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How-To, Pad PrintingJanuary 9, 2020

Eco-Friendly Pad Printing 101: How to Run a Sustainable Operation

How-To, Pad Printing
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eco-friendly pad printing

In recent years the urge to go “green” has sprung up in just about every industry. The terms:” green”, “sustainable”, and “eco-friendly” have become buzz words and been so over-used without any clear indication as to what their definition is. They have effectively lost meaning. To us, eco-friendly pad printing means creating a safer environment for ourselves and our planet by using safer chemicals and better processes while reducing waste. It is important to think about all of this together because without the other, is it truly safer?

Pad printing has the potential to be the best solution for eco-friendly printing, however, with the usage of certain chemicals, an increase in waste, and an inefficient manufacturing process, it all goes down the drain. There are a lot of potentially harmful additives to the pad printing process from solvents/thinners to primers.

It is important to follow the industry leaders a.k.a. the Big Brands (such as Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Gildan, Adidas, Nike, etc.… the list could go on) because they often set the standard for what’s safe. What do all these brands have in common? They each have a Restricted Substances List (RSL), containing potentially harmful chemicals to both people and the environment. The list requires all vendors to comply by removing any of these substances from their product. The list changes every year as more is discovered about chemicals and the consumer’s need for an eco-friendly product.

Upgrade Your Operation to Eco-Friendly Pad Printing

It’s not as difficult as you may think to convert your current operation to an eco-friendly pad printing operation. There are a few products and processes that can be improved with the right information. Always be conscious of the chemicals you are using such as solvents/thinner and other additives to the printing process. The ink cup and plate can also be improved for a more efficient, eco-friendly solution.

Pad Printing Additives

What are pad printing additives? Typically, solvents, hardeners, and primers used to aid adhesion in the printing process. Some harsh chemicals could cause a toxic production environment in poorly ventilated areas. Not all additives, however, are created equal.

What can we do? It is important to become aware of what chemicals are in the ingredient lists by thoroughly checking the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). In addition, use the bare minimum of these additives to reduce excess waste and dispose of it in a safe way according to your supplier.

Eco-Friendly Pad Printing Ink

Pad printing ink is typically solvent-based, meaning it has a solvent additive either pre-mixed or added to the ink. Is solvent-based ink bad? It really all depends on the solvent added to the ink. As previously stated, there are solvents available with less harmful ingredients. The ink itself is a mixture of pigment and resin with a few extra ingredients.

What can we do? It is important to read these SDS documents and understand what the ink consists of. Cross-reference them with Restricted Substance Lists to determine what should be in there and what shouldn’t be. In addition, some inks are branded as “Eco-friendly”. Typically, these already have any harsh chemicals removed. Again, be sure to check the SDS to be certain.

Ink Cups

The purpose of a pad printing ink cup is to house and deliver the ink to the etched plate. There are two types of ink systems: an open-well and sealed-cup ink system.

Open-well ink systems don’t require the use of an ink cup. The ink sits in an open area and when it is ready to be used, it is doctored (scooped) out of the well and pushed over the etch. There are a couple of issues why this is not eco-friendly: the ink itself is exposed to the air releasing chemicals into the area and exposing the operator, and a lot of ink must be used in order for an open-well system to work properly, leaving a lot of ink waste.

Sealed ink cups come in a wide variety of sizes for particular machines. Some brands come with plastic inserts that can be discarded after use. These claim to be “green” however, it generates more waste. This is not an eco-friendly way.

What can we do? Use an ink cup with an ink resistant coating. The coating will allow you to clean out the ink without the use of any cleaning chemicals, even if the ink has dried. In addition, always make sure you are using the right size ink cup, this ensures you are using the minimum amount of ink needed for the job and not generating more waste than necessary.

Plate-making

When it comes to pad printing plate-making we know there are two methods: chemical etching using photopolymer plates or laser etching. For a long time, photopolymer plate-making was the only method to etch plates. The process is time-consuming and generates waste because of chemical and film usage.

Introduced as an alternative to photopolymer plate making, lasers are the next evolution of plate-making. A laser produces no waste, the etching process is filtered and clean. As an added benefit an image can be etched on both sides of a plate to reduce the amount of plate material used. When the technology was new the costs were high, however now, the cost to own a laser is priced competitively with that of an exposure unit.

What can we do? Stop using photopolymer plates and reduce the amount of waste and chemicals used to etch plates. Switch to laser plate-making because the process is cleaner and more efficient. Laser plate-making reduces waste and won’t break the bank.

How to Transition to Eco-Friendly Pad Printing

The reduction of waste is key. The more waste generated during the pad printing process, the worse it is for the environment. By purchasing a few alternate products as mentioned above, waste can be significantly reduced. As an added benefit less waste will result in more revenue.

Clean your pad printers more efficiently. Reduce the number of chemicals used to remove ink and go chemical-less. Be conscious and aware of what you are using, clean-up can be done without most harmful chemicals.

Transitioning to a new process can be scary, however, if you are familiar with pad printing already, there isn’t much to learn. Change a few products and processes to run more efficiently. The cost of said products isn’t more than what is already spent on replacement parts and chemicals. In addition, the upgrade to better components will increase production efficiency and lower operator costs, generating more revenue.

While going “green” or being “eco-friendly” and running a “sustainable” operation isn’t always straightforward. The key to it all is being aware. Be aware of what chemicals/additives you are using. Be aware of what restricted substances you should not be using. And lastly, be aware of new technology available to continuously strive for an eco-friendly production environment.

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