By Melissa Donovan
Vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) wallcoverings are commonly used in retail and other high-traffic areas, often protected by overlaminates made of the same material. Print service providers (PSPs) are familiar with printing directly to vinyl since it is used for other signage-based applications. It is durable and cost effective.
Besides PVC, polyester (PET) and polypropylene (PP) are two plastic-based wallcoverings gaining attention because they are more environmentally friendly. Similarly, fabric- and paper-based wallcovering media options offer human and environmental health-positive features. An increased variety of digitally printable wallcovering substrates leads to more appropriate environments—from commercial buildings designed by architects to interior designers creating décor for the home and even hospitality.
Wallcoverings used in sensitive environments like schools and hospitals often must meet certain criteria prior to installation. Children in school settings undergo cognitive and physical development and shouldn’t be subjected to any building materials that may pose adverse effects. Hospitals—full of patients with compromised immune systems—need to limit outside factors that could contribute to declining health.
In response, many PSPs conducting business with these types of customers should inquire into the various standards and certifications related to a digitally printed wallcovering. The base material must address these as well as the ink set used in the print process.
Above: Ultraflex Systems, Inc.’s Wallscapes Plus are commercial grade wallcoverings formulated without cadium and lead compounds making them ideal for sensitive environments.
While PVC-based films aren’t disappearing anytime soon, there is certainly a push for paper- or fabric-based materials or plastic options with little to no hazardous materials that may be outgassed into surrounding air.
“There is a trend to move towards more ‘green’ solutions. PVC-free alternatives are gaining traction as they are a more sustainable option, and less impactful on our dwindling landfill space,” says Wayne Colbath, national sales manager, Continental Grafix USA, Inc.
These options include products like fabric. “We see a significant move away from PVC-based wallcoverings in many commercial sectors. Textile-based wallcoverings provide environmental as well as aesthetic advantages over the plastic and glossy look and feel of PVC-based wallcovering materials,” notes Mark Shaneyfelt, director of sales and marketing, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc.
“Right now clients are exploring more PVC-free options. More than just paper wallcoverings with paste, PVC-free that holds up like vinyl, but isn’t. We also have found a glass spun, woven commercial grade wallcovering that digitally prints. It is installed using paste, breathable, and durable,” shares Angel Georgiou, senior marketing specialist, imaging supplies, Canon Solutions America.
Anthony Pappalardo, sales manager, Saint Clair Textiles, believes much of the demand for PVC-free and more eco-friendly options comes from corporations, architectural firms, hospitals, and schools. “The climate change discussion is not going away and the younger generation entering the workforce puts a high value on eco-friendly materials.”
“There is a push and effort for more PVC-free, sustainable, eco-friendly, and green material to ensure global environment and safety. We have seen more questions concerning wallcoverings from schools, hospitals, museums, government buildings, and home décor,” states Walter Gierlach Jr., president, Photo Tex Group, Inc.
Places for Learning and Care
Wallcovering media used in health-sensitive areas—especially schools and hospitals—must exhibit specific qualities, this often involves using a PVC-free material to limit negative effects on people and the air around them. However, other regulatory requirements must be met, including, but not limited to, products free of substances like iron, odor, mold, or mildew. Further, options that offer breathability, and those made out of post-consumer waste like plastic water bottles are attractive.
Low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalate-free, and bio-based are other wallcovering features requested by schools and hospitals. “They often have the most stringent requirements as their building occupants are among the most vulnerable,” explains Beau Hommes, application engineer, 3M Commercial Solutions.
“Most schools and hospitals have requirements in place when it comes to the quality of the indoor air. They look for interior décor items, such as wallcoverings, that will not negatively affect that air quality,” adds Lily Hunter, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.
Michael Richardson, business development manager, Jessup Manufacturing Company, suggests PSPs consider the following when looking into environmentally friendly wallcoverings for schools and hospitals. “Does the material contain pre- and post-consumer recycled material, and to what percentage is it free from heavy metals and chemicals that are known carcinogens or have other adverse health effects? These include, but are not limited to, lead, phthalates, mercury, and cadmium.”
Fire resistance or fire retardant (FR) ratings are another requirement. This is especially true in high occupancy buildings, point out Matt Braswell, technical solutions manager, and Josh Nguyen, technical service engineer, Arlon.
“Often the additives required to meet these fire standards have a negative effect on the environmental impact of the material; it is important to find wallcoverings that are rated using common fire standards for building materials and maintain compliance with chemical regulations,” agrees Jay Kroll, product manager, General Formulations.
At Aurora, when the company revised its textile-based wallcovering portfolio, “a significant driving force in redesign was the movement away from PVC wallcoverings, due to several product limitations. The most notable driver was the chemical concerns of VOCs like chlorine being released into the environment where these materials are installed,” explains Shaneyfelt.
Similarly, Ahlstrom-Munksjö in 2020 completed an analysis of its wallcovering grades to define their emissions of 200 known VOCs as well as heavy metals. The grades were much lower than the legal minimums. “The environmental side of the decision is becoming more important. The use of a directly printable PVC-free media is an option to address it. The substrate may contain post-consumer recycled materials from recycled plastics or old office paper,” shares Estel Porcell, global digital media, Ahlstrom-Munksjö.
More recently, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many wallcoverings are requested with antimicrobial features. “Buyers look for smooth, easily cleanable wallcoverings that resist tears, defects, and cracking that can trap microbes and become potential areas of infection or contamination. Antimicrobial films are increasingly common in high-touch areas to minimize the spread of disease and keep the surface cleaner between hygienic cleaning regimes,” suggests Peter Bourgeois, territory sales manager, Western Canada, Drytac.
“Facilities often look for a film that is easy to clean, has antimicrobial properties, or are able to withstand a certain amount of abrasion over time. These qualities are important when you start to consider how the spaces they’re installed are used. The spaces are often high traffic and require frequent cleaning or need to reduce the growth of microbes over time,” says Austin Eck, product manager, FDC Graphic Films, Inc.
The adhesive as well as the wallcovering material must be considered in terms of human and environmental health. For example, a water-based adhesive might be more preferred over solvent. “Our water-based adhesives don’t gas out any potentially harmful solvents, this is particularly important when working in interior environments, including private households,” notes Rene Bourgeois, VP sales North America, ASLAN Selbstklebefolien GmbH.
As both medical facilities and educational settings are high-traffic areas, beyond environmental and health related requirements, durability and cleaniblility of the wallcovering is necessary. “In settings like a hospital or school both of these specifications are extremely relevant,” comments Shauna Malgieri, product line manager, LexJet.
“Environments such as schools and hospitals look for wallcoverings that are durable enough to stand up to extreme wear and tear, but also pose no health threats to patients and children. Wallcoverings for these spaces need to stand up to cleaning, disinfecting, and scrubbing. They must also be stain- and abrasion-resistant,” agrees Dione Metnick, product development manager, Brand Management Group.
While schools and hospitals are some of the first environments thought of in terms of using safer building materials, they aren’t the only locations where stringent standards need to be met.
“We should look at all the environments where we work, play, and purchase products. This would include homes, retail establishments, workplace, sporting venues, and restaurants,” suggests Richