By Melissa Donovan
PVC-free media may reduce environmental impact, and many brand owners are committed to doing just that. When designing and printing window graphics, an eco-friendly alternative is beneficial for any print service provider (PSP) serving this segment.
“The demand for PVC-free media, especially for windows, has increased in recent years due to heightened environmental awareness and sustainability concerns. Many businesses and consumers seek more eco-friendly alternatives to traditional materials like PVC. This demand is also influenced by regulatory changes and industry initiatives promoting the use of environmentally responsible products,” shares Rene Bourgeois, VP sales North America, ASLAN Selbstklebefolien GmbH.
Above: An example of Continental Grafix’s iTac Clear. Production and installation courtesy of LIGANOVA Production, Inc.
Demand for Windows
PVC-free media optimized for digital printing is advancing rapidly, with many manufacturers enhancing and innovating their material selections to meet high demand. This includes substrates specifically designed for window graphics.
“There has been a push for alternatives to traditional PVC window graphic materials, driven in large part by some of the chemical components that were used in PVC in the past and a desire for what are viewed as more sustainable options. Certain plasticizers or phthalates found in PVC that were linked to negative environmental or health impacts drove both the push to replace, as well as the need to reformulate the existing solutions,” shares Jay Kroll, product manager, cut, transit, and wall solutions, General Formulations.
Consumer demand plays a huge part, which ultimately drives print providers to request PVC-free materials and subsequently manufacturers to supply them. “The sustainable movement in many aspects of our society has been growing for years. More recently, we’re seeing the confluence of more severe, frequent, impactful weather events; the coming-of-age of millennial consumers; and better technology to produce and print PVC-free media,” explains Michelle Kempf, VP, sales and marketing, Continental Grafix USA, Inc.
“End use clients are demanding more ‘green’ alternatives. While we always offered PVC-free media, we now offer recycled content polyester-based media. This helps architects and clients get LEED points for projects. This has been driving some of the demand,” admits James Halloran, VP, sales and marketing, Lintec of America, Inc.
Jodi Sawyer, strategic business unit manager, FLEXcon, says consumers are holding brands accountable for sustainable actions across their supply chains and the subsequent impact. As such, “brands collaborate with suppliers on ways to lower their carbon footprint.Brands explore ways to eliminate the use of printed vinyl and are requesting products that offer higher post-consumer waste content. PVC is viewed as harmful to the environment when landfilled or burned for waste energy.”
Marketing and design agencies that work for these big brands follow suit by requesting print jobs that utilize PVC-free materials. “This gateway to big brands is a requirement all PSPs now must consider when purchasing materials if they wish to stay in the competition,” says Kieran Blacknall, Drytac academy manager, Drytac.
PSPs should consider PVC-free window media for certain jobs. There are many positives to PVC-free window media, with the obvious being sustainability, but there are others as well.
“Offering PVC-free options will distinguish you from the competition and raise your profile with searching print buyers. The investment for you is small but the results could be huge. You will also find that a lot of your existing work can be completed with PVC-free media, helping you to reach your sustainability goals faster,” explains Blacknall.
PSPs who work with PVC-free media, whether for windows or another surface, are presented in a different light. “PVC-free options can enhance a provider’s reputation as an environmentally conscious partner. Additionally, offering PVC-free media provides clients with a wider range of choices and appeals to those who prioritize eco-friendly solutions,” says Bourgeois.
“PVC is typically not recyclable and will not degrade in any landfills. The switch to a PVC-free option provides the possibility to offer a product that can be recycled,” adds Brian Ebenger, VP of business development, XCEL.
Finally, “using PVC-free media may help the PSP comply with any regulations or incentives that encourage the use of eco-friendly materials. Overall, working with PVC-free window media options can benefit both the PSP and their clientele,” suggests Amanda Smith, marketing and communication manager, graphic and signage solutions, Mactac.
It’s important to partner with the right manufacturer. “Working with manufacturers who understand material science is helpful. They can recommend alternative products that are a directional improvement over current materials in terms of impact on the environment,” explains Sawyer.
She continues by listing beneficial properties of PVC-free window media compared to PVC like they are plasticizer-, lead-, and phthalate-free; CONEG and CPSIA compliant; tear resistance aids in installation and removal; rigidity of the film makes it easier for novice installers and/or store employees to install large format window graphics; excellent dimensional stability; graphic won’t shrink or distort with temperature changes; available with post-consumer waste content; supports circularity; thinner gauged films reduce waste; polyethylane terephthalate (PET) films offer superior clarity; and when coated with water-based adhesive, less solvents are used in the manufacturing process.
“PVC-free window media options can offer performance enhancements over their PVC counterparts. Optical clarity, extended longevity, ease of installation/removal, and quality printing finish are a few of those advantages,” shares Kempf.
Kroll points out that not every job necessitates a PVC-free media. “Pragmatically, I would encourage a PSP to use PVC-free media only when it is specifically requested for specific jobs. While there are some PET or polypropylene (PP) options that are highly functional, they still lack the consistency and variety of traditional PVC.”
“It’s always important to consider the specific needs and requirements of your project when choosing window media. While PVC-free options can be a great choice for many applications, there may be certain environments where it’s not the best fit. For example, if you’re installing windows in an area that experiences extreme temperatures or high levels of moisture, you may want to consider options that are better equipped to handle these conditions,” suggests Smith.
If the media in question is free of PVC, what is in it? Alternative materials are PET or PP.
A quick chemistry lesson, PVC or polyvinyl chloride, refers to specific oils and salts used in the manufacture of the film, shares Kroll. “PET and PP are still oil-based products, but they lack the chorine component. PVC also requires plasticizers to give it flexibility—think of the difference between PVC pipes in your house versus vinyl vehicle wrap films. These are the same base composition with obviously very different additives and manufacturing methods. Whereas PP and PET are typically blown or extruded.”
