Are printing plates environmentally friendly?

Josephine Walbank
June 9, 2022
printing plates

Coffee packaging is a roaster’s most essential marketing tool, so it is important to ensure images and text are clear and aesthetic.

Each specialty roaster will have their own set of needs that determine the best printing methods for their packaging. The use of printing plates is widespread, and was, until recently, the only option among printers. 

Printing plates are used in traditional printers to transfer ink onto the printed material. As individual plates are used, it can be difficult to customise print jobs as the printer set-up must be adjusted. Furthermore, to add colour to coffee packaging, multiple plates have to be used – making traditional printing methods unsustainable.

Despite the rise of digital printing technology, many printers continue to use printers with conventional printing plates. This is because they remain an affordable piece of equipment that delivers high-quality print results. 

However, as the specialty coffee industry continues to prioritise eco-friendly packaging, many are questioning the sustainability of printing plates. 

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Range of metal stencils used on printing plates.

What are printing plates?

A printing plate consists of a sheet of solid, and most commonly aluminium is used.

The sheet is flat, thin, and etches with the image that is being printed. The plates are etched using laser technology, computer-to-plate (CTP) machinery, or through the use of acids.

This is usually done by the printer, who transfers a digital version of the client’s image onto the plate using specialised equipment.

Typically, the deeper the engraving is, the more intense the colour will be. Important to note is that one plate is used per colour within the design.

Therefore, unless a roaster has requested a black and white design, a colour design will require four different plates to be made. Each of these four plates will be used for one of the CMYK colours: cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key” which is black.

Once the printer has received the design files, the colours are converted into a CMYK format. This, in turn, dictates the quantity of each of the four colours required to create the specified colour used in the design.

Once the plates have been created, the inks are applied to each one and then transferred onto the packaging materials. This process is then repeated one colour at a time.

The plates are attached to the printer’s cylindrical plate holders, which rotate and press them along printing material.

Two primary methods that use printing plates are rotogravure and flexographic printing.

In rotogravure printing, the printer uses a rotary press with cylinders that are engraved with the design.

Alternatively, flexographic printing uses printing plates with raised surfaces. While this is a faster and cheaper option, rotogravure printing is better suited to high-volume print runs.

However, the initial investment required to manufacture and etch the printing plates for each of these methods is costly. That said, if they are used enough time, the cost per unit is relatively low.

Furthermore, printing plates limits a roaster’s flexibility, restricting them from diversifying their bags and creating limited edition packaging designs.

As a result, it is typically international coffee giants that use plate-based printing. For small scale roasters, the cost per unit of this printing method is significantly higher.

Laser engraving taking place on printing plates for coffee packaging printing.

What materials are used to make printing plates?

Alongside the cost, there are concerns around the sustainability of printing plates.

This can be determined by considering two factors: the material used to make the plate, and how often it is used.

While the most common material used in printing plates is metal – typically copper-plated steel – plastic, rubber, paper, or ceramics are also used. Naturally, each of these materials comes with varying degrees of sustainability.

Paper and ceramics create the lowest carbon footprint in their manufacture, but are the least durable. Whereas metal, plastic, and rubber create considerable pollution in their production, these materials are exceptionally hard-wearing.

Roasters who want to minimise the environmental impact of their print run will need to determine the best material for their specific use case.

For instance, when printing a limited number, paper and ceramics would be the most environmentally friendly choice.

However, if this cylinder needs to print millions of units, then it is worth investing in tougher materials. This avoids having to recreate multiple cylinders.

This is a particularly useful option for roasters who do not change their packaging design, as these plates can be reused. Notably, a single rotogravure cylinder can be reused up to 20 million times.

Additionally, these plates are easy to clean, so they can be stored until the next print run. This makes them an effective, affordable option for large-scale roasters who have large print runs.

Furthermore, the sustainability of this method can be increased by choosing inks that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and recyclable packaging materials such as those made from kraft or rice paper. As can staying with the same packaging design and recycling the printing plate once it reaches the end of its life cycle.

That said, for small scale roasters, printing plates may not be as environmentally friendly as digital printing.

Essentially, a limited number of print runs will not outweigh the cost or carbon footprint that the four printing plates would generate. Instead, digital printing offers a far more affordable and sustainable option.

Three white multilayer kraft paper coffee bags on wooden shelf with leaves in forefront.

The benefits of eco-friendly printing on coffee packaging

Sustainability is one of the largest concerns within the coffee industry. Without it, roasters and cafe owners are unable to retain customers, protect crop yields, or preserve the sector.

For roasters who wish to improve the environmental credentials of their business, packaging is an effective way to start. The benefits of choosing eco-friendly printing are multi-faceted.

It ensures roasters are helping to protect the industry from its most pressing threats, and it will be invaluable in supporting customer retention efforts. A recent report shows 81% of customers prefer to shop from sustainable companies.

A similar report revealed over a quarter of respondents stopped buying a certain product or supporting a brand because of ethical or sustainability related concerns.

It is clear that eco-friendly packaging appeals to a growing number of customers, and can help ensure they remain loyal to a business.

By ensuring a brand has a direct association with sustainability, roasters can build a positive brand impression while boosting brand awareness across a larger audience.

Roasters looking to adopt sustainable coffee packaging will need to consider both the materials and the printing method used. In terms of printing, the main point that needs to considered is the size of the print run.

For small-scale roasters, partnering with packaging specialists who use digital printing is the most environmentally friendly option.

Digital printing methods have a significantly lower energy usage, and eliminate the need for printing plates altogether. As a result, they are cheaper and require far less raw materials.

Plus, they achieve a markedly reduced environmental impact. Notably, the HP Indigo Press 25K has an 80% lower environmental impact than rotogravure and flexographic printing.

What’s more, by choosing a printer that offers sustainable coffee packaging materials, roasters can reduce their carbon footprint even further.

Thanks to the recent advancements in digital printing technologies, affordable and sustainable customised coffee packaging has been made accessible to independent roasters for the first time.

Black filter coffee being poured into ceramic cup next to V60, hand grinder, and white multilayer kraft paper coffee bag.

At MTPak Coffee, we can custom design and digitally print coffee packaging with just a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time.

Furthermore, we offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material. We can also ensure that packaging is completely recyclable or biodegradable, as we offer bags made from sustainable materials such as kraft and rice paper, as well as LDPE and PLA-lined bags.

For more information on eco-friendly digital printing, contact our team.

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