Plastic Friend or Foe? - Image Magazine


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Plastic Friend or Foe?

Plastic Friend or Foe?

This article first appeared in the June issue of Digital Image Magazine

Plastic is an amazing invention. It has freed people from the social and economic constraints that came with sourcing and relying on natural resources. The first commercial synthetic plastic, celluloid, was developed in 1869 by John Hyatt and was considered a significant breakthrough in manufacturing. For the first time production was not limited by what nature could provide. Hyatt was motivated by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 to anyone who could find an alternative to using ivory for billiard balls, a game that was becoming more mainstream at the time and ivory supply was becoming an issue.

His invention also replaced horn and tortoiseshell and was hailed and promoted as a significant step in helping not only people but also in preserving nature and the environment. From there the interest in developing synthetic plastics for commercial applications snowballed. The irony is that a product that was designed to protect nature from the destructive forces of human need has, in turn, created a material that is now having a very detrimental impact on the environment and people.

There are reasons we use plastic. It is tough, durable, functional, versatile, safe and its most attractive feature – cheap. Plastic is not inherently bad. It has value, and benefits all industries and our daily lives. The problems start when we are finished with the plastic we use. It’s what we do with it after it’s used that is really the issue because if not disposed of correctly, plastic waste never really goes away. It just degrades into smaller and smaller microplastics, then nano-plastics and eventually infiltrates the ecosystem at every level. It’s not just about the oceans or the images we see of marine and bird life tangled and choking on plastics. Studies have found that, on average, we ingest a credit card size worth of microplastics every week. Plastics are infiltrating the human body. We don’t yet know the long-term effects but do we really want to wait to find out before we do anything?

We can’t just stop using plastic. Single-use plastics are easier to target and replace but there are many more industrialised uses of plastic that would be almost impossible to give up in the modern world unless we want to live as we did 150 years ago.

What we can do is become more aware and educated around plastic and what we are actually using. Are there alternatives? Can we reduce our consumption? How can we better dispose of the plastics we use?

We talk about plastics as though it is one thing but there are seven different types of plastic each with different attributes and different environmental impacts.

In the wide format print industry, the most widely used plastic is Polyvinyl Chloride, PVC. The attributes that make PVC the best choice for printed media is also what, unfortunately, make it the most environmentally damaging plastic.

Pure PVC is rigid. In order to make it soft and flexible for use as self-adhesive film, plasticisers are added along with other additives (UV and heat stabilizers, pigments and adhesives). The result is a film that is conformable, durable, fire retardant and has good resistance to heat, UV, chemicals and abrasives. The result for the environment is a film that takes 500+ years to degrade and leaches out its additives into the environment. The amount and toxicity of ingredients a PVC film will leach out will depend on the ingredients the film manufacturer chooses. The good news is that unlike single-use plastics we are unlikely to find printed graphics in our oceans or littered in the environment however the longevity of PVC waste in the environment should be a serious concern.

Due to all the additives in print media (including ink and adhesives), it cannot be recycled.  PVC cannot be incinerated as it releases toxic hydrogen chloride gas (also something to think about for indoor graphics in the event of a fire). Today, the only way to dispose of printed PVC film is to send it to landfill. This includes the paper release liners which are coated with silicon and polyethylene rendering them non- recyclable as well.

Now imagine, every single PVC graphic you have ever printed is still out there breaking down and will be for hundreds of more years to come.

As an industry, we need to balance environmental concerns with commercial reality. It doesn’t make commercial sense to use greener products and processes if they are price prohibitive or don’t perform to the level of traditional media. The film technology is not there, yet, to allow us to completely eliminate PVC as a substrate. It is still the best solution for long term applications but moving away from PVC for short term campaigns and indoor graphics, where many of the attributes of PVC are not required, is completely achievable.

PVC -free print alternatives are now available that print just, as well as PVC and, are cost-effective. These films are still a type of plastic but they don’t contain the same additives as PVC and they degrade much faster in landfill without leaching the same toxins. (the reason for being shorter
term alternatives).

However, the best environmental solution overall for plastic film is not simply to switch to a better plastic but to recycle it as well. Recycling is the cleanest and most efficient way to dispose of printed media. Our waste becomes a re-useable resource for other manufacturers to use. This in turn conserves the need for them to source more raw materials and keeps plastic out of the waste stream.

It is one thing to promote a film as being able to be recycled but another to actually find a facility that will recycle it, especially locally in Australia and New Zealand. The biggest challenge around recycling is not what can be recycled but finding a use and market for the recycled ingredients.

As sustainability becomes more of a necessity than a trend, more companies are investing in products that are able to be recycled and fit local recycling capabilities. Manufacturers are also investing in recycling and developing products and markets that can use plastic waste rather than virgin plastic.

Today it is completely possible for our industry to improve its environmental credentials without compromising on delivering quality print campaigns. By reducing our consumption of PVC, using greener media alternatives and recycling we can do our part and contribute to a more sustainable future.


Written by Denise Kirby

Denise Kirby has over 27 years experience as a supplier of self adhesive products to the sign and print industry. Initially starting out in the family business as a distributor of  consumables she went on to work for leading self adhesive manufacturers in marketing , business and product development roles across Australia and New Zealand.  She now has her own business, Kirbyco, which focuses on environmentally friendly, recyclable and sustainable print solutions.

Denise is highly passionate about the industry and enjoys writing about applications and opportunities in print in and signage with the goal of inspiring people to explore new creative and functional opportunities with film as well as educating the industry on products, trends and new innovations.

Photo credit Nazli-Mozaffari-Unsplash


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