“PVC-free window media does not contain polyvinyl chloride. It is halogen free. Nothing replaces polyvinyl chloride in PVC-free materials. PVC-free films are more homogenous than PVC. They contain mostly polymer resin with very little additives, if any. This makes it possible for trim waste, post-industrial processing waste to be reused/recycled back into the base polymer. PVC formulations, which may contain 50 percent additives and stabilizers, cannot be repurposed in the manufacturing process,” adds Sawyer.
Bryan Baab, product development manager, wide format graphics, Nekoosa, cites a recent European plastics study. In it, “the Life Cycle Assessment benefits measured a 50 percent reduction in carbon footprint and a 20 percent reduction in fossil resources when using PP films versus calendered PVC films in the same application. This environmental benefit results in a reduction of more than 50 percent of global warming potential when compared to PVC.”
PET is often made up of post-consumer content, like plastic bottles for example. “This makes those films highly sustainable as they are not only eliminating PVC with it but also reducing the use of new PET made from fossil resources. And still, quality, performance, and affordability are maintained while minimizing the carbon footprint,” explains Bourgeois.
While PET or PP are the most common components, Smith points out that other alternative materials are bio-based like cornstarch or sugarcane. All four examples “offer similar performance and quality to PVC-based products but are much more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Sometimes these non-PVC products can be recycled depending on the municipality.”
Reduce without Sacrifice
Can alternatives like PET and PP still offer the same quality, performance, and affordability as their PVC counterparts? Or are these features something sacrificed while gaining in sustainability?
As aforementioned, there are many advantages to using PVC-free window media. If anything is sacrificed, other advantages are gained. Sawyer argues that “for promotional window graphics that will change out every few months, the outdoor durability of a PVC-free film of one year or less, for example, meets the requirements for short-term graphics without sacrificing performance.”
“PVC-free window products can be recycled so the environmental aspect is always positive. Options that are PVC-free are usually higher in quality, clarity, and performance. Material pricing varies but PVC-free options are typically easier to install, lowering the overall cost of doing business,” explains Ebenger.
Halloran believes PVC is inferior to PET when decorating glass. “The reasons for this are PET is more dimensionally stable in the heat and doesn’t crack in the cold when on glass. It is also a reasonably priced film. PVC-free PET films have better optical properties and uninstall better at the end of their lifecycle.”
Installation of PP graphics is easy, as is removal. “Due to the PVC-free polymer, there is no film shrinkage. These films are plasticizer free. Installation of PP graphics is easy, and removal is efficient as there is no film stretch when compared to calendared vinyl,” says Baab.
“PET, for example, is a great alternative to PVC for window graphics because it offers excellent optical clarity and is extremely dimensionally stable where PVC may expand or contract, which can result in undesirable results such as edge curl,” shares Kempf.
Blacknall seconds PET being a great alternative. “PET film is a particularly good example of a PVC-free alternative for window graphics. It has dimensional stability that exceeds PVC and works great with permanently removable adhesives, making it an ideal product for easy-to-install window applications.”
Kroll believes that while the amount of polyolefin going into these products may be reduced—or the fact that they may be missing certain chemical components found in PVC, “the overall supply chain impacts and special top coatings or treatment processes likely negate or at best, balance, any environmental benefit. And they are typically more expensive with a shorter lifespan in the end application.”
“Using PET or PP films can produce great results, equivalent to that of PVC films, providing we recognize the fundamental differences in materials and explain the differences to our customers,” stresses Blacknall.
PVC and PVC-free window media are not manufactured the same, nor have the same components. Suffice to say the pricing per square foot can differ per material type.
“PVC-free options range from roughly 20 to 50 percent higher than traditional PVC economical material,” states Ebenger.
However, the cost difference has decreased compared to the previous decade, notes Bourgeois. This in turn makes PVC-free options more accessible to a broader range of customers.
Sawyer believes PVC-free low-tack window media and PVC low-tack window media are comparable in price. “As demand shifts over time towards PVC-free films, supply volume/quantity increases can result in lower raw material prices. Essentially, the more the market shifts toward PVC-free, the more readily used and accepted it becomes, and the higher volume impacts price positively.”
Price comparisons differ based on the manufacturer. For example, Nekoosa’s PVC-free line of products are offered at the same price as their vinyl equivalent, according to Baab.
And while we can compare product to product, it is also worth keeping the project it is being considered for in mind. At the base level PVC and PVC-free media might cost the same, but adding in certain variables may change this.
Kroll gives the example of a PP film with a low-tack removable adhesive, this would have a similar cost to a 3.4-mil matte white vinyl with a low-tack removable adhesive. However, the PP comes with limitation of only being compatible with UV ink. “Special top coatings to make that same film compatible with eco-solvent or latex inks drives the cost up significantly, if such coating options are even available.”
“PVC is one of the most widely used materials in the graphic arts and is relatively cheap in comparison to PVC-free. Alternative films are growing in popularity but we may have to wait a while longer to see real price benefits in PVC-free print media,” adds Blacknall.
One to Watch
PVC-free media in general is a category to keep an eye on. “The demand for PVC-free media is likely to continue to grow as more people become aware of the environmental impact of PVC and seek out alternatives,” predicts Smith.
With the number of products available combined with the demand, it could become a little confusing when determining which truly is sustainable. “Don’t fall for greenwashing—certain films might be PVC-free but use plenty of fossil resources, energy etc.—especially if they are made without recycled content,” cautions Bourgeois.
For more information on PVC-free window graphic media check out digitaloutput.net for a product roundup.
Also, we explore PVC-free media specific to wallcovering applications in our November webinar and the December issue of the magazine.
Nov2023, Digital Output