While it has long been ubiquitous in the wide-format sector, PVC has started to lose its appeal of late. Traditionally difficult to recycle, the material has become a turn-off for some of the printers, brands and consumers that are increasingly looking to become more eco-friendly in their actions, and many print companies have accordingly started to move towards polypropylene and polystyrene, or biodegradable alternatives.
Numerous factors, however, are preventing a mass exodus away from PVC, which is still cheaper to print on and is historically known for producing higher quality print with better ink adhesion than alternative substrates.
But this appears to be changing. Last month, Fujifilm launched Uvijet OX, a new inkset developed for use with Inca Digital’s new Onset X HS Series printers.
The ink is said to feature a unique technology that makes use of a specifically weighted monomer blend, enabling the Onset X HS machines to print on “an extensive range of rigid plastic media at high speed with maximum adhesion, cure speed and quality”.
The manufacturer says the ink’s enhanced adhesion properties will enable printers to move away from PVC media.
“Everyone is well aware of the movements in terms of plastic legislation and the global focus on everything that is happening around plastics,” says Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems marketing manager Andrew Berritt. “But when we’re talking about plastics, we’re talking about their recyclability.
“There has been a move away from PVC and non-recyclable media into recyclable types of media.
“Many companies have made a commitment across all their products that they are going to go PVC-free. This is only going to trickle down in terms of the PoP and graphics material that is being supplied into big brands, and there is going to be a move towards alternative materials, most commonly polystyrene and polypropylene.”
This will only be good news for manufacturers of these substrates that supply to printers, such as French company Priplak, which last month broke away from historical sole shareholder Arjowiggins following a management buyout led by its chief executive Thomas Godey.
“Polypropylene obviously has the environmental advantage related to lightweight and cost saving, but the other advantage is that we recycle a lot of material,” says Godey.
“We have put systems in place where we buy some waste back from our customers, recycle it and put it back into the product that we make again.”
He adds: “In the past, polypropylene was more difficult to print, but technologies have evolved and nowadays I would say it can be printed like any other synthetic substrate. It is a viable alternative and one where the printer has very little need for compromising.”
While the future is apparently looking hazy for PVC, a new industry recycling scheme could help it to retain its dominant position in wide-format printing.
Last month, Soyang Europe ramped up its initiative to pioneer the use of PVC banner material as an environmentally sustainable substrate.
In partnership with waste management specialist Blue Castle Group, the PVC Recycling Membership Scheme is described by Soyang Europe managing director Mark Mashiter as “the first step towards a very real recycling solution to the use of PVC banner material, which is widely used within the printing industry, but not currently recyclable”.
Mashiter says it was previously “a real struggle” to recycle PVC because it is difficult to process. But Blue Castle Group has developed and rigorously tested the machinery needed to convert PVC banner into a reusable format. It puts PVC waste through an industrial-sized shredding machine to break it down into a reprocessable size.
Mashiter is hopeful that the use of PVC will increase following the introduction of the initiative.
“PVC is still the best substrate to print onto today,” he says. “A lot of digital printers prefer to print onto PVC than alternatives because of quality of product, strength, ink adhesion and fabrication processes when you try to finish the product.”
For many eco-minded printers, initiatives like these will be welcomed with open arms.
Huddersfield-based Aura Print has long been searching for a way to recycle PVC.
“We tend to fill maybe two or three wheelie bins a day just with offcuts of PVC banner,” says head of marketing and pay-per-click Richard Walker, who adds that price is the biggest stumbling block in converting customers across to more sustainable alternatives.
“In an ideal world, we would love people to be all on board for using recyclable material, and we are looking to add it to our website as an option anyway.
“If the recyclable product was the exact same price as PVC, everyone would be on board, but unfortunately that’s not the case. But the closer it can get, there will be an argument there for customers.
“We’d certainly be able to push it better on our website if an average banner was about £15 and a recyclable banner was only £2 to £3 more, for example.”
Signs Express Bath, meanwhile, has signed up to the Planet Mark sustainability certification programme, which has set the firm targets to change its approach to the recycling of non-commercial plastic and cardboard waste, as well as adding new, greener offerings to its range.
Accordingly, it has sourced a non-PVC vinyl from 3M that it will offer to its customers as a sustainable alternative.
“You become aware of the need to be more environmentally-friendly – you can’t just continue to chuck stuff into landfill and hope it goes away, because it won’t,” says Signs Express Bath owner Mark Collins.
“We’re trying to go down a PVC-free road, so we’re offering this alongside our more traditional materials.”
He concludes: “But I don’t want to say that we’ll jump and have everything going that way because we’re testing the market for it. Some people will pay a premium for sustainability and some won’t, but we need to make sure that we have enough people who will, to keep the business running.”