All about responsible packaging and eco-friendly inks

Reflecting the print and packaging industry’s theme of respect for our natural world, Akil Contractor spotlights the science behind green standards

11 Jul 2022 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Akil Contractor: The new buzz words are eco-friendly ink options, easily biodegradable, recyclable, certified natural and organic materials, minimal carbon footprint ...

Ramu Ramanathan (RR): Are we making our chemicals, inks, and plastics more environmentally friendly or sustainable?
Akil Contractor (AC):
 Yes, we are. An example of this is the ban on the solvent toluene for liquid inks for food packaging because we have choices and alternatives. Wider adoption of green solvents is the new norm. This means it will not result in harmful vapours and emissions into the air. Also, it will eliminate the related toxicity towards humans during ink making, handling and printing. The shift from cobalt and other metal-based driers into oil-based inks is another good example.

RR: What about eco-friendly inks and water-based alternatives?
All the major ink manufacturers are engaged full-time in research and offering eco-friendly inks with an increased percentage of bio-renewable raw materials and towards a minimal content of heavy metals and volatiles. The trend of water-based ink alternatives in India is ensuring a greater consideration for plant-derived, renewable raw materials and minimal volatile emissions.

RR: Such as? Soy inks and veggie inks?
 Yes, of course, how could I forget. It is such a brilliant replacement for petroleum-based ingredients and heralded the first significant innovation towards using a renewable resource – it was found that the lucidity of the soya bean oil was so superior that it enhanced the brightness and richness of the pigments leading to vivid and vibrant results on the packaging, besides the main benefits of sustainability.

RR: What about sustainable plastics and responsible packaging?
Conventional plastics are shifting towards recyclable plastics in a significant way along with bamboo-based, glass-based, metal- and silicone-based recyclable options. Then there are non-hazardous materials such as paper wraps, paper tapes, wood, starch-based materials, cotton and other natural fibres. The consumption of conventional plastic is on the decline. All of us are aware of the campaign to ban single-use plastic packaging in India. The new buzzwords in the field of packaging are eco-friendly ink options, easily biodegradable, recyclable, certified natural and certified organic, minimal carbon footprint and more.

RR: Any Indian examples?
There are many Indian examples. From HUL and P&G to Dabur and Nykaa and even Amazon and Soul Tree to the new D2C players. Specific replacements that I can cite are paper tapes to replace plastic tapes, personal care and beauty products in biodegradable packs, which decompose in the presence of moisture and microorganisms.

RR: Are all the present generation of inks compostable?
Well, technically if you list out the ink chemistries ranging from aqueous, oil, solvent and energy cured, they cannot be assuredly compostable as per the definition. Printing inks are mixtures of chemical substances such as resins, organic polymers, pigments, additives, and diluents, which are not biodegradable and therefore non-compostable. However, there is an interesting European standard for compostable packaging and such products where they permit the use of a small percentage of non-compostable elements provided that does not significantly influence the compost-efficiency of the final product. And so, anything that is compostable would be of essentially carbon-based organic nature capable of being broken down into harmless waste by the action of microorganisms without any toxic or harmful chemical residues. Just as plastic, glass and metals are non-compostable and have to be destroyed, much of the ingredients in current printing inks will not break down by the action of microorganisms. The main focus on compostable ink would be on compostable packaging.

RR: Strengthening the ink standard among end-customers; how does one achieve this?
This is most relevant amongst the end customer segment for food products and other consumer packaging where the concerns of ink-related health risks are of prime significance. The message is spreading through the thoughtful ink maker who is aware of the risk factors in food packaging. India is a vast and diverse country and one needs to do a lot more in terms of education and awareness about such issues. The rural population is oblivious to the risks posed by the packaged product that they purchase. It is incumbent upon the packaging manufacturer to opt for eco-friendly options for the basic packaging raw material and the inks deployed. The green habit should be spread by brands who have opted for eco-friendly and safer options and aim to reach out to the largest segment of people via the internet and other connective methodologies of our times.

RR: Should we expect more chemicals on the list to protect consumer safety?
The story of humanity after the advent of the industrial revolution has been one of so-called progress. In fact, after the discovery of oil /petroleum, it has been a bonanza for human civilisation. Thousands of petro-based chemicals, dyes, colourants, and solvents have been born as a result. These products are the mainstay of the printing ink, paint and surface coating industry. The consequences and effects of such chemicals on human health have gained importance in the last few decades. A long list of chemicals has been identified. Naturally, additions will be a continuous process since most chemical-based products are harmful to human health in one way or the other. The key is to identify those chemical materials, which are potentially mutagenic and genotoxic and toxic by virtue of heavy metals. I suspect this list will keep growing.

RR: In this sense, what is your view about the mechanical process as opposed to a chemical process?
Are you referring to a mechanical process of obtaining a print by a no-chemical inkless methodology.

RR: That’s right.
It is an interesting idea. I think imageable substrates such as special papers and films will be created, which will generate the monochromatic and colour prints with unique energy of pressure or maybe by an energy wavelength, which can obviate a chemical ink. Currently, thermal papers and other special papers with CMYK colours embedded in the paper and activation by different temperatures, exist. However, this happens with its own limitations of cost and viability. Having said that, I must add that they involve chemical-related inks/coatings technically.

RR: Nothing in the pipeline?
Nothing as yet is on the horizon to replace the print performance and end result obtainable with chemical origin inks on flexible and rigid packaging. All current printing inks have to be manufactured from chemicals and there is no real non-chemical alternative to manufacture inks for similar print results.

RR: During the recently-concluded PrintPack India show, there was an announcement of inks that do not need a drying process? Tenable?
Well, in the absence of more specific information about the technology, I cannot comment. Having said that, whatever coating or ink or paint is spread out or printed has to change its nature from an unsolidified state to a solidified (cured, hardened) state and with the help of drying mechanisms be it oxidative, evaporative or energy-cured ranging from several hours to minutes to a second depending on the methodology adopted. An ink, which can bypass the ink drying process, begs the question – what is the real advantage and why/how will it contribute to a quality product. However, let’s wait and watch what this innovation is and how it contributes to the quality quotient.

RR: There is a calibrated relationship between ink, substrate and fountain solutions. However, most of the focus is on the inks and substrates. Founts get neglected. How does one deploy founts much more effectively?
Fountain solutions have been used in lithographic printing for decades. They are technically water-based solutions applied immediately before or after the ink is applied to the printing plates. However, even experienced printers constantly struggle with issues of compatibility of the fountain solution with the ink and the alcohol or acid replacement. There is a great need to utilise a fountain solution that is of neutral pH and compatible with all inks. While opting for a fountain solution make sure it does the key job well which is to de-sensitise the non-image area of the printing plates so they are rendered ink repellent. The effectiveness of founts is ensured by a judicious combination of the acid/base contributors depending on desired pH, a gum-like Arabic, which de-sensitises the non-image areas. Also, deploy corrosion inhibitors, which can limit the plate damage, wetting agents/surfactant to reduce the surface tension of the solution and enable the smooth flow. In addition, look at fungicide to kill undesirable organic growth, an anti-foam agent, which limits the tendency of the fount-to-foam and causes distribution problems on the press.

RR: What about an advanced fount?
An advanced fount would also have a drying stimulator, which synergises the drying agent in the ink to minimise smudging, ink set-off and blocking. There is no denying the importance of including founts within the partnership of inks and substrates. These days most firms opt for a universal fount after due process of trials and testing.

RR: What must printers and packaging convertors consider to boost re-pulpability and recyclability of products they produce. What is the role of inks in this process?
Consumers are aware of the lifecycle of a package. Therefore it is incumbent on the paper manufacturer, printer and packaging manufacturer to realise the strength of consumer choice and brand loyalty and rethink their relationship with material use and waste disposal, recovery, recycling and most important the re-pulpability. Printers and packaging converters will have to be most enthusiastic about increased adoption of re-pulpable paper and inks and coatings for reasons of lowered costs, availability of environmentally friendly inks and coatings, and enhancement in brand reputation.

RR: Do you see greater awareness among the end consumers?
Consumer perception about packaging, especially food packaging, is changing. They are questioning the credentials of a package with respect to its function to preserve the contents, sustainability and wastefulness and the consequence of such packages on the environment when disposed of in an insensitive manner. Therefore, there is an urgent need to boost re-pulpability and recyclability.

RR: What is the challenge?
Printers and packaging converters are incentivised to do this. But they have to ensure effective collection of such used packages. In addition, there has to be effective advertising by the brand to create awareness. All three have to transpire in tandem. Otherwise, success is limited. This needs participation from the end-users of the package to ensure maximum channelling back of the packages and not into landfills.

RR: What is the role of inks in all this?
The role of inks is very clear and vital. They should be printable using existing coating equipment, as resistant to grease, oil, and water as currently needed. At the same time, it needs to be re-pulpable along with the paper component without adding significantly to the process cost.  I feel that de-inking would be a very big deterrent.

RR: One final question. There were five conferences on the sidelines of PrintPack India. Every other PPT was about coatings and barrier technology plus wet-end chemistries and surface chemistries. Why are these terms trending so much?
Interesting observation. Paper barrier coatings technology, wet end chemistries, surface chemistries - all these are about paper production and paper application enhancement technologies. The point is how to add value to paper by giving it superior properties for a wider range of applications and increasing usage for printing and packaging. I feel the terms are trending due to the eruption of innovations and advancements in paper-making and coating knowledge base. There is a growing trend in favour of paper/special papers due to the environmental notifications.

Akil Contractor worked in the family-owned Rainbow Inks for 21 years before he embarked on his own enterprise Print Dynamic in 2002. Contractor’s aim has been to formulate and manufacture special application inks for textiles and security applications and technical ink formulation. Print Dynamic’s work has been recognised by the Limca Book of Records in 2008, and by the SPTF Foundation in the USA.