A lighter print

LED and waterless tech could revolutionise printing

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

Home » A lighter print

Published: 31 March 2015

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

  

The printing industry has witnessed some seismic shifts since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century; while once wooden letters were hand-set and rolled with ink before being pressed against sheets of paper, today’s printers use metal plates that don’t come into contact with paper at all.

But technological advances in the industry have brought new environmental threats; offset lithography – the technique used by the vast majority of printing companies – consumes significant natural resources, sends masses of waste to landfill and generates volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which, when released into the atmosphere, have a detrimental effect on the air we breathe.

For the offset lithographic process to work, Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) or similar substitutes are used to break the surface tension of the water. This nasty chemical emits VOCs and pollutes the huge volumes of fresh water that are also used in the process.

The result? The seemingly straightforward task of getting ink on paper has created the world’s fourth-largest manufacturing industry – and its fifth-worst environmental offender.

Waterless printing

seacourt-2Back in 1996, Seacourt – now an award-winning environmental printing company in Oxford – discovered just how damaging the industry was. Its owners made the decision to look at how the company’s processes could be managed and its environmental impact reduced.

For Seacourt, the largest single change has been the shift to waterless printing. This, according to the company’s managing director, Gareth Dinnage, is ‘THE environmental print route’.

Waterless printing follows exactly the same process as offset lithography, but without using or polluting fresh, finite water. In fact, working with silicone-coated plates means Seacourt doesn’t need to use any water – or dangerous chemicals – in the printing process at all.

The business is now saving the equivalent of a small lake of water each year, plus an additional 135,000 litres a year thanks to the water recycling unit on its plate processor. ‘The switch to waterless printing immediately enabled us to reduce our VOC emissions by 98%’, Gareth told PQ. ‘Since we implemented this technology we’ve saved 7.5 million litres of valuable fresh water.’

LED drying

Waterless is without doubt the leading printing process, but adding LED technology to the mix creates something truly revolutionary. ‘LightTouch’ is a waterless printing technique that also uses LEDs to dry ink instantly. According to Gareth, this is without doubt the most complete and environmentally friendly approach to printing.

Instant drying isn’t a new idea; UV light has been used to achieve the same results, but it requires mercury-based technology that’s soon to be banned.

On top of that, LED lamps last 20,000 hours – around 30 times longer than the average UV lamp life. The LED technology behind LightTouch uses the Nobel Physics Prize-winning blue LED system to cure ink on top of the sheet, meaning it isn’t absorbed into the paper. As the ink’s cured immediately, there’s no ‘dry back’: you can instantly see how colours are reproducing, which allows for greater accuracy in the finished product.

‘This was born completely out of our quest for best environmental practice’, Gareth told PQ. ‘We knew we wanted a waterless LED press, but such a thing didn’t exist. We finally managed to get a press manufacturer to build one for us, and worked with manufacturers to develop the ink. Between us all, we’ve created a technology we feel is revolutionary and demonstrates how the print company of the future can look.’

As well as further reducing the company’s environmental impact, this new technique also allows Seacourt to do more for its clients. The environmental impact of their printed materials is reduced, costs are lower, quality’s improved, jobs are turned around faster and there’s more versatility to print on different substrates.

Zero waste to landfill

Following the shift to waterless printing, Seacourt switched to 100% renewable energy and became carbon neutral; other initiatives such as the installation of sensors and wormeries followed and, in 2009, the company achieved its main objective: it became the world’s first zero waste to landfill printing company.

‘Imagine: all materials that come into our factory will either be delivered to the client as part of the finished job or go into one of our 18 recycling streams for second generation use’, Gareth explains. ‘This, combined with our waterless printing and renewable energy use, means our naturally responsible printing process has the lightest environmental impact possible.’

Achieving zero waste to landfill was a huge landmark that, in 2011, led to Seacourt’s second Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development. ‘We won our first Queen’s Award in 2007 for our unrelenting commitment to driving positive change within the print industry’, Gareth told PQ. ‘As an SME, to be recognised with these honours really does fill us all with immense pride.’

New technology

Gareth has found that there’s no longer any need to compromise between print quality and environmental performance; ‘That is how we now see change: developing technologies such as waterless and laterally waterless LED printing that provide a win on all fronts’, Gareth told us.

Compared with lithography, waterless printing produces brighter colours, sharper dots and finer screen rulings. ‘Our solutions really are a no-brainer – they improve quality, environmental performance and speed.’ So why aren’t all printing companies following suit? ‘I have absolutely no idea’, Gareth admits.

The changes at Seacourt have been introduced incrementally, and the business has absorbed the cost of 18 years of continuous investment. The cost of printing hasn’t gone up – but various environmental impacts have been reduced.

According to Gareth, Seacourt is proving that paper-based communication can be the most environmentally sound mass communication channel. ‘When you consider the full life cycle of the medium, with carbon absorption of young saplings, diverting and reusing recycled paper from landfill, printing without water and associated chemicals, being powered by 100% renewable energy, being a carbon-neutral production facility and not generating any waste to landfill, you start to get an idea that our process really is truly sustainable.’

The Year of Light

The digital revolution has enabled us to deliver messages faster and more efficiently; by combining it with 21st-century technology, Gareth firmly believes Seacourt is the print company of the future.

‘2015 is the International Year of Light’, Gareth told PQ. ‘With LightTouch we are showing how printing has evolved into the 21st century – combining best-in-class technologies to further improve on best practice. Our goal has always been to create a business we can all
be proud of; we are demonstrating what can be achieved but we are far from finished and there is still much work to be done.’

For more information on Seacourt and the processes behind its printing services, have a look at seacourt.net.

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