How switching to laser coding can help with your sustainability KPIs
The new generation of eco-savvy consumers are demanding more sustainable packaging as part of concerted efforts to reduce manufacturing’s environmental footprint, particularly in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCCG) sector – and this is driving the transition to more recyclable substrates.
Of course, manufacturers face many other challenges including strict regulations around product traceability. Not to mention maintaining production levels, minimizing raw material costs, and dealing with energy price hikes and disruptions to supply chains in the wake of Covid-19.
Now for the good news! Today manufacturers have at their disposal advanced laser coding and marking technologies that are specifically designed to address the challenge of printing on these new substrates. At the same time, they can deliver efficiencies which help companies meet their carbon-reduction targets.
Substrates are changing
First, let’s focus on these new substrates. More and more companies – especially in the FMCG space – are turning to more recyclable solutions such as mono-material films and compostable packaging.
Many world-leading brands have unveiled ambitious plans to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or to substantially reduce the use of single use plastics. In pursuit of these industry-wide and regulatory goals, forms of food packaging such as wraps and bags are now transitioning to PET and PLA films rather than polystyrene, and mono-films (PE and PP) as opposed to multilayer/multi-material solutions.
Similarly, food and FMCG brands are moving from multi-material composites to PP or PE mono-films. Plus, rigid and semi-rigid containers, bottles, and jars are increasingly being made from mono or recyclable materials.
Printing on these substrates calls for some advancements in technology, much of which is available now – if you know where to look. Coming into its own in this space is laser coding which can enable manufacturers and packaging operators to print compliant, high-quality, permanent codes. While at the same time helping mitigate harmful emissions and reducing overall carbon footprint.
Why laser coding?
This global shift to sustainable and recyclable packaging materials is very welcome, but it in turn presents a new set of challenges around maintaining marking and coding print quality. Plus, it is essential to ensure that the processes involved do not result in increased carbon emissions or slowing production.
Enter laser coding, which offers multiple benefits, not least in supporting sustainability goals on the production line by being chemical free which prevents a wide number of potentially undesirable environmental impacts.
Let’s face it – wherever it is possible to reduce the use of ink-based cartridges in the production cycle with their associated polluting emissions like Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Methyl Ethyl Ketones (MEKs), this is a good thing: It should be pointed out, however, that only a very small number of coding companies, like Markem-Imaje, have considerably reduced the environmental impact of their inks through continued innovation efforts, reducing VOCs and removing MEKs altogether.
Laser provides permanent codes and, using the latest innovations, reduces some of the associated energy requirements. It can achieve all this while still maintaining compliant, high-quality, permanent codes, even on some of the newest recyclable and sustainable substrates. As consumables, Inks will always need to be replaced, incurring ongoing costs, and their print can never be permanent, subject to any risk of humidity.
As the world moves towards a future where the majority of packaging will be recycled; laser marking and coding also has the potential to simplify the recycling process.
Needless to say, laser codes are permanent, a significant advantage when it comes to traceability, compliance and brand protection. However, permanent codes also have huge benefits in terms of the circular economy by making it possible to track packaging through the entire production cycle.
Let’s take the example of a PET bottle that has been returned to the manufacturer. Not only can the code be scanned, it can also be checked for the number of returns, cleaned and refilled for sale. In this brave new world of laser coding, the permanent codes facilitate the tracking of the packaging, ensuring it is reused as many times as possible, and equally importantly, that it is not over-used.
If all printing is done via laser, it can be done on one substrate even if these materials are difficult to print on. These substrates can then be recycled – as opposed to mixing plastic and paper labels, for example, that cannot be easily sorted or separated for recycling and end up in landfill.
Let us also not forget that laser is also the most versatile marking technology when it comes to applicability across traditional substrates and applications. Laser can most often fulfil the full coding needs of multiple products, often implying no need to invest in various different marking technologies, besides the constant need to buy consumables.
Software and sustainability hand in hand
With some of the advantages of laser clear to see, software, such as Markem-Imaje’s Packaging Intelligence software suite, CoLOS®, can help to enable further sustainability improvements across the production line.
It may seem difficult to see how a software module can have a real-world impact. Yet the difference that smart software can make on clear code printing, and on the overall sustainability of a packaging operation are real and readily available.
At a strategic level, CoLOS® and the various modules available via the suite, provides data and insights that empower better decision making by operations managers who are able to fine tune and predict potential issues before they impact production or cause asset downtime.
Though laser is a superior technology for guaranteeing the highest definition of print quality demanded by today’s new generation of traceability-compliant 2D dynamic barcodes such as the GS1 Digital Link, the US FDA’s new FSMA Regulation for fresh food and the EU's new wine regulation operational errors can still occur.
CoLOS® also cleverly ensures that codes are legible, when used in conjunction with cameras, CoLOS®’ code verification module Mark and Read, thus reducing any need for reprinting or product waste; it improves the data flow across the production line meaning that there are fewer stoppages or production downtime.
The software also has a powerful role to play in traceability and reducing the potential wastage should a product recall be ordered as very specific batch or even down to individual unit-level information can be used so that as few products as possible can be recalled.
In addition to sustainability considerations, today’s industrial coding and packaging must comply with changing regulations, keep products safe and be traceable throughout the supply chain. Markem-Imaje’s software solutions deliver automated coding optimization, product authentication and end-to-end supply chain tracking capabilities to meet these demanding requirements—all while increasing productivity and minimizing human error and costs.
A future of innovation
Using the latest generation of lasers can also help manufacturers and packaging companies avoid excessive energy consumption, a hot topic from both a sustainability and cost management perspective, especially given the current global energy crisis which is forcing up prices for businesses and consumers alike, across the globe.
Our new SmartLase® C600 laser, for instance, incorporates a unique integrated cooling system and can offer a 50% energy saving on cooling when compared with traditional water cooling, and 33% when compared with air cooling.
As we have seen, the manufacturing and packaging industries are being tasked with reducing waste and energy consumption, while at the same time ensuring they hit production targets and maintain strict quality control in today’s hyper-competitive retail market. Laser coding can play its part in helping to achieve both critical objectives.
Whether you are talking about fiber, CO2 or UV lasers, the technology is one of the most powerful weapons at the marking industry’s disposal in the fight against climate change. Laser coding can help the packaging sector make a genuine difference to manufacturers’ sustainability KPIs – starting today.