Sustainable print finishing: foiling, spot UV & more

Sustainable print finishing: foiling, spot UV & more

Print finishes are processes which lend a tactile or visual effect to the printed page. This article investigates three widely used print finishing techniques…

  • foiling
  • UV varnish
  • silk screening

…and explains the creative possibilities and environmental considerations for each.

All three of these techniques can be used on any area of the page, but are most commonly seen on front covers, to highlight titles or brand logos.

Each method involves adding an oil-, or plastic-based layer to the finished product. As is inevitable when adding any extra process to a print production, each requires some additional energy to apply. These processes also incur plastic waste, and require the use of cleaning chemicals on press. These can be more or less sustainable – so it’s worth asking your printer about these things as well.

For these reasons, some publishers therefore will opt to avoid plastic-based additions altogether; others can incorporate small amounts of recyclable plastics as components of an overall sustainable production.

As we’ll discuss, the plastics used by most manufacturers these days are non-toxic, and since they are used in tiny quantities for these techniques, they pose no obstacle to recycling. But depending on your own environmental goals, you may or may not be comfortable with this environmental impact. That’s a matter of choice for your business, which will depend partly on the positioning of your brand.

Foiling: a versatile option for a statement flourish

Foils are applied on press using heat and pressure, creating a pattern or letters and leaving a tactile, debossed effect. 

They are most often used to add a statement flourish to a cover or spine, for example by applying lettering or logos in a contrasting colour to the page or cover. They are available in metallic finishes, colours, and transparent variations – and with either a matt or a gloss finish.

Contrary to popular belief, printing foils contain no metal content. Both the foil itself, and the backing sheet on which it is supplied to the printer, is made from a thermoplastic called polyethylene (also known as polyester or PET). This is the same type of plastic that is used for drinks bottles, and it is widely recycled. The small amount of plastic waste from the backing and offcuts can also be collected and recycled by suppliers.

The type of plastic used is significant, since it affects the efficacy of the recycling process. With thermoplastics used for foiling, much of the plastic will end up in the recycled paper, as it melts into the paper during pulping.

Thermosetting plastic, on the other hand, which is used for laminating print, does not melt when exposed to the heat used for pulping. This makes it easier to separate from the paper being recycled. It can then be burned and disposed of in a controlled environment, along with other recycling residues.

The foil is applied to the page in very thin layers (2.5 microns or 0.0025mm thick), and the colouring is provided by a pigment. This includes metallic-effect foils where metallic pigments are used.

Foiling can be used to achieve a range of different effects…

On the marketing book for 20 Great Queen Street, a luxury property development, the gold foil deboss made for a decadent contrast with the leaf-green textile cover.

Foiled book
The gold foiling on this production is comprised of a recyclable polyester plastic with metallic gold pigment.

For the cover of Anxy, an independent magazine, foiling was used to achieve this stunning and tactile pattern.

Independent magazine
Anxy’s front cover design is achieved using the foiling technique.

Clear gloss foil can also be overlaid over an image to produce a secondary layer of detail – like on the front cover of the U+I annual report where the word ‘SIMPLE’ appears over the word ‘COMPLEX’ in a grey tint.

Foiled annual report
U+I used foiling to create a second layer of text.

UV varnish: a budget-friendly creative option

Coming in at a lower price than foil, but with a similar environmental effect, UV varnish has always been a popular creative flourish. 

Available in clear matt (which gives a colourless, translucent ‘frosty’ effect), or gloss finishes, it can be used to add textures, patterns, a pop of colour, or to highlight certain words or images, using a technique known as ‘spot UV.’

Vado, a luxury bathroom brand, used spot UV to produce this interesting tactile pattern in their product brochure.

UV varnish
Spot UV creates a tactile pattern on this luxury production.

UV varnishing only works on coated materials, since an uncoated paper would absorb the varnish and render it indiscernible. But on both coated and uncoated materials, spot UV can be applied in layers to produce a raised tactile effect known as ‘high build UV.’

Whereas everyday printing inks these days are widely known to be vegetable-based, UV varnish is an oil-based plastic called polyethylene. However, it is more sustainable than it once was, since solvents are now excluded from the mix by most manufacturers.

UV varnish also poses no issue when it comes to recycling. It is made from a thermoplastic so, like with foiling, when recycled, much of it becomes small flecks in the recycled paper. 

Silk screening: for large areas of solid colour

Silk screening is most commonly used to produce large areas of solid colour across a page, and is frequently found on packaging as glossy colours or patterns. It is an effective way to add logos or brand colours to a production.

Silk screens are usually applied using a stencil, and a squeegee to force the ink through the stencil and onto the page. It usually produces an opaque finish, but translucent options are also available.

As with UV ink, solvents have been removed from most silk screening inks. And as with foils and UV varnish, there is no obstacle to recycling a silk-screened product.

Silk screening is becoming increasingly more sustainable, with more water-based products now being used. You can ask your printer for more information about this, to best understand what sustainable options are available for your particular project.

print finishes


For many print designers looking to increase their sustainability or decrease overall costs, these finishes may not be essential, and can be omitted altogether. The important thing is to strike a balance between cost, sustainability, and creativity by making informed choices in order to meet the criteria for your production.

Whatever printing processes you choose, it’s wise to ask your printer about their usage and the disposal of chemicals. Most printers which carry the ISO 14001 environmental certification should observe sustainable practices as standard. However, there remains a risk for solvents and toxins to pollute waterways and risk damaging the atmosphere and the ozone layer – so make sure to double check this with your printer.

Learn more about sustainable printing with Park

Elements such as cost and environmental impact apply not only to print finishes, but across each aspect of a print production – including paper, bindings, and coatings – which are outlined in our previous articles in this series. 

Our book Sustainable Print Design also suggests paper-only ways to elevate your print’s design, which use no plastics or oils; you can download the free PDF here

Many publishers now also choose to carbon-offset any remaining emissions that they are unable to control. Park’s facility is already carbon neutral, but any materials can also be offset with a ClimatePartner project. You can read more about carbon offsetting for print here.



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