A volatile situation

25 November 2019

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a hot topic in the flexographic industry. Boosted regulations have brought their challenges to the fore, with the indoor and outdoor emissions from the manufacture of products such as solvents all needing to be made as clean as possible. Emma-Jane Batey reports on how the flexo industry is supporting the strict EU regulations.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be present in a number of industries that generate organic chemical compounds in their production processes. These VOCs have a low boiling point and a high vapour pressure, making them evaporate quickly. Basically, when you smell something in a manufacturing environment – solvents, even perfumes – that’s a VOC.

The recent EU Directive that has defined the use of and regulations regarding VOCs is the VOC Solvents Emissions Directive, and it is this directive that the flexo industry is deeply aware of, confirming as it does that VOC emissions can impact on health, particularly in urban areas and environments with poor ventilation. Given that practically all industries are increasingly acutely aware of their sustainability performance, it makes sense that the flexo industry would be taking this VOC directive seriously.

The Flexographic Technical Association Europe (FTA), under its strapline ‘We Are Flexo’, is the European lobbying group that ‘represents the common interests of the European flexo industry at EU level’. As such, the FTA is active in its understanding and support of how the VOC regulations impact on its members and their customers.

The FTA states that “Flexo is the single largest printing process in Europe, and is a growing sector due to its use in the packaging and label producer markets – fuelled by the growth in ecommerce. The valued output of the flexo printing industry in 2018 was €39.2 billion.” Founded in the US in 1958, the FTA saw its FTA Europe arm launch in 2015 in order to provide a common platform for the European flexographic associations to promote exchange, collaboration and alignment.


Support progress

FTA Europe has created a ToolBox called ‘Do it right the first time: the European Guidelines for Flexographic Printing’, which has been developed by cross-industry experts as part of its focus on informative VOC education for its members. The ToolBox has been designed as a best practice document to boost workflow.

Based in Brussels, the FTA shares its office with Intergraf, the European printing and graphics industry federation. “The FTA has been working on the BREFs review through Intergraf, in collaboration with other trade associations for industries impacted by this work, Intergraf’s secretary-general, Beatrice Klose, says. “VOC emissions from flexo printing are governed by the European Industrial Emissions Directive.

“The permit conditions, including emission limit values, must be based on the best available techniques (BAT) in the industry. BATs and the BAT-associated environmental performances are referred to in BAT reference documents (BREFs), which are then the basis for national competent authorities to set up permit conditions. The European Commission is currently reviewing the BREF relevant to the flexo industry and we expect the new rules to be finalised in early 2020. Through Intergraf, the association representing Europe’s printing sector, FTA Europe has worked on ensuring that the framework remains workable for the industry.”

For Flint Group Flexographic, its appreciation that, as a manufacturer of flexographic print plates for the printing and packaging industry, staying at the forefront of industry is in its DNA. Part of the global Flint Group covering all steps of the printing and packaging value chain, with over 7,900 employees worldwide and revenues of €2.2 billion in 2017, Flint Group Flexographic is mindful of its ability to support the sustainability goals of its customers, who are primarily print shops and plate makers.

Driven by the desire to create solvent-free plate processing that does not compromise on quality and works at the speed of thermal processing, Flint Group Flexographic developed its innovative nyloflex Xpress, in order to compete with solvent-washed plates but without generating any VOCs.


Speed without solvents

Flint Group’s flexographic vice-president and general manager, Jim Rogers, explains how nyloflex Xpress offers considerable reassurance for customers that rely on effective plate processing, saying, “The drive for acting more responsibly in terms of VOC emissions now isn’t mutually exclusive with plate processing quality. As we experience increased demand for thermal processing, the Flint Group promise of reliable quality needed to sit closely with the CSR targets of global brands, as our customers – the printers and packaging companies – are being pressured by their brand-owner customers too.”

The environmental advantages of the nyloflex Xpress goes beyond the VOC avoidance too. “Energy savings are considerable too, with a typical six-colour flexible packaging job using three 42x60 plates sees 50 fewer kilowatt hours consumed when comparing Xpress to solvent,” flexographic product manager Peter J Fronczkiewicz adds. “That’s equivalent to recycling 24lb of rubbish instead of throwing it in landfill.

“While the energy saving is nice, it’s the impressive quality of the finished plates where Xpress really shines, and with almost no VOCs or vapours generated. Thanks to our clever heating system that uses very little energy, the nyloflex Xpress plates never overheat and, due to the special plate chemistry, we’ve solved traditional issues like shallow reverse depth and unwanted patterning of the plate surface due to the unwoven developer material leaving its mark. The printing surfaces of developed Xpress plates are virtually indistinguishable from the surface of solvent-washed plates.”

Another example is West Midlands-based Flexo Trade Print, a specialist in flexographic origination and plate making. Its managing director, Andrew Wilcox, is proud of the company’s focus on service and, as such, appreciates that any issue that impacts on its customers, impacts on Flexo Trade Print.

Wilcox explains how customers are pushing to get more out of their print, with the expectations for quality getting higher all the time. In order to consistently meet customers’ expectations, Wilcox and his team are committed to staying ahead of changing regulations. “We’re finding that corrugated applications in particular are pushing for more. People want a better quality, a more interesting print,” he says. “Flexo can always deliver as long as you’ve got the equipment and the skill; of course, we have both in buckets. Our company has been built on trust and reliability; many of our customers have been with us for decades, and many of our employees have too. We work together and we make sure we create flexo solutions that suit whatever the brief or the challenge is that our customers are facing. I’m not someone that’s desperate to follow the latest trends, even though I make sure that we are competitive and responsive. Basically, we like to say yes. Customers know that Flexo Trade Print is their partner; I talk to customers honestly and I find that’s the best way. With skill, honesty and the right equipment, you can do anything.”


Doing the right thing

Interestingly, Wilcox says that while Flexo Trade Print stays abreast of all issues facing its industry and its customers, it is not officially accredited. He explains, “We’re a small company, a reliable company that has been founded on a promise, a promise of quality. We’re not about keeping huge groups happy; we’re about steady growth. I know that my employees rely on me to pay their mortgage so I’m not going to take any silly risks for a flash in the pan. Customers rely on our company too. We don’t take gambles, but we do comply with all regulations and we work with our customers on whatever regulations they need to comply with.”

Wilcox notes how the profit margins for flexo have shrunk since the highly profitable ‘80s, with cheaper prices making margins much smaller. He concludes, “It’s a complex issue, the issue has changed a lot and keeps changing. As we head into political challenges about regulations, the crucial thing from my perspective is that we keep offering a reliable service at a fair price. The day to day is different from the long-term changes that EU directives and their type can make. Of course, it is certainly important to be aware of regulations and to be able to answer any questions that our customers might have. Everything we offer is of the very highest standard – this is our livelihood and it’s my responsibility to be competitive and reliable. I make sure I know what issues – like VOCs – are challenging our customers and how we can support them; as long as we can listen and learn and maintain a steady, profitable business, I know that we are doing the right thing.”

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