A big step for a little company

I set out with the best of intentions, a big vision and very little knowledge. I knew that my ultimate goal was to design a product that was genuinely compostable, but I didn’t understand how different printing methods could affect the sustainability and compostability of the packaging I would be designing. I thought I would share my findings in this (somewhat geeky) post in case they can help you when you’re choosing between brands as a consumer.

I felt from the start that cardboard cartons would be the right choice for products I would be shipping out in bigger volumes – I knew cartons would be more durable in transit than pouches, and I understood that they were more energy efficient in terms of the way they are manufactured. A little research and trial and error at home taught me that the plainer looking kraft-brown shipping boxes often used for postal deliveries composted down really quickly in our no-dig flower beds and compost heap, whereas the brightly printed product packaging we have around the house (cereal boxes, cosmetics packaging etc) needed to be recycled. What was the difference between the two types of box, and why was one more compostable than the other?

Flexo and Lithographic Printing

It turns out the difference was in the way the box is manufactured. My early packaging designs included photographs, watercolour images and every colour under the sun, and early conversations with packaging companies taught me that type of finish would require the lithographic print process. Lithographic printing involves transferring a design onto a piece of paper, which is then laminated onto the cardboard. If you want a glossy finish you print onto glossy paper, and you can use metallic and tactile soft touch finishes too. The result is stunning – you can achieve photographic results, and it is a really popular technique – most of the packaging you see on the supermarket shelves is printed in this way, and generally speaking it can be recycled, although some gloss, matt and metallic finishes decrease recyclability. As we all know from the problems involved with recycling take away coffee cups, bonded materials are more challenging when it comes to sustainability.

I was introduced to flexographic printing as a more sustainable alternative. Flexographic printing definitely can’t achieve the same photographic results as lithographic printing, but with an open mind and some creativity it can produce some eye-catching designs and the resulting product is compostable as well as recyclable. The process involves plates being stamped down onto the board (similar to a giant potato print), and you have a different printing plate for each colour you want to use. There are some limitations – the design is more simple and graphic and you can’t include fine lines and lots of detail, but it can look really beautiful.

Sustainable from Start to Finish

Sustainability isn’t all about what the consumer does with the product when it has fulfilled its purpose – I also wanted to consider the manufacturing techniques and products used in the process. While the inks often used in lithographic printing are derived from the crude oil refining process and heavily pigmented, causing further issues in terms of recyclability and sustainability, the inks used on my flexo printed boxes are water and plant based. The manufacturing process is more energy efficient in flexographic printing – the board is cut and printed in one sequence. The FSC-certified recycled board used to produce the cartons is manufactured in the only Anaerobic Digestion Plant of its kind, based here in the UK. The plant generates renewable energy, fuelled by organic waste (including food, drinks, animal by-products and vegetable waste) and this energy is used to provide heat and power for the manufacture of the recycled board. FSC certified products are sourced from forests that meet the Forest Stewardship Council’s high environmental and social standards.

How can we choose sustainable packaging options?

While I am far from a packaging expert, the journey to sustainable packaging has taught me a lot and made me feel a lot more informed when I’m browsing the supermarket shelves. While no packaging at all is the ultimate goal for the products we buy (and plastic free refill shops are making this more possible), we can live more sustainably when we choose to buy products packaged more simply. We all know to watch out for items packed using a lot of unnecessary inserts and plastic, we can also look at the design of the box itself – does it include glossy or metallic images? If so, it might be more complicated to recycle. If you want to buy more sustainably packaged products, look out for simple designs, printed directly onto the board using fewer colours.

My cartons of seasonal wild bird food are currently for sale with Milk and More, and I hope to add further cartons to my product range in the coming months.