Trending Content

Time to Get Greener

By AICC Staff

November 22, 2019


In discussions of current market trends—what’s hot, what’s not—one topic stands out: “Within the boxmaking industry, there is a huge emphasis on and push toward eco-friendly, biodegradable, and compostable packaging,” says Maria Ceschan, digital marketing manager for LD Davis Glues & Gelatins. “Many of the calls we receive are from companies that are reevaluating their raw materials to accomplish a truly eco-friendly finished product.”

The situation is similar for manufacturers of coatings and inks, three important but sometimes overlooked ingredients in a successful box.

As boxmakers push the envelope to provide innovative products for changing needs, so do the manufacturers of the glues, coatings, and inks that help to create a complete package. Although each is used in relatively small quantities compared with chipboard or corrugated, their contributions can be critical. As Ceschan notes, “If the glue fails, the entire package fails.” That’s equally true for coatings and inks.

The Power of Protein

LD Davis specializes in gelatin-based protein glues. And currently, “our protein glue line for rigid box is our most popular adhesive product,” says Kelly Benjamin, the company’s inside technical sales manager.

Protein glues, despite their superiority for many applications, had fallen out of favor due to their past dependence on animal-​derived gelatins. They are returning to the “hot spot” now, as a result of being both highly biodegradable and developed from nonanimal protein sources.

“[Some] boxmakers have been using adhesives that are not necessarily considered eco-friendly or biodegradable,” Ceschan says. “Now, companies are rethinking all of their raw materials and how they affect recyclability.

“Our protein glues are not being made from animals,” she continues. “We purchase gelatin from the pharmaceutical/nutraceutical industry. Before LD Davis started formulating glues with this raw material, it would have ended up in landfills. We’re able to recycle this material and formulate it into an eco-friendly and biodegradable adhesive.”

Protein glues play a critical role, particularly in folding carton and rigid box production.

“Gelatin-based glues are an excellent option for boxmakers,” Ceschan says, “but they are inherently different when it comes to adhesive open times, required compression, and application equipment. Protein glues can take up to 10 seconds to set, while hot-melt glue”—the main alternative—“bonds in a second. Still, we’re always looking to push ourselves to improve our formulas and the raw materials, so that may improve in time.”

Traditionally, hot-melt glues are polymer-based, and most waxes used in them are petroleum-based—meaning many of them cannot be dispersed in water, making them difficult to recycle. “Hot-melt glues have fallen out of favor with the shift toward more eco-friendly packaging,” Ceschan notes.

That situation may change as manufacturers continue to innovate. “I think we’re going to see a lot of large manufacturers push for an eco-friendly hot-melt option,” Ceschan says. “Boxmakers either need to move away from hot-melt if they want a compostable product, or adhesive manufacturers need to reformulate their hot-melt glues for the industry, so they
are eco-friendly.”

“Typically, different equipment is needed for applying the two different kinds of glues,” adds Benjamin. “But recently, some companies have been testing our protein glues to see if they can replace their hot-melt glues in certain kinds of equipment.”

She points out that if manufacturers can find a way for protein glue to work within a hot-melt environment, it would become more cost-effective for companies to make the switch to the more environmentally friendly product. “Currently, several hot-melt equipment manufacturers are retrofitting their equipment to be compatible with our lower-temperature gelatin-based glue. It’s a great alternative to hot-melt glue, since no solvents are required for purging and cleanup.”

Protect and Serve

At Astral Adhesives & Coatings, the focus is on developing barrier coatings for the box industry that protect against water, oil, grease, and abrasion or enhance bake-in functionality. “We’re a liquid supplier,” says President Vikas Singhal. “All we do is develop and sell proprietary chemical formulations. Customers apply the coating, mostly in an offline operation, to linerboard, which is then shipped to corrugators and converters.”

Like LD Davis, Astral Coatings is hearing from customers concerned about greener boxes. It is a message the company has been advocating for years. “Not only must a coating be recyclable and compostable, every coating we sell is FDA-compliant, even if it isn’t being used on food,” Singhal explains. “Our customers don’t want to have to maintain multiple different coatings
in inventory.”

For example, he points to window manufacturers. “Everything that ships goes into a corrugated container with an anti-abrasive coating on the inside. End customers don’t want scratches or buffs on their windows. Food packaging uses a similar coating. When you ship cheese bags in a corrugated box, they tend to move in the box. They can abrade. If the bag wears too much, you lose the inert atmosphere in the bag that is helping to keep the cheese fresh.

“A lot of corrugated packaging requires certain levels of oil or water/grease resistance, from basic produce to packaged meat or seafood,” he continues. “You need a water barrier on the inside of the box to prevent the box from degrading.”

Boxes in the past might have relied on paraffin-based wax coatings to protect the contents. The move toward more recyclable boxes has led to wax waning in the marketplace—a marketplace poised for continued growth. “One segment we’re starting to feel excited about is in folding carton, the takeout food container,” Singhal says. “Most have a polyethylene film on the inside that’s laminated to chipboard or SBS substrate. But that makes it nonrecyclable. We’re hearing that there’s a big push from retailers and grocers concerned about the environment”—think Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, etc.—“to have a coated substrate that would make that container recyclable and pulpable.”

Singhal believes that segment represents his company’s largest growth opportunity.

Printing Green

At BCM Inks, the focus is on developing inks for flexo printing. “Our primary product line includes water-based inks, overprint varnishes, and additives,” says Darl Jones, chemist and quality-​assurance manager for BCM Inks USA. “We break our inks down into families based on different varnish formulations designed to maximize performance based on the type of press, type of paper, and so on.”

The growing popularity of digital printing in the industry is leading the company to explore innovative ways to improve finished digital products while maintaining the benefits that come with water-based chemistry. “Recyclability is very important to us,” Jones says. “All of our products are designed to be eco-friendly. And we constantly work to develop formulation variations and explore new materials and new technologies to give a boost to what we currently do, and to eliminate problems.”

For example, he says, “Right now, we’re designing a family of digital primers that enable digital inks to adhere better to substrates and enhance their physical properties.”

He has also been at work on an eco-friendly UV coating. “Some UV coatings out there claim to be recyclable, but I question that, based on their chemistry. I’m now developing a water-based UV coating to get away from the problems that come with conventional UV coatings, which have some regarding the safety of the chemicals, disposal, and cleanup.

“The system I’m designing is meant to be more green,” he adds. “It was designed for people using flexo so they could use their current equipment, including their existing dryers for curing. It has the same rub resistance as UV coatings do.” However, he says, “It can’t quite meet the gloss levels yet. We are currently at 60%–70% of the gloss capability of UV coatings.” He is confident his lab will solve that issue.

“We are constantly working to stay competitive,” Jones says. “We started on this project about a year ago and are currently conducting press tests. We have several customers who would love to move toward a water-based product, so we’re ordering enough materials to be able to test for several different companies. I’m hopeful that the first formula will be finalized and ready to go to market by the end of this year.”

Trending to the Tipping Point

The ongoing trend toward greener products is leading boxmakers to innovative products and new solutions to old challenges. But it doesn’t come without costs—costs that have likely helped slow this trend in the past.

“There’s a premium for these more recyclable, environmentally responsible products, at least in the initial phases,” says Singhal. “A lot of these conversions have to take place when the market is ready—and ready to accept that some of these positive changes will come with an increased cost.”

For many, it seems that time has come.

RobertRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.