“Gravure printing offers great potential for the circular economy: its major ecological advantages are the re-usability of the printing cylinder and closed material cyles which enhances the sustainabilty of the gravure process.” These are the most relevant conclusions of a survey on the sustainability of the gravure process carried out by the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences (HTKW).
The study, which is based on a questionaire and interviews within the gravure industry, was conducted in the first half of 2022 and recently presented by Prof. Lutz Engisch (HTKW Leipzig) at ERA´s Annual & Packaging/Decorative Conference in Baveno, Italy. In the study it is also referred to current innovations to further improve the sustainability of gravure such as the recovering of solvents and alternatives for chromium trioxide in cylinder plating.
A significant potential for circular economy
Gravure printing holds significant potential for the circular economy. Its major ecological advantages are the reusability of the printing forme (basic cylinder) and closed material cycles, which noticeably increases the sustainability of the process. In general, the ecological impact of the various printing processes is affected by a wide variety of factors and usually requires a case-by-case consideration for each application and print job.
Current innovations in gravure printing aim to further improve its sustainability, for example by developing alternatives to the use of chromium trioxide (CrVI). An analysis of job sizes has shown that there are still print runs of up to 800,000 metres. Monofilm substrates with thicknesses below 25 micron is the most commonly used substrate.
The survey did run from 14 February to 1 June 2022 and included more than 116 respondents. It contained questions on all phases of the gravure printing process, including upstream and downstream processes such as cylinder engraving and transport as well as recycling and deinking. Based on the respective defined role in the gravure industry, the survey contained a specific selection of questions. This showed that the participants in the survey were particularly concerned with the issue of sustainability. 43% of the respondents stated that they were very familiar with this topic, however 48% were only moderately familiar with environmental sustainability in the gravure industry.
Reusability as a big plus for gravure
The reusability of the base cylinder is indicated as the strongest advantage of gravure printing. Other strong improvements in terms of sustainability of the process are the use and reduction of emissions of hazardous chemicals. In this context, the respondents identified the electroplating process with chromium trioxide as the biggest challenge for gravure.
Approaches to further improve sustainability are seen in the recovery of solvents, the use of a thinner ink film to save ink, the substitution of chromium trioxide and the reduction of waste (e.g. through automation).
In the interviews, the desire for better communication and coordination throughout the supply chain was particularly evident. This includes all actors, from manufacturers of machines and inks, design agencies to recycling companies. This exchange could facilitate the coordination and prioritisation of developments to improve environmental factors.
In addition, first efforts for a life cycle assessment already started and initial challenges and limitations identified. However, a general or holistic (LCA) comparison of different printing technologies is difficult due to the multitude of parameters. Product-dependent individual case decisions, supported by comparative LCAs, could help in the future to select gravure printing as the most environmentally friendly printing process.