Finger-Licking Good!


Well-known member
Finger-Licking Good!
Packaging that works from store through recycling

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

“This just doesn’t taste right.”

Those are the last words a company wants to hear a customer saying about any edible product. To help avoid this the U.S. government (primarily the FDA), followed by product companies and the packaging industry have ensured that food-safe barriers are used between labels and the product. This is why breads come in a plastic bag printed only on the outside and why your breakfast cereal resides in a plastic bag inside a printed carton. Ink transfer to your morning corn flakes is not a good thing. But cereal boxes are easy.

What are harder are juice, apple sauce, salad dressings and many more that typically use a laminate of impermeable plastics that prevent intermixing of inks from the outside labels of a package and the contents. This has been a fact of packaging life for decades. Chances are, some of these containers are in your home, office or the back seat of your car.

Allow me to digress a moment. Packaging spans folding cartons, bottles and jars, flexible packaging, labels, and corrugated boxes. Within these are two types of food safe: the label on a jar or bottle (the one you lick pasta sauce or salsa off of) or the labels on the bottles that arrived from your wine club last Friday. Then there are flexible laminated containers, like pet food or the bags of cookies and juice pouches you bought to keep the kids occupied in the back seat. The ones on the jars and bottles are for indirect contact, those on the bag of cookies are for direct contact with food. Chances are, you don’t even notice the laminated packaging because the substrate is are fused together using heat and pressure and cannot be separated. I’ve seen this stuff being made and it really does seem like a single substrate. To get a closer look I inspected the coffee in my kitchen that appeared to be wrapped in a brown paper sack and the white bag of blue corn tortilla chips. Yep, foil-lined. And impossible to recycle.

The recycling problem
The upshot is that while lamination ensures food safety, laminated containers are not easily recycled. Most are destined for a landfill or, depending on where one lives, an incinerator. Either way, non-recyclable containers can cast a shadow over a company’s claims of being environmentally friendly.

Back when I edited a packaging magazine the non-recyclable nature of many packages became a pet peeve of mine and a couple other editors. Product companies and package printers were reluctant to discuss the matter. Dodging and weaving like a good running back they said laminates worked so why worry? Plus, laminates were readily available in a full range of widths or could even be made on-site by some package printers In short, the non-recyclable nature of many containers was not something to worry about. And for some years it wasn’t. But as consumer awareness of non-recyclable packages grew product companies even some package printers began looking for alternatives.

Enforceable rules for food safety are those imposed by regulatory authorities and brand owners usually opt for the most stringent ones possible. Riding shotgun, package printers, marketers, and packaging and label designers also comply, knowing that food safety has a direct impact on brand image.

One can understand why printing inks should not be in contact with anything edible. Yet in the early days of digital printing dry toner seemed safer because it mostly sits on top of a substrate. However, just because a toner is dry does not guarantee that printing on a package is safe: the toxicology of toner components is also a factor. Add in any potential migration of the toner through the packaging and it becomes apparent that toner may not work well as a seasoning.

Beyond Food-Safe
Xeikon changed the game a few years back with its introduction of food-safe toner, but the tricky part was still those packaging applications that required heat resistance when forming the package. Sensing opportunity, Xeikon made heat-resistant and food-safe toner for paper-based substrates a priority. Doing so would also increase such digital capabilities as short-run and variable content for some packaging applications.

The result is TITON©, a new toner that is food safe and has additional protective layers providing heat, sunlight, water, scratch, and scuff resistance. As such, it does not migrate through substrates and can be readily removed from paper products during the recycling process. This aligns with Xeikon’s broader strategy of providing complete digital printing solutions for package printing—workflow, presses, toners and substrates.

What struck my cynical nature was that this is demand-driven and not reliant on the “build it and they will come” philosophy that has long empowered digital press purveyors. In fact, there is growing consumer demand for sustainable paper-based flexible packaging—specifically plastic- and lamination-free alternatives. Business News Daily reports that some two-thirds of consumers and three quarters of millennials consider sustainability when making a purchase. Backing this up, an April 2021 study by indicated that 67% of respondents prefer recyclable products. It would seem TITON arrived in the right place at the right time.

The quick take is that TITON technology appears to offer a solution that makes lamination-free, paper-based packaging for food products a viable option for brand owners, designers and print providers. Given my pet peeves about laminated packaging, I wanted some details, so I did a Zoom call with Filip Weymans, VP of Marketing at Xeikon in Lier, Belgium.

“Substrate makers stepped away from paper with a heat-sealable polyethylene foil and offered a heat-sealable label coating which still provides a functional barrier,” explained Weymans, reaffirming what I already knew. This worked for conventional flexo and offset printing but left digital printing out in the cold because those technologies would require (a) primer to ensure ink or toner adhesion and (b) a protective coating or laminate. Applying the primer required additional steps and expense but still did not present a real solution because liquid and dry toners are not especially heat resistant, making the usual heat sealing of containers difficult or impossible. Lamination would prevent recycling. “Inkjet could take the heat but is not food safe on paper-based materials” explains Weymans. “It could be encapsulated but that adds complexity and destroys recyclability. Why would you want to do that?”

Given consumer preferences and the shortcomings of the coating, “We saw a gap in the market,” relates Weymans. “Normal toner is about 90% polyester. We increased that amount and added some chemistry that enables TITON to adhere to paper without a primer while keeping it food safe. The new toner had different power requirements, so we also made changes to a press which resulted in the Xeikon CX 500t.” A new member of the Cheetah line, the CX 500t radiates the energy TITON toner needs to work correctly.

Still, no one wants to buy a press that’s a one-trick-pony. So although a Xeikon CX 500t is required, its size and speed enable it to run a wide range of jobs so a print provider can do more with the press than food-safe labels and packaging. Weymans suggests running entire packages [not just labels] that might previously have been done on a flexo press. This can raise the Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) of an operation. I’ll have more details after doing a deeper dive into the technology.

But what about package printers or converters that work with multiple types of packaging? Weymans told me TITON can be used on many types of flexible packaging including those coated on one side such as bags, pouches and sachets, or on both sides such as wrappers, baked goods, sugar, flour, herbs and spices, and coffees and teas. Tasteless and odorless, TITON is said to meet required standards for both direct and indirect food contact.

Moreover, with foil or other laminates no longer needed a print provider or converter using TITON can have an advantage over its competitors. I think of a busy converter I’ve visited that has flexo presses in one part of the plant and Xeikon presses in another. If he adopts the new toner, it may foster an even more seamless workflow than he already has because more jobs could be run on either his flexo or digital presses. And some could be outside of packaging.

Practicality also matters. TITON’s resistance to scuffing and scratching, water, sunlight, high temperatures and a large range of liquid chemicals comes without reliance on varnishes or laminates, eliminating a step in the production process. And, because the new toner can withstand heat-sealing temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit it’s going to be OK if finished work sits in the delivery van on a summer day. You laugh. I’ve had sheets from a toner-based press stick together over an afternoon in the backseat. Glad it was a proof for a brochure and not dinner!

More to Follow
The longer I follow digital print the more convinced I become that it is up to any challenge. Based on what I’ve seen so far, TITON should help converters offer options for sustainable, high quality, cost-effective solutions. As the world of print continues to change advances like TITON are allowing print providers and converters to broaden their reach and enter new markets. I still want to learn more but the best of digital print and Xeikon may be yet to come.


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