Automating ink logistics for sustainable packaging

Automating ink logistics for sustainable packaging
The circularity ladder – or “R-Ladder” describes the six strategies for reducing use of virgin resources (Source: PBL)

Sustainability is not an “optional extra” to an organization’s business plan – it must be central to it. Ink dispensing and dedicated software contributes to a circular economy that achieves environmental and financial objectives.

A precondition for future business

Certainly, brand owners now expect their packaging suppliers to put sustainability at the heart of strategy as a precondition for future business. Arguably this isn’t just being driven by pressure from increasingly environmentally aware consumers. The link between overconsumption of the world’s resources and the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change becomes widely recognized – and brand owners have taken a lead, setting high targets for using recycled content in packaging and closely scrutinizing the environmental performance of their suppliers.


To address overconsumption, players in the packaging chain are switching to a circular economy. This is where resources are used more efficiently, and kept in the production chain for as long as possible through optimized use and reuse – bringing value to the economy, while minimizing the harm to the environment.

The „Circularity Ladder“

The circularity ladder – or “R-Ladder” describes the six strategies for reducing use of virgin resources. Devised by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, a Dutch government agency, these are:

  • R1: Refuse and rethink – forgo certain products, or reuse them more intensively by sharing them through multi-functionality.
  • R2: Reduce – manufacture products more efficiently, or make them more efficient to use.
  • R3: Reuse – extend product lifespan by using it again.
  • R4: Repair and Refurbish – extend product lifespan by keeping equipment and machines at optimal performance level, and adapting them to new standards
  • R5: Recycle – the more resources are reused through recycling, the less virgin materials have to be extracted. According to a study by the Association of Plastic Recyclers, using virgin materials has a much higher carbon footprint than using recycled materials.
  • R6: Recover – recover energy and materials for reuse. For example, plastic waste may be recovered for the brick-making in construction.

Automated ink logistics in the circular economy

Three of these strategies can be used for making ink-related processes more sustainable. These are “Reduce (R2)”, “Reuse (R3) and “Recycle (R5)”.

The key to implementing these strategies is automation. Using a gravimetric ink dispenser and dedicated software, for preparing colours and managing ink-related processes, brings predictable and repeatable quality. This means, that during production processes, no more ink, materials or other resources are used than what is needed to meet customer expectations. Eliminating the many forms of waste, it potentially reduces ink consumption by up to 30%. This makes companies well-placed to improve their environmental record and thus financial performance too.

Reducing consumption

Using an ink dispenser to automatically mix colours gives accurate colour quality at the first attempt and in the required amount. It calculates and dispenses the exact weights of ink ingredients, into a dispense bucket, to achieve the precise quality and quantity for the respective job.

There is no need to purchase expensive pre-mixed inks, or mix excess amounts for avoiding running out before production ends. Ordering a smaller number of base ink colours, in larger volumes saves transport, warehousing and admin costs. Dispensing is immediate, “on demand” – giving a financial uptime gain in addition to reducing carbon footprint.

Reusing and recycling

At the end of a flexo or gravure print run, sometimes up to 7 kg of ink is left over in the press. With a gravimetric ink dispenser, spot colours can be weighed, booked into stock for new jobs. There are three ways of using returned inks in new jobs – “reusing” when it’s for the same colour, or “recycling” when it’s being used as part of a blend for a new colour.

  • Reusing the ink for printing the same colour – no extra ingredients are needed, so no further dispensing is required. The ink is poured directly into the chamber of the press.
  • Recycling inks for mixing with other ingredients – to make a different colour for a specific job
  • Recycling by clustering returned inks together – to make a new base colour in a barrel that feeds the ink dispenser. This is ideal for large volumes of return inks.

Switch over from solvent to water-based inks

There are now water-based inks for flexible packaging applications. Switching to these from solvent eliminates VOC emissions – bringing a safety benefit as well as an environmental one. Managing water-based inks is also easier – and therefore more economical – because there is no need for explosion-proofing against electrostatic charge, and there’s no need for solvent-vapour extraction or recovery.

Modular dispensers smoothen water-based switch

Dispensers with a modular design can be extended with up to 32 extra base colours to accommodate two ink sets at the same time. This allows a smooth switch from solvent to water-based inks. Therefore, automated ink logistics strongly supports the switch to the circular, environmentally sustainable economy for flexible packaging.

In this context, GSE’s support team can provide advice to make ink-related processes as efficient as possible, by auditing your current ways of working and co-designing the optimum “future state” of processes.