Repurposing Flexographic Printing Plates

[Editor’s Note: Two of the 2014 FFTA Rossini Scholarship Competition winners, Amanda Cockroft and Katherine Dayton, conducted research in connection with their project, which aimed to find ways to recycle flexo printing plates.]

The flexographic industry is continuing to experience growth and compete with other printing industries like gravure for high quality jobs. In addition, the world has recently seen an increased emphasis on environmentally friendly products and businesses are becoming more “green.” A company able to boast of being eco friendly is a huge draw to customers and can be very beneficial in marketing strategies. For both of these reasons, there is an increasing need to find an eco friendly way to recycle or reuse flexographic printing plates, which are one of the largest sources of waste in the industry.

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Our project is based on the idea of recycling plates for a new purpose in a way that is beneficial, cost wise, to both the supplier and receiver. This project was mostly research based but with the intent of facilitating relationships between our local company (Fusion Flexo, a plate maker located in Plainwell, MI) and other companies who could successfully use the old photopolymer material in new ways.

Fusion Flexo, our sponsor company, tasked us with finding a way to reuse/recycle their scrap photopolymer in an ecofriendly way they can show customers without any additional associated costs. This research project was funded by the FFTA Rossini Scholarship in order to reach advancements toward a more environmentally sustainable flexographic printing industry.

Researching The Problem

The basis for this project first involved researching how others in various industries are approaching the idea of waste treatment, rubber/plastic recycling and the management of flexo scraps that is done by other companies. Talking to various businesses at INFO*FLEX 2014 was very helpful in determining where the industry is at this time.

Both Flint Group and DuPont were companies we talked to who already have existing recycling services offered to customers for a fee. Flint Group’s Terri Stewart gave us insight into the process and explained how the company collects the scraps from its customers and incinerates them. The ash is then used in the production of cement. The scraps can also be burned to create electrical energy. Care must be taken to ensure the incineration of photopolymer is done in “clean” ways, so as not to be harmful to the environment. In addition, Fusion Flexo was already aware of these services and, as a new company, was interested in ways to recycle scraps without an associated cost.

After taking stock of where the industry is at this point, we decided that finding a solution that fit all of our criteria would involve a little bit of creativity, since there wasn’t an existing process that would fit all of our needs. We became interested in finding new uses for the material instead of just eliminating the waste. It is important for the process to be beneficial to both the company disposing of the plates and scraps, and whoever is gaining the photopolymer.

One thing to take into consideration was the fact that the photopolymer could cause irritation to skin after prolonged contact and repeated exposure. Photopolymer’s very strong odor was also an issue.

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Some ideas we brainstormed that we thought could lead to solutions included:

  • Chips for playgrounds
  • Gymnasium/track flooring
  • Low cost roofing/flooring material for developing countries
  • Ground up material to be used for 3-D printing
  • Outdoor fencing

Investigating A Solution

There is currently a United States patent (US 5552261 A) for recycling photopolymer by separating it from its supportive backing and then combining it with new photopolymer to be used in making new plates and other items. Again, our project was more interested in finding relationships with companies who can use the material, as is, instead of reprocessing the plates.

Through our research, we discovered some new industries that may be interested in using the material. One that interested us was the outdoor furniture industry. We were in contact with Cathy Smith from Boxcar Press, a company that has recently started a polymer plate recycling program. This company was able to find another business that had use for the material through its local recycling company. Boxcar Press then began collecting the used plates from customers and sending them on to the business that was able to reuse them.

However, Boxcar Press will only recycle plates it supplied or that it knows the supplier of because the company needs to know the exact material components of each. Therefore, there is still a need to create a program, such as this, for companies that use plates from other suppliers. Boxcar Press sends the photopolymer plates onto a company that reuses them to make outdoor furniture and plastic lumber. Ideally, we wanted to forge a relationship like this between Flexo Fusion and another company in need of the material, while also doing experimental research for more uses with the material.

We also contacted two companies, Trex and Polywood, to see if they would be interested in using photopolymer in their products. These companies make outdoor furniture from recycled plastic and wood. Katie George, from Trex, explained to us that her company is only able to use polyethylene, which is found in plastic bags, in its products, because of its low melting point. If Trex used photopolymer printing plates, it would have to increase the temperature, which would incinerate the wood component of the product.