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Graphics go green

April 1st, 2013 / By: / Graphics, Markets, Sustainability

Throughout the entire supply chain, the fabric graphics market is stepping up its green game.

Sustainability programs, which started out as a marketing advantage, have become a strategic—even competitive—platform. More than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies issue sustainability reports, meaning that they’re looking for vendors who can help attain their eco-friendly goals. Even small businesses and nonprofits are following suit. All this spells good news for the fabric graphics market.

“In recent years, many end users of graphic materials have a strict corporate social responsibility policy,” says Alex Dowdeswell, CEO of Natural AdCampaign Ltd., an environmental business headquartered in London, England. “The graphics shop can offer a product that is aligned to this [mission], and it gives them the ability to show something different and win new business.”

Sustainable successes

As companies big and small look toward more sustainable media for their advertising, branding or trade show campaigns, fabric manufacturers are producing more environmentally friendly materials.

Fisher Textiles, Indian Trail, N.C., used recycled materials when developing its green line, called Enviro-Tex. The fabrics are made with Repreve®, a yarn produced from a variety of waste streams, including post-consumer plastics and post-industrial waste.

Two years ago, the company introduced its Enviro-Tex Plus styles, made solely from 100 percent post-consumer waste. The shift “improved the product’s color, making it whiter and more desirable,” says Sharon Roland, advertising, promotion and publicity manager at Fisher Textiles. The non-coated Enviro-Tex collection is compatible with dye sublimation, UV and latex printing.

Pacific Coast Fabrics in Gardena, Calif., was looking for a fabric made of recycled content that also performed well. In mid-2012, the company introduced Deko-Green, a textile created from 100 percent recycled PET (plastic bottles) filament produced in a Swiss mill and then woven in Germany. The product also is 100 percent recyclable.

“After receiving positive feedback from our partner printer who provided trials on a variety of print machine and printing methods, we knew that we had a recycled fabric that printed to the same quality standards as any non-recycled fabric,” says Jeff Sanders, digital fabrics sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics. Deko-Green performs on dye sublimation, direct sublimation, latex and UV print platforms.

Meanwhile, Natural AdCampaign wanted to develop a naturally-based printable fabric after seeing a void in the industry. “There were no non-petroleum materials available in the world’s market, and the realities of recycling of petroleum-based products such as polyethylene (PE) or PVC are extremely low,” says Dowdeswell.

“We felt the printing industry in particular, which relies on petroleum-based materials that are used for a relatively short period of time before being disposed of, needed a viable and competitive alternative,” Dowdeswell continues. “Our products had to be truly ‘green,’ though, and not a variant of existing materials that often do not do what they claim or are still using the original scarce resources.”

To that end, the company developed NatureWoven™ Chorus, made from annually renewable plant materials. “The plant materials are fast growing, absorb significant CO2 during growth, and have relatively low industrialization to produce,” Dowdeswell explains. Chorus is compostable/biodegradable after its use, providing nutrients for new plant life.

Useable inks include UV, HP’s latex and the water-based products from Sepiax Ink Technologies, based in Austria.

Billboard alternative

Working with industry partners, Cooley Group developed a seamless five-meter-wide sustainable billboard product, EnviroFlex, made with polyethylene, which Cooley says is the world’s most recycled plastic. The product also is 100 percent recyclable.

“It’s much lighter than typical PVC so a lot fewer raw materials are used,” says Bryan Rose, vice president and general manager of the commercial graphics division at Cooley Group in Pawtucket, R.I. “Because the material is lighter, it’s less expensive to ship. Polyethylene is completely free of toxic chemicals like chlorine and phthalates.”

EnviroFlex’s lightweight properties translate into other benefits. Adds Rose: “We can put more yards on a roll, and the lighter material also is safer and easier to install.”

Improved performance

Like fabric producers, ink and printer manufacturers are undergoing a green evolution. Splash of Color in Richardson, Texas, supplies both dye sublimation and disperse dye inks for the direct-to-fabric printing market. “The primary carrier in our inks is water-based, making them quite eco-friendly,” says Keith Faulkner, the company’s president.

Such water-based inks make for a healthier work space, too, Faulkner notes. “Shops that employ solvent printers to produce vinyl signage and graphics are much more likely to have VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air as a result of printing.”

