Arrow Film readying switch to innovative water-based process

Richard Stuart-Turner
Friday, February 12, 2021

Flexible packaging printer Arrow Film Converters has revealed that it had not applied for an Environmental Permit from its local council and invested in the associated equipment because it had been gearing up for a long-planned switch to a new water-based printing method.

John Graham with two printed films; one with water-based inks and one with solvent-based
John Graham with two printed films; one with water-based inks and one with solvent-based

Last week Printweek reported that the Castleford, Wakefield, West Yorkshire-based business, which largely serves clients in the food packaging industry, had been fined over £17,500 for operating without an Environmental Permit.

This came after Wakefield Council had brought a prosecution against Arrow over its failure to install an abatement plant capable of reducing emissions by up to 90%.

But Arrow managing director John Graham told Printweek this week that the company had not done so because it knew it would soon be switching to a new more environmentally friendly production method.

“We’ve been developing water-based inks onto films for the last three years. We’ve done this alongside a German ink supplier who only produce water-based inks, albeit 99.9% of it is done for paper,” he said.

“Between us we’ve managed to develop this and get it onto films and lamination, surface and reverse, and it’s been very successful.

“The whole thing of going to court for not having an RTO (regenerative thermal oxidizer) is because we didn’t want to purchase one because we were going down the route of water-based inks.

“The court fully accepted that, which is why it was a punitive charge – [the investment] could have been well in excess of £250,000. They wished us all the best in moving forward with this.”

He added: “We’re currently talking to a couple of major supermarkets who are wanting us to go down this route. We’ve been doing it with one who are wanting to do it on produce, potatoes and such like, and they want to press the button and go full steam ahead.”

Arrow operates three identical Uteco Onyx wide-web flexo presses and began the changeover by altering one of them to be able to run water-based inks, which Graham said had been “really successful”.

“We should have pressed the button on it in early January when we came back from Christmas but because of the restrictions on travel, the German and Italian technicians that we work with are not able to travel at the moment, so we’ve had to delay it a little while.

“We want to wait for [restrictions] to be lifted so that they can come and so we’ve got a technician here all the time while we run the water-based on that machine.

“And then we want to roll this out across all three of our machines this year [each press will cost around £250,000 to adapt], which will make us the only 100% flexo printer using water-based inks – we’ll be 100% solvent free.”

Graham said part of the company’s decision was to ensure the investment was cost neutral.

“We’ve spent a long time developing the inks and getting this to work. A lot of people say they’ve trialled it five or 10 years ago and that it didn’t work, but the inks have come a long way since then. A lot of Japanese wide-web flexo printers are only using water-based inks but there’s nobody 100% water-based in Europe and we intend to be the first one.”

He added: “The other thing is that we’re holding about £1m worth of customers’ plates in here, so if it meant changing all of those plates to run on water-based rather than solvent, it was going to be a very expensive venture.

“So we were always of the mind that we must be able to use the existing plates – we do all our own repro in house – and we’ve managed to do that and make it so existing plates can be run on water-based and we still get the same results.”

“Everything we do is food-based, so it makes sense to us to take the solvent away from that, and then you’re not going to have any residual solvent retention in the films, and you won’t need to do any GC testing or these other things. So it made 100% sense to us that it’s the road we had to go down, it’s just that it’s taken us longer than anticipated due to Covid.

Graham said that even with an RTO in place “you can’t get 100% clean” and solvents would still be burnt into the atmosphere.

“So without any solvents in there, just water, there’s no pollution. The courts understood, and we showed them how much it has cost us in the last two and a half years, which has been in the region of £250,000 developing this. We’ve had that repaid to us through research and development, so it’s been a costly exercise but we’ve been able to claim that back.

“We now have an ink system that’s capable of running at commercially acceptable speeds on all of the substrates that we use, without any solvents and without it being any additional cost to the customer.”

He added that, as the company is based close to residential housing, a further benefit with the new system is no additional noise compared to its current operations, whereas an RTO would have generated 65 decibels (dB).

Arrow Film Converters employs 60 staff at its 1,858sqm site and its turnover is £11.3m, up by 27% year-on-year.

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