Flexography: Sustainable Printing For Coffee Packaging

Janice Kanniah
February 5, 2021

There’s nothing worse than dedicating time and money to designing the perfect coffee packaging, only to be let down by poor quality printing. It doesn’t matter how striking your images and font appear on the computer; if they come out blurry or inconsistent when applied to your coffee bag, it can damage consumer perceptions of your coffee.

Flexography offers a consistent, versatile, and sustainable option for specialty coffee roasters. Not only does it incorporate eco-friendly inks and reusable printing plates, it also produces a high-quality finish to a diverse range of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable packaging materials.

To find out more about flexography and its benefits for specialty coffee packaging, I spoke with Laura Fornero, Digital Projects Manager at Producer Roaster Forum.

See also: Using Creative Coffee Packaging To Attract Customers

coffee beans

What Is Flexography?

Flexography, or flexographic printing, is a form of relief printing that has existed since the 19th century. It involves applying ink to a raised image on a flexible plate, which is then impressed onto a substrate. Moving rolls of material (or blank stickers) pass through several flexible plates, with each plate adding a different coloured ink.

Flexography allows printing on both absorbent (porous) and non-absorbent (non-porous) surfaces, from foil to cardboard. It can laminate or emboss these materials without requiring extra production steps, saving both time and money.

As each flexography plate prints just one colour, printing accuracy is generally high. Each material passes through the system only once, so production is quick, affordable, and scalable. Flexographic printing can reach speeds of up to 750 metres per minute.

Modern flexography equipment has improved over the years, leading to its growth as one of the most popular forms of printing. In 2020, the global flexographic printing market was valued at $167.7 billion and is estimated to grow to more than $180 billion by 2025.

Recent improvements in flexography include the thinning and layering of printing plates for higher efficiency, and the introduction of eco-friendly inks. In particular, the use of water-based inks, which have very low volatile organic compounds (VOC), have contributed to the development of flexography as a sustainable form of printing. VOC are gases emitted into the air by certain products and processes, such as pesticides, cosmetics, and air fresheners. They can be damaging to health if inhaled, and produce ozone pollution when they react with nitrogen oxides.

“Although flexography has existed for decades, it’s come into its own over the past few years,” says Laura Fornero, Digital Projects Manager at Producer Roaster Forum. “It’s well suited to printing on popular coffee packaging materials, especially materials like kraft and rice paper.”

An image of flexible coffee packaging with customised printing in an article on whether flexography is the best form of printing for coffee packaging

How Sustainable Is Flexography?

Today, consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their buying habits. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, 43% of consumers actively choose brands due to their environmental values. For specialty coffee roasters, this means they may lose out on potential customers if they’re unable to offer a fully sustainable product.

The environmental benefits of flexography are two-fold. Not only are the printing plates wipeable and reusable, the inks that are frequently used have low VOC and can be recycled when applied to recyclable packaging materials.

Historically, manufacturers struggled to remove and clean inks from flexographic rollers, meaning it was often simpler to discard them. However, modern plate materials are significantly easier to clean and reuse across millions of impressions, helping to reduce their environmental impact.

Similarly, most modern-day flexography incorporates the use of water-based inks that can be printed onto high-quality recyclable and biodegradable materials, such as kraft paper and polylactic acid (PLA). 

Water-based inks are inks that use water as a base to carry pigment. Unlike solvent-based inks, they contain no harmful chemicals, and emit little to no VOC during production and drying.

Wastage from water-based inks is in the form of non-contaminated water that can be released into sewer systems for standard water-treatment processing. Some printing facilities also have in-house water treatment facilities to clear and reuse the water, contributing further to the sustainability of its manufacture.

When water-based inks are applied to recyclable coffee packaging, the packaging can still be recycled without risk of harming the environment. This is in contrast to solvent-based inks, which have to be carefully sorted and removed before recycling due to the harmful toxins they can emit if handled incorrectly. 

Laura tells me that for specialty coffee roasters, it’s important to be able to offer consumers a product that’s fully recyclable.

“These days, many consumers don’t have time to separate and sort their waste,” Laura explains. “If you can inform them their coffee packaging is recyclable and doesn’t require sorting, they’re more likely to properly dispose of it.”

An image of flexible coffee packaging, LDPE coffee bags, customised LDPE coffee bag in an article on whether flexography is the best form of printing for coffee packaging

How Flexography Can Help Create Consistent Coffee Packaging

For all the work that goes into producing a bag of specialty coffee, bad quality printing should not hold back the success of your product.

However, reproducing colours, fonts, and images consistently can be a tricky business. Some colours change appearance under different lights, while images and text may appear blurry or smudged.

Flexography can help produce visually consistent packaging that’s able to withstand long periods spent in storage and transit. It uses flexible plates that are compatible with quick-drying inks for better colour density and mileage, which reduces the chance of smudging.

The machinery used in flexography recycles spent inks and washes water in less time and at higher volumes. It means increased profit margins and lower operating costs without compromising on print quality. It’s also cheap to run and requires limited part replacements.

Laura explains that many problems that typically occur in printing don’t exist in flexography. 

“If a specific shade is costly or hard to buy or produce, you can use spot colouring,” she says. “This is where tiny colour dots are printed at angles to create an image with the right saturation and hue.”

Furthermore, printing solid blocks of light colour is far easier compared to other forms of printing. With flexography, you can also double print colours for a luminous finish without the colours changing or becoming unstable. This helps create a distinctive and eye-catching product that will stand out on the shelf, setting your bag of coffee apart from the competition.

“I’m yet to meet a client who has used flexographic printing for their packaging and been disappointed by the results,” Laura says. “If you want to be truly show-stopping and vibrant, then I’d definitely recommend finding a manufacturer who uses it.”

As specialty coffee roasters increasingly look for eco-friendly packaging, flexographic printing offers a visually appealing and sustainable option for coffee bags. 

It can be applied to a range of biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable materials, using water-based inks with a high-quality finish. Whether including information on a coffee’s provenance or a colourful illustration by a local artist, choosing the right form of printing is essential for specialty coffee roasters. 

At MTPak Coffee, we use flexographic printing for all our coffee packaging, from kraft paper bags to PLA pouches. The results are a consistent, eye-catching product that will attract customers and boost perceptions of your coffee.

For more information on our sustainable printing for coffee packaging, contact our team here.

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