainability shopping list is still being written or you’ve crossed off more than half your goals, think of the low-hanging fruits before you. Yes, the economy is dodging crushing waves in a sea of red, but many of the sustainability options may prove to help your profits as much as the planet. n


OEC Graphics
800-388-7770; www.oecgraphics.com

Rohm and Haas
877-288-5881; www.rohmhaas.com

Schneider Electric

Sustainable Packaging Coalition

973-244-9900; www.unifoil.com

Videojet Technologies
800-843-3610; www.videojet.com