The Plastic Problem In Print
Plastic is an amazing invention. It has freed people from the social and economic constraints that came with sourcing and relying on natural resources. The first commercial synthetic plastic, celluloid, was developed in 1869 by John Hyatt and was considered a significant breakthrough in manufacturing. For the first time, production was not limited by what nature could provide. Hyatt was motivated by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 to anyone who could find an alternative to using ivory for billiard balls. Billiards was increasing in popularity and the rising demand for ivory was becoming both an ethical and economical issue.
His invention also replaced horn and tortoise shell and was promoted as a significant step in helping not only people, but also in preserving nature and the environment. From there the interest in developing synthetic plastics for commercial applications snowballed. The irony is that a product that was designed to protect nature from the damage caused by human need has in turn created a material that is now having a very detrimental impact on the environment and people.
There is reason we use plastic. It is tough, durable, functional, versatile, safe and its most attractive feature – cheap.
Plastic is not inherently bad. It has value, and benefits all industries and our daily lives. The problems start when we are finished with the plastic we use. It’s what we do with after it’s used that is really the issue because if not disposed of correctly, plastic waste never really goes away. It just degrades into smaller and smaller microplastics, then nano-plastics and eventually infiltrates the eco system at every level. It’s not just about the oceans or the images we see of marine and bird life tangled and choking on plastics. Studies have found that, on average, we ingest a credit card size worth of microplastics every week! Plastics are infiltrating the human body. We don’t yet know the long-term effects but do we really want to wait to find out before we do anything?
We can’t just stop using plastic. Single use plastics are easier to target and replace but there are many more industrialised uses of plastic that would be almost impossible to give up in the modern world, unless we want to live like we did 150 years ago.
What we can do is become more aware and educated around plastic and what we are actually using. Are there alternatives? Can we reduce our consumption? How can we better dispose of the plastics we use?
We talk about plastics as though it is one thing but there are 7 different types of plastic each with different attributes and different environmental impacts. In the wide format print industry, the most widely used plastic is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). The attributes that make PVC the best choice for printed media is also what unfortunately, make it the most environmentally damaging plastic.
Pure PVC is rigid. In order to make it soft and flexible for use as self-adhesive film, plasticisers are added along with other additives (UV and heat stabilizers, pigments and adhesives). The result is a film that is conformable, durable, fire retardant and has good resistance to heat, UV, chemicals and abrasives. The result for the environment is a film that takes 500+ years to degrade and leaches out its additives into the environment. The amount and toxicity of ingredients a PVC film will leach out will depend on the ingredients the film manufacturer chooses. The good news is that unlike single use plastics we are unlikely to find printed graphics in our oceans or littered in the street, however the longevity of PVC waste in the environment is a serious concern.
Due to all the additives in PVC print media couple with the adhesive and printing ink, PVC graphics cannot be recycled. They also can’t be incinerated in New Zealand as they release dioxins, furans and toxic hydrogen chloride gas (also something to think about for indoor graphics in the event of a fire). We also do not have any waste to energy (WtE) incineration facilities for plastic. Today, the only way to dispose of printed PVC film is to send it to landfill. This includes the paper release liners which are coated with silicon and polyethylene rendering them non- recyclable as well.
Now imagine, every single PVC graphic that has ever been printed. It is still out there breaking down and will be for hundreds more years to come.
As an industry we need to balance environmental concerns with commercial reality. It doesn’t make commercial sense to use greener products and processes if they are price prohibitive or don’t perform to the level of traditional media. The film technology is not there, yet, to allow us to completely eliminate PVC as a substrate. It is still the best solution for long term applications but moving away from PVC for short term campaigns and indoor graphics, where many of the attributes of PVC are not required, is now completely achievable.
PVC -free print alternatives are now available that print just as well as PVC and are cost effective. These films are still a type of plastic but they don’t contain the same additives as PVC. They are much safer and the same type of plastic you would find in food and beverage packaging. Also they degrade much faster in landfill without leaching the same toxins. (The reason for being shorter term alternatives).
Switching to a better plastic is a good first step but an even more sustainable solution is to recycle it as well. Recycling is the cleanest and most efficient way to dispose of printed media. Our waste becomes a re-useable resource for other manufacturers to use. This in turn conserves natural resources as it decreases the demand for raw materials and keeps plastic out of the waste stream.
It is one thing to promote a film as being recyclable but another thing to actually recycle it. Gone are the days of shipping waste offshore with an “out of sight out of mind mentality”. Sadly, today, some products are promoted as being recyclable but there is no local infrastructure to collect or process the material so it ends up in landfill. Companies who make claims about the recyclability of their products should be more transparent about where and how their products are recycled. They also have a responsibility to ensure it is actually possible for the customer to return the product for recycling in their region before they sell products based on the value of recycling. Anything less is greenwashing.
As sustainability becomes more of a necessity than a trend, we should look to invest in products that can be recycled and are compatible with our local recycling capabilities.
Today it is completely possible for the wide format print industry to move forward and improve its environmental credentials without compromising on producing quality print campaigns. By reducing our consumption of PVC, using greener media alternatives and recycling we can we can do our part and contribute to a more sustainable future.