Posted by Richard Romano
February 28, 2017
Merriam-Webster defines “paper” as “(1) a felted sheet of usually vegetable fibers laid down on a fine screen from a water suspension; (2) a similar sheet of other material (as plastic).” While there has been some sense that the term “synthetic paper” is a bit of an oxymoron, the official dictionary at least has come around to considering “tree-free” substrates as paper.
The apt term “durables” is also used to describe these materials, since they’re hard to rip or tear. They are also waterproof and greaseproof, which is not only useful for outdoor applications, but also indoor ones such as restaurant menus, which are often subject to being spilled on and otherwise besmeared.
“Synthetic paper is a white opaque plastic that is made from either polypropylene and polyethylene plastic that has been modified with a calcium carbonate coating or clay filler to enhance its dyne level for better ink adhesion and brightness for printing durable signs and posters by flexo, offset, inkjet, and laser printing,” says Jack Smith, senior vice president, Hop Industries Corporation, manufacturer of Hop-Syn synthetic papers.
Having found a niche in labels, tags, and other small-format materials, synthetics are now also expanding into wide-format printing and packaging applications.
“We have a wide-format grade, Yupo Illuminate, for poster or store signage, which is designed for UV wide-format,” says Bill Hewitt, marketing manager, Yupo Corporation. Yupo synthetics are used for a wide variety of small and large applications. “Maps, store signage, a lot of POP displays, outdoor signs, and even plant tags.” Restaurant menus in particular are a very big application for Yupo Blue, a polypropylene-based synthetic paper that has been certified to run on the HP Indigo.
Hop-Syn’s synthetic papers are also popular for waterproof maps and menus, horticultural tags and plant stakes, and warranty tags for outdoor products, as well as POP displays, and are also turning up in more and more packaging applications.
“Anti-theft packaging, expanded content labels and bottle labels that need to be waterproof to enhance the brand image,” says Smith. “In addition, food content labels that need to be FDA approved for direct food contact because they are directly applied to poultry, beef, sausage and cheese products that would promote a fresh image that would hold up in the refrigerated section of the supermarket.”
Another synthetic product that has been growing in popularity has greatly expanded the range of window and other display graphics: “The most popular trend lately is clings made of vinyl or polypropylene,” says Hewitt. “They have been very popular within the last two or three years.” Yupo offers Jelly and Octopus for clings – the former a clear material, the latter a white material. “Ten years ago you never heard the word ‘cling’ the way you do today.”
Being plastic, synthetic papers often get a bad rap for being environmentally unfriendly, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “Most synthetic papers are made from polypropylene and/or polyethylene resin, which are environmentally friendly and contain no heavy metals, chlorine, phthalates, or other carcinogens that are damaging to the environment,” says Smith. “Synthetic paper made from these resins are 100-percent recyclable and, when incinerated, release less than .01 percent of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
Both Hop-Syn and Yupo’s synthetic grades are Category 5 recyclable products. According to Yupo’s environmental statement, the company’s synthetics are also manufactured with no toxins or heavy metals and, when properly incinerated, release no detectable amounts of sulfur, chlorine, nitrogen, or dioxin gasses. The key is “properly incinerated.” At the same time, users of synthetic papers should be careful to put them in the plastic, not the paper, recycling stream.
One of the features of synthetic papers is that they enter the waste/recycling streams more slowly than tree-based paper, for the basic reason that they are referred to as “durables.” They’re designed to be long-lasting.
“Most consumer product manufacturers want their promotional image to be durable to enhance their product promotion in a retail store,” says Smith. Fueling the growth of synthetics, Smith adds, are, “the fact that more print advertising needs to be more durable, as well as having the printed image hold up for a longer period of time –such as three to six months as compared to two to three weeks. More companies are concerned about promoting a more durable image that can hold up under different environmental conditions – rain, humidity, ice, extreme temperature.”
Also driving the use of synthetics in packaging is the need for packaging to play a greater promotional role. “Consumers spend five seconds in front of a store shelf, and you want them to grab your brand,” says Hewitt. “[Synthetics] are a way to get that package to stand out even more.”
Finessing the technology
Speaking of standing out, Yupo has recently launched a new technology called Sculpt designed for in-mold labeling. “Imagine a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup,” said Hewitt. “Envision the word ‘Hershey’ embossed, and you’ll still be able to put an in-mold label over the top of that bottle and enhance the word ‘Hershey.’”
In development for two years, Sculpt is a patented technology for ensuring that the in-mold label lines up with the embossed image on the package, regardless of the height of the embossed pattern. “You can actually deboss with Yupo Sculpt, as well, said Hewitt, “and you can still use Yupo In-Mold Labeling. It’s all in the blow molding and the label placement.”
Yupo is still finessing the technology and getting high-profile consumer products companies on board. “We always thought that it’s going to be a game-changer, and change the face of packaging,” said Hewitt.
Look for synthetic grades to play more nicely with digital printing technologies, especially as more specialty and packaging applications move to digital production.
“The digital printing equipment market is growing six to seven times faster than conventional printing equipment such as flexo and offset,” says Smith. And while one sticking point has traditionally been that synthetic paper is more expensive than both tree-based paper and generic plastics such as polystyrene and PVC, it’s not an insurmountable challenge, says Smith. “The best way to overcome this problem is to promote its advantages in terms of higher print quality, durability, and its environmental benefit of being 100-percent recyclable.”