Over the last few years, Bordeaux Digital Printink Ltd. of Yavne, Israel, has developed several environmentally sensitive inks. The April 2010 launch of its UV LED inks corresponded with the introduction of the first UV LED printers. “Unlike common UV, this ink consumes less electricity and generates less heat, resulting in compatibility with a wider range of substrates,” explains Ruth Zach, marketing coordinator for Bordeaux.

Additionally, the company offers the PRGS Mix & Match ink for Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 printer, which incorporates a nickel-free formula, as well as water-based latex and dye-sublimation inks. Bordeaux specially formulated the latex ink, known as EDLX, for the piezo drop-on-demand printhead technology to ensure compatibility to a wide range of printers.

“The ink can potentially be installed in most solvent drop-on-demand printers without requiring modifications,” Zach adds.

Printer manufacturer Mimaki has moved to energy-saving LED curing technologies on its UV-curable printers, which produce no VOCs. The company has also created a latex solution and is giving the eco-friendly treatment to inks. “Right now our main focus for fabric/textile printing is water-based inks such as pigmented inks (cotton), acid dye inks, reactive, dye sublimation, latex and UV curable,” says Michael Maxwell, the company’s Southeast representative.

The challenges

Corporate and consumer interest in sustainability continues to rise, but there are still challenges. “The textile must perform every bit as well as a first-generation fabric,” Sanders says. The price of printable eco-friendly fabrics remains a hot topic, too. “People aren’t willing to pay 50 percent more for an eco-friendly product,” Rose says. “It’s nice to have something sustainable, but if no one will buy it, what’s the point?”

James Gay, director of marketing at Fisher Textiles, explains why recycled fabrics costs a bit more. “One of the reasons that the growth has been slow is that it is actually more expensive to create fabrics with recycled yarn than to manufacture virgin polyester,” he says. “If the market reaches a point where the usage of products made from Repreve is large enough, then there is the possibility to see a shift in the cost of manufacturing the yarn. With these costs currently being slightly higher, the commitments down the line to the end user must be strong.”

Natural AdCampaign views printer education as a major obstacle. “This is an uphill struggle for us, as people are so used to using traditional oil-based products,” Dowdeswell says.

Mimaki continues to address some of the printer limitations in the marketplace. “The U.S. market is still heavily dependent on solvent technologies, and as we progress, the requests for faster production and turnaround are slowed by the inks’ ability to perform at those speeds without solvents.” Maxwell says. Mimaki is trying to meet the challenge head-on with its development of latex- and water-based products, he adds.

Walk the talk

Many manufacturers of eco-friendly fabrics, inks and printers employ sustainable initiatives in their own facilities. Natural AdCampaign recycles or reuses the majority of production and office waste, it has installed solar panels that heat water, and it has a green roof.

Through its Reflex program, Cooley Group takes back PVC and PE for recycling, integrating the post-industrial and post-consumer waste into its other products such as commercial roofing material. Furthermore, Cooley has reduced gas use by 75 percent and improved the carbon footprint of its PVC billboard product by more than 30 percent.

Mimaki has implemented a cartridge return policy for recycling and is moving toward eco-friendly cartridges that use a replaceable bladder manufactured with aluminum films, reducing the amount of discarded plastic used. A bulk ink system further eliminates additional plastics, and all printers utilize features, such as sleep mode and low power consumption.

At its manufacturing facilities, Bordeaux recycles some solvents and sells them back to industries that do not require 100 percent purity as required for inkjet. The remaining waste is hauled to Israel’s largest solvent recycling plant and neutralized there. Furthermore, the company invested in a ventilation system that monitors air quality in the work space.

Many graphics shops are implementing similar efforts in their businesses—and experiencing lower costs and winning more eco-based jobs in the process. Banner Creations in Minneapolis, Minn., serves as a successful example of what it means to run a sustainable business. The company has a list of earth-friendly initiatives: reusing paper; sharing ends of rolls with artists; selling products made from scrap fabric; printing on Ecophab™, a fabric made from recycled water bottles, for half its jobs; recycling office waste; and using printers that don’t waste ink.

The fabric graphics industry is expected to continue down its green path. “This area will continue to grow,” says Dowdeswell, “and if the graphics shop is clever, a niche can be carved in the market.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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