Sustainable print laminates, coatings, and seals explained
Laminates, coatings, and seals can be used to protect a print production, or produce a certain visual or tactile effect. They all have their own environmental impact, with differences both in how each material is recycled or biodegrades – and also during production, where factors such as energy use and materials come into play.
For many productions, publishers may decide that a laminate, coating, or seal is not necessary at all, particularly for productions using uncoated papers, and where the paper already has the designer’s desired look and feel. This is the most sustainable option since it reduces the overall number of processes, energy, and materials needed for the production.
Paper, however, is naturally delicate, absorbent, and prone to damage during transportation or finger marking caused by oils in our skin. A large proportion of publishers will therefore require some kind of coating or laminate to ensure the product looks good on arrival and to provide protection when in use.
And for productions intended for longevity and repeated usage, a laminate can help the product to last as long as possible, reducing the chance that it would need discarding or replacing.
Each type of coating provides different kinds of protection, and may also be chosen for their visual or tactile qualities, or to accelerate ink drying time.
This article outlines the options available to protect or modify your print, and the differences in the protection levels and sustainability of each, including:
varnishes and seals.
The only truly protective layer for your print is a laminate or a bio laminate. Laminates are something of a sustainability stumbling block: very widely used, but traditionally plastic-based.
Biodegradable alternatives may be preferable when it comes to sustainability, but their benefits depend on how the product is disposed of by the end user.
Laminates typically appear on outer covers. They lend a high-quality feel and a wipe-clean surface. They are most likely to feature on large areas of solid colour, which are especially prone to marking.
Both traditional laminates and bio laminates are applied using a combination of heat and pressure, increasing a production’s overall carbon impact on press.
Conventional laminates are an extremely thin layer of plastic which is applied to the page with glue. They are available in gloss, matt, silk, anti-scuff, and soft-touch variations.
The plastic used is called acetate. It is thermosetting (i.e. it does not melt when exposed to heat) which means that all but trace residues can be removed from the paper pulp during recycling.
Bio laminates: less sustainable than you might think
Like conventional laminates, biodegradable laminates are plastic based, but the acetate used is derived from organic cellulose, rather than being oil-based. This plastic has chemicals added which make the molecules more easily digested by microorganisms.
As a result, it is claimed that they biodegrade in three years, compared to 50+ for a standard laminate. However, this shorter timescale depends on the product ending up in landfill, and other factors such as the optimal temperature during composting. If the user chooses to recycle the product instead, the bio laminate will be separated from the paper pulp in the same way as a conventional laminate, and burned for energy generation.
Bio laminates provide the same level of protection as a conventional laminate, but they are currently only available in a matt finish.
These limitations, coupled with the fact that they are at least twice as expensive (albeit only £120 extra on a run of 2000 copies), mean that few publishers opt for bio laminates.
Coatings & seals
Seals and coats have more or less the same function – aqueous coatings being water-based, and press varnishes and seals being oil-based. So naturally, aqueous coatings are the more sustainable option.
Both provide a relatively low level of protection to finished products but help to protect the page during print manufacturing – increasing the speed at which the ink dries, therefore reducing the risk of marking during folding and binding.
They can both also be applied for visual effect or to change the texture of the pages, but can only be applied on a litho press, so for digital productions, the only protection available is a laminate.
Aqueous coatings: a range of creative finishes
Aqueous coatings are water-based – so significantly less protective than a laminate but more protective than an oil-based sealer. However, they are a more sustainable option than plastic laminates. They are suitable for both covers and text pages.
They are applied on press during printing, and dry instantly, making them a fast and affordable option. They provide a small amount of protection against marking, but not against water damage.
They are sometimes used to change the appearance and texture of the printed pages, being available in a range of finishes. Neutral and gloss coats can be used to produce sharper images, and gloss coats can also produce a ‘fashion mag’ aesthetic. Matt coats reduce reflectivity, and soft-touch coats add an interesting texture.
Seals & varnishes: a less eco-friendly option
Seals and varnishes have a very similar use to aqueous coatings, in that they are used primarily for protection but sometimes to change the appearance of the page. However, they provide less protection than aqueous coatings.
Varnishes and seals are generally available in neutral, gloss, and matt finishes – and are suitable for both covers and text pages. They can be a flexible and affordable option, but they are hydrocarbon-based – so it is more sustainable to use an aqueous coating where possible.
Creative, sustainable printing with Park
As we wrote in our article, ‘What do you mean, “sustainable printing”?’, the ideal mix of sustainable features will differ from one publisher to the next. Some may aim to reduce their use of plastics, while others may choose a plastic laminate for its higher level of protection, to reduce damage and resulting waste. Whatever you choose, your printer should be able to guide you through the process and explain your project’s complexities when it comes to materials, recycling, and production emissions.
The important thing for every publisher is to balance environmental responsibility with cost, and customer value. The elimination of all plastics from print productions is practically impossible, and attempting to get close to this would come at prohibitive costs for most publishers.
But if you make every effort to control your environmental impact, whilst clearly communicating to customers how to recycle your print when no longer needed, you should feel confident in doing the right thing for the planet, your reader, your budget and your brand.
Many publishers also include an imprint at the front of their production to engage readers and educate them on the materials and processes used, as in the Wild Alchemy Journal pictured below.
Park’s facility is carbon neutral, and you can also choose to carbon-offset your materials with a ClimatePartner project. You can read more about carbon offsetting for print here.
We hope you can use this guide, along with the previous articles in this series about recycled paper, and sustainable bindings, to find the right mix of features for your environmental goals. You can also download our free book, Sustainable Print Design, here.
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