How to go green

Implementing sustainable practices can be good for your clients and your conscience - as long as you understand how it works. Darren Smith discovers the best solutions to going green.

Wanting to save the planet is one thing; knowing how to do it is quite another. Understanding the technological processes involved in making greener packaging can give your client a quality product, a viable eco message, and save money too - but without compromising the environment. Packaging manufacturers are offering innovative solutions that provide a sustainable source of raw materials with more efficient manufacturing processes and waste management. Understanding which solution will give you the best results means talking to the experts.

Whether it's a recycled paper bag, drinks can or fast food carton, there are plenty of eco-friendly packaging options available, and it can be a minefield deciding which is right for your brand owner's product and image. Discussing your requirements with a reputable manufacturer will solve most packaging problems - but, to make life easier, the following guide focuses on some of the world's leading packaging companies in five of the key areas of packaging production. Here, they explain exactly what's on offer to the conscientious designer in the worlds of print, paper, ink, carton and metal packaging: why it's important to go green and - most importantly - how to get the best results from your creative packaging design.

01 The recycled bottle
Packaging liquids in a sustainable way is a complicated process. Price and availability of materials mean that an overwhelming majority of liquids - milk and dairy products, oils and drinks - are packaged in oil-based plastic bottles, and a total 8 per cent of oil production goes into plastics.

The UK market consumes a vast number of bottle packages each year - in fact, there are around 9bn plastic bottles used in the UK alone. It equates to 3m tons of plastic waste each year, most of which is put in landfill; only 7 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled. Some packaging manufacturers are challenging this problem by exploring sustainable solutions with varying degrees of success.

Bottled water company Belu is so committed to environmental production that it donates its profits to clean water campaigns around the globe. The Belu bottle is manufactured from a type of plastic derived from corn starch, which biodegrades on a home compost heap in typically nine months to a year. It composts in a commercial site much quicker, but at present there are no commercial composting sites in the UK, although this may change in the future.

UK company Greenbottle is offering an alternative milk bottle that's a fully recyclable and compostable solution. The Greenbottle comprises a hermetically sealed loose liner that holds the milk inside a cardboard outer container. The outer is manufactured in the same way as an eggbox - a monocoque structure made from 100 per cent recycled pulped cardboard. The two technologies combine to keep the milk fresh without contaminating the cardboard and vice versa. Once the bottle is used, the liner is removed and the bag can be disposed of in the general rubbish. The cardboard can be put in either the cardboard recycling or 'green' waste streams - if not recycled, the whole bottle will compost at the landfill site.

As the cardboard outer is an evolution of existing technology, in future it's possible that the Greenbottle will be available in different sizes, formats, and colours. Greenbottle hopes to develop bespoke solutions for individual clients. Although the Greenbottle is yet to hit supermarket shelves, after a successful trial it is expected to reach consumers in the first half of this year.

02 Aluminium drink cans
The search for greener packaging often looks to new technology, but one of the most sustainable forms of packaging is also one of the oldest. First developed in 1810 by Peter Durant, metal cans are a cornerstone of the packaging world. Modern innovations now mean that food can be safely stored for an average of three years in an airtight sealed can - an unparalleled length of time for food preservation. Its efficiency is backed by the figures: at present rates, the European market consumes over 27 billion food cans each year.

Drinks cans are a common sight in any newsagents, and best represent the changes in can production. Lightweight and volume efficient, cans are an ideal choice for beverage packaging. Drinks cans are usually manufactured from aluminium, a 100 per cent recyclable product (though the average for Europe is around 60 per cent).

Rexam PLC is the world's leading can manufacturer, and it's at the forefront of developing new technologies in metal can processing. Since 1983 Rexam has reduced the weight of each drink can from 19.6g to 12.7g. This amounts to a 30 per cent reduction, saving raw materials and improving transport efficiency. The process is environmentally friendly but also makes sound economic sense: the energy required to produce the metal for one can is equivalent to the energy used to recycle one can 20 times.

Can packaging benefits the designer too - each can has a large surface area for brand exposure with no labelling required. It's a low-cost option that's efficient to manufacture and recycle but achieves good standout on the store shelf.

Here we'll outline the typical steps involved in designing a drinks can:

Size, metal and basecoat: Can size is dependent on the product quantity. Rexam's cans range from 150ml to 568ml. Steel and aluminium are both 100 per cent recyclable products, but aluminium is more rigid at lower grammage weights and lighter, thus cheaper and more efficient to distribute. The basecoat affects the printed results, so choose a lighter finish for full can designs and clear for a metal finish.

Artwork: Rexam prefers Adobe Illustrator files for the best print finish, but photos can be supplied at a minimum 200dpi. Remember to outline or supply all fonts.

Layout: Schematics are downloadable from the Rexam website to ensure your design fits the end product.

Colour: CMYK is not possible on two-piece cans (although a good representation is possible). Printing one colour on top of another (called 'wet on wet') can cause issues and delays on press. Metalised inks must not be used on the neck area. Precise PMS colour matching must be provided to Rexam, and bear in mind that a steel substrate can give colours a bluish cast compared to paper. See for details.

Text: All can designs need text to convey the brand message, ingredients and legally required specifications (calorie count and so on). Text should be measured in millimetres rather than point size as fonts have differing x-heights. The minimum 'x-height' is 1.2mm, and use bold fonts for negative (reversed) text.

Barcode: Barcodes should be high contrast (preferably black on white) and printed horizontally on the can. The recommended bar height is 16mm, printed at 100 per cent.

Symbols: Legislation demands that you print symbols on your design. These vary from country to country, so check with the manufacturer for the appropriate design.

Printing: Recommended lines per inch on a can design is between 85-105lpi, and bear in mind that dot gain on a metal substrate can be as much as 30 per cent.

Finally, metal packaging manufacture and printing is an expert profession, so don't be afraid to seek advice from the experts.

03 Recycled paper bags
Carrier bags say a lot about a brand: from ultra-cheap polythene supermarket bags to string-handled designer carriers, the shopping bag is vital for any business. After all, a carefully designed carrier acts as a great advertisement for your client's products as it is carried around the high street.

The Paper Bag Company is one of the UK's leading suppliers of printed retail and promotional bags. Based in Wiltshire, it offers a full range of high-quality recycled, recyclable and re-useable bags.

The Paper Bag Company custom-makes its bags dependent on requirements, although stock sizes are available. The range of packaging includes laminated paper bags that can be foil-blocked, embossed/debossed, UV spot varnished and in a gloss or matt finish. Its luxury recycled bags feature a rope handle and are made from 100 per cent recycled paper.

Stage 01 - Select the right type of bag
Flat and Satchel bags
: Smith Anderson Packaging - the largest integrated bag manufacturer in the UK - produces over 60 million of these bags every week. Styles vary from plain flat bags through to multicolour printed flat and satchel bags. The range also encompasses strip window and film front bags, which can be printed and perforated. CMYK printing is standard and paper ranges from 34-70gsm.

Grab bags: Also known as SOS 'self opening satchel' or 'block bottom bag', grab bags are widely used in the fast food industry. They are produced on very high-speed machines, which enable significant cost reduction.

The Handle Carrier: This is the handled version of a grab bag. It's the most versatile - and therefore most common - type of premium paper carrier. Examples feature in coffee shops, sandwich bars and fashion houses, and the flexibility of both design and size range provides designers with numerous creative options. The Paper Bag Company can print these in full-colour process to give a near photographic reproduction.

Stage 02 - Select the paper
€¢ Ensure the paper's grammage is high enough to give the bag a good tensile strength.
€¢ Quality products need a quality paper - high-end jewellers, for example, need thick bags.
€¢ Both The Paper Bag Company and Smith Anderson Packaging use white or brown Kraft paper, which is 100% recyclable and sourced from sustainable forests.

Stage 03 - The design
€¢ Think about the bag's role as advertising on the high street - make it striking yet simple.
€¢ Paper type and gram weight have a bearing on print - too much ink coverage can soak a low gsm bag and reduce its tensile strength.

Stage 04 - Supply
Before supplying artwork talk to your manufacturer. As well as offering specs and schematics, they may be able to find a similar design solution that's more sustainable or for a cheaper price.

04 Compostable food carton packaging
Minimising the impact of packaging in landfill sites means that compostable materials are as vital to the environment as sustainable ones. In November 2007, UK carton manufacturer Alexir launched its Alpha C range, developed to offer retailers direct contact food packaging completely free from any plastic.

It is the first packaging of its kind to be accredited by the Composting Association as fully compostable, reducing its effect on the environment. The carton can be produced with or without a window, and is available in various sizes. Designers looking for a bespoke packaging solution take heart: Alexir can discuss alternative structural packaging solutions at the development stage and the card-based packaging offers a large surface area for designers to exploit.

Melvyn Chimes, business service director at the Composting Association says: "The Composting Association is pleased to see that companies such as Alexir are taking positive steps to reduce the amount of waste packaging sent to landfill. By making more packaging compostable they can play a role in helping this country meet its obligations under the EU's Landfill Directive."

Alexir's sales director Tom Sene says: "We have now achieved a fully compostable pack produced from sustainable and renewable resources suitable for direct food contact. The next step is to work with our customers to achieve a pack that meets the compostable target for all food requiring direct food contact packaging."

Alexir also developed the Alexipack that has already been successfully implemented to house the Tesco Healthy Living range. The Alexipack is a patented tray with optional lid and is a proven packing line system specifically designed for ready meals. The majority of the pack is made from renewable and sustainable resources, yet is suitable for dual oven, freezer and chiller use.

05 Vegetable-based Inks
Whether your client demands a carton, bag, or can-based type of packaging for its product, branding is a vital part of the final design. Packaging must promote the product it contains and raise awareness of the client's brand message. To do this requires a single common denominator: ink.

It's still possible to print packaging using environmentally sound inks, although modern pigments have moved on significantly from an early ink mixture of soot from pine smoke, lamp oil, and gelatin from animal skins, which was first developed in China over 5,000 years ago.

The Flint Group is the world's leading ink manufacturer, making over 2.5billion euros last year. The company offers a range of packaging inks that are derived from natural, sustainable sources. Its PluriRange and FlexiRange are nitrocellulose-based, which is made by treating natural cellulose - diced wood pulp - with sulphuric and nitric acids. The ink range offers both gravure and flexographic nitrocellulose systems, and these are used on varied packaging including shopping bags, freezer bags, paper and lid materials, plastic coatings, surface printing and lamination. The Flint Group is accredited with ISO14001:2004. The International Organisation for Standardisation's 14,000 environmental management standards exist to help organisations minimise how their operations negatively affect the environment.

In the wider print world, choosing the right ink is increasingly important for protecting the environment. Lovely As A Tree is a website founded by Caroline Clark that lists FSC-certified paper suppliers and environmentally aware printers. It's an invaluable resource for any eco-aware designer.

Here, Clark highlights four main areas of concern for sheet-fed litho inks:

Heavy metals: Barium, copper and zinc contained in certain pigments (particularly metallic colours) can result in environmental and worker health hazards. Studies have linked the heavy metals used in some inks to an increased risk of printers developing bladder cancer.

Non-renewable resources: The main oils in non-vegetable-based inks are petroleum-based.

VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds): This is not as big a problem as it once was, but some inks do emit VOCs as they dry, damaging human health and contributing to global warming.

Waste inks: These inks can be recycled and made into low-grade fuel, or mixed to form black ink and then re-used. However, the majority of waste ink is incarcerated in concrete in special landfill sites.

Caroline Clark advises talking to the manufacturer to discuss which inks are viable for your packaging design, yet still help protect the environment. "The biggest change you can make is to choose ink that contains vegetable oil instead of petroleum," she says. "These inks contain no solvents so do not release VOCs (carbon-containing gases and vapours that are released from solvents used during the printing process)."

Reducing areas of ink coverage can also help cut the costs of ink use and environmental damage. Making sure your design has fewer darker shades, solid dark colours and full bleed photos saves ink wastage and makes the end product easier to recycle.