Sustainability is back at the top of the print industry’s agenda as we look forward to a post-lockdown future. Environmental concerns are a significant driver in both the products that customers want to choose and the products that printers wish to create. Manufacturers of presses and papers are also increasingly addressing climate change and carbon footprint targets.
The UK aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and a ‘plastic packaging tax‘ is arriving in April 2022. Across the print industry and beyond, green choices and corporate social responsibility (CSR) will continue to play an increasing part in business.
Like it or not, in the UK, we handle many different packaged products every single day. How do we work towards more sustainable options? No one has all the answers, but we are all grappling with similar questions. In this blog, we consider digital packaging’s sustainability credentials and where it sits within the broader packaging sector as part of a future industry landscape.
What is digital packaging?
Digital packaging is simply packaging printed digitally (toner or inkjet). Digital print is the process by which digital images are printed directly onto media, removing the need for a printing plate (as used in offset printing).
We’ve written before about the pros and cons of digital vs litho print; the two processes are suited to different types of job. Digitally printed packaging, just like standard digital printing, brings the benefits of efficient short runs, reduced wastage, lower set-up costs and unique versioning and personalisation to consumer packaging.
Xerox predicts that every digital print segment in the packaging industry will see rapid growth in the coming years.
What is sustainable packaging?
Sustainable packaging encompasses the sourcing, development and use of packaging solutions that have a minimal environmental impact. Corona (the beer) recently rolled out six-packs made from barley straw left over from the brewing process. Corona is the latest brand to embrace more sustainable packaging, not just for sustainability’s sake but probably because it’s great for the brand image, too: people, planet, profit. Another brewing company, Brewdog, went plastic-free and are working on more sustainable closed-loop zero-waste packaging. As they point out, ‘if we don’t have a planet to brew beer on, then our whole business is pretty pointless‘.
Digital printing can be part of a sustainable packaging solution, but the substrate and eventual recycling must also be considerations; after all, why use a more environmentally friendly print option if you cannot easily recycle the finished product?
What are the digital packaging sectors?
Quality, speed, colour accuracy and economics make digital printing of folding cartons an increasingly attractive option. Opportunities for short runs and unique versioning offer significant value to brand owners. The Xerox iGen portfolio provides an integrated, inline digital solution for folding carton packaging.
Digital Smart Packaging
Intelligent packaging? Packaging that proves authenticity? Xerox Printed Memory adds thin circuitry to a flexible substrate, storing up to 36 bits (the equivalent of 68 billion distinct data combinations!). The technology allows the storage of codes, serial numbers, expiration dates and the like. Solutions like this are critical for pharmaceuticals, for example.
Here we mean plastics – specifically printing directly onto plastic films and substrates – to eliminate the time and cost associated with labels; reduced waste, quicker turnaround time and variable content.
Thicker corrugated boards can also be digitally printed, allowing the creation of products with greater structural strength than folding cartons.
Are there environmental benefits to digital packaging?
When sourced responsibly and managed appropriately, paper-based packaging offers a renewable source material that is widely recycled. Digital packaging provides opportunities for shorter runs and less wastage, providing efficiency and fast turnarounds. Digital printers close to their customers can also minimise transport emissions for brands needing innovative and high-quality packaging.
Although the plastic vs paper debate is more complex than ‘plastic bad, paper good’, we know more companies are turning towards sustainable digital packaging using substrates from renewable managed woodlands. Plastic, of course, comes from fossil fuel: a finite, non-renewable resource. While plastic is lighter to transport and can have a smaller footprint to create in the first place, paper is currently much more widely recycled by homes and businesses.
In the last few years, we’ve all become aware of the global plastic emergency. Plastic waste management has not been up to the job of keeping plastic packaging out of our oceans and spaces, creating enormous problems that are obvious to the naked eye. Single-use plastics are a particular issue, especially when not disposed of properly; reduce, reuse, recycle is a mantra we’re all familiar with.
It’s certainly not as simple as ‘paper bad, internet good’ either; the IT industry and digital services are themselves considerable contributors to global CO2 emissions. Print marketing (arguably!) could be digital, but many of the products we buy will still need packaging of some sort, not least to preserve the contents, which might otherwise go to waste themselves.
The key is finding the right level and type of packaging for the right product for the best environmental outcomes. In plenty of cases, we think digital printing could be part of the the correct choice.
The future of digital packaging encompasses paper-based products (including those made from other fibres, like hemp). It will also include relatively more environmentally friendly and better-managed plastics and perhaps glass, aluminium, and even 3D print.
Besides sustainability, why should I consider digital packaging?
If you can print it, you can put it on packaging. Digital printing opens up packaging-on-demand through software like XMPie, individual customisation, embellishment (much of which is ‘de-inkable‘) and more. Short-run promotional packaging can be turned around quickly for customers, while variable print can eliminate the need for labels. Automated pre-press and finishing also saves time. Smart solutions with printed electronics protect brands, and ingenious interactions make for packaging that adds value by extending brand impact into digital media and communications.
How can I invest in the most sustainable digital packaging possible?
Sustainability isn’t just about recycling. It’s about:
using the most sustainable consumables; paper, board, toner from certified and traceable sources
reducing transport emissions
creating a product that minimises wastage and is simple to reuse, recycle or both
considering the whole life cycle of a product and the carbon footprint associated with each part
offsetting what you can’t reduce
your company ethos and CSR policies
How can I attract new business for sustainable print and packaging?
Making the most out of sustainable print opportunities involves making sure you are spreading the word about your more eco-friendly products and alternatives.
Share what you’re doing on your website and social channels
Have samples to hand showing what you can do
Consider offsetting programmes (visit Print Releaf, for example – please let us know if this project interests you as we are currently looking at it as an option for our customers)
Form partnerships with businesses with a similar outlook
Above all, keep learning and questioning and creating. The print industry is constantly evolving, and so is the legislative and business landscape.
Conclusion – Is digital packaging a sustainable option?
Digital packaging can undoubtedly be a more sustainable option vs alternatives, especially if brands are swapping single-use plastic for well-managed renewable materials – but we are dealing with complex issues. The best packaging for a particular product is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
However, at First Copy, we are confident that we will see continued growth in digital packaging in the coming months and years due to its flexibility, efficiency and quality. We also expect to see ever-more innovation, not just in terms of the printing platforms we use but also in the media we use in them. We hope to see significant reductions in single-use plastic and global improvements to the management of waste. Digital packaging is just one part of a cleaner and greener print industry, but it is a part that we will be keeping a careful eye on.
If your print business is looking to expand into digital packaging or increase the amount of packaging it creates, we’d love to talk to you about Xerox solutions. Just fill in the form below, and an expert will come back to you.
We’ve written before about sustainable digitally printed packaging and plastic reduction. We also wrote about building back greener at the end of the first lockdown and highlighted some of the ‘green in the grey’ over on our office site. You can also find information about toner research and energy efficiency in previous blog posts. We make no apology for this repeated coverage of environmental issues because they are paramount. We updated the First Copy Corporate Social Responsibility Policy just last month, laying out what we’re doing as a business to support people, the community and the planet.