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FLEXO Magazine : Sustainable Fall 2010
Flexography and Sustainability: The Great Plate Debate There can be no doubt that environmental impact is a hot topic in the packaging industry today. All players in the supply chain are continually challenged to take action to improve their sustainability scorecard, and flexo- graphic printing is no exception; attention to environmental issues has been steadily increasing over the last decade, as the flexographic printing process has grown in importance in the packaging market. A large portion of that attention has been focused on the flexographic plates themselves and, more specifically, the processing methods associated with imaged plate production. The Great Plate Debate, which has been running for the last couple of years between some of the key long-term plate suppliers, has been squarely focused on the merits of solvent versus thermal processing for flexographic plates, with both camps declaring their preferred technology victorious; an outcome that has left the market somewhat confused. This paper offers a new perspective on the debate and discusses how making a plate choice for maximum impact on sustain- ability should consider the bigger picture for the overall flexographic printing process, and how other factors can easily dwarf the single element that is plate processing. FTA will offer a live version of the Great Plate Debate at its Fall Conference, Nov. 8-10 in Louisville, KY. A NEW PERSPECTIVE The impact of the plate on printing performance cannot be ignored. A great danger exists in considering platemak- ing (imaging and processing) as an isolated element from a sustainability perspective. The simple fact is that the product of that platemaking process, the imaged plate itself, has the power, through its unique characteristics, to impact the printing performance and thus the contribution that the printing operation itself makes to the sustainability picture; rest as- sured, it’s a large contribution. In a well-known industry lifecycle analysis (LCA), it was assumed that “imaged plates perform equivalently in printing, regardless of which process was used for plate processing and imaging,” thus eliminating the impact that different plates might have on the overall sustainability “big picture.” While this is a convenient assumption to make to enable a direct comparison between plate processing technologies, it actu- ally, by design, ignores the greatest impact that a plate tech- nology can have on sustainability: how it performs on press. It’s time to stop focusing on one small part of the picture and consider the big picture. EXPLAINING THE BIG PICTURE When reviewing the flexographic printing process, it is im- portant that we consider all of the key contributors to environ- mental impact. Figure 1, based on data published as part of the 2008 LCA, illustrates the significant components involved, and indicates that substrate, ink, electricity, etc. used in the print- ing process, are all far more significant than the plate in the overall picture. The plate is shown as being typically 1 percent or less of the overall impact. This is no great surprise, of course, when we stand back and think about it. Presses are great energy consumers and every printrun utilizes considerable volumes of ink and substrate. But what this chart reveals is that, in order to have the maximum positive impact on the sustainability of the flexo printing process, we re- ally need to focus on those “big ticket” items. It tells us that if our plate has the power to drive op- timum performance and reduce the substrate and ink waste on press, it has the power to have a much larger impact beyond the plate component itself. Next, if you consider the plate element of the overall picture in more detail, the photopolymer plate itself is the more signifi- cant contributor to environmental impact. Figure 2 indicates that raw materials comprise about 75 percent of a plate’s environmental impact; plate processing comprises about 25 percent or less. From this data, upon which the published studies both generally agreed, it is clear that the next best way to have a positive environmental impact is simply to use fewer plates. It might seem glaringly obvious, but it’s undeniably true. Not • Plate processing contributes about 1 percent of the total energy consumption. • A bigger impact can be realized from reduction of the number of plates and faster setups. • Flat-top dots are said to offer those benefits. 14 Sustainable FLEXO FALL 2010 www.flexomag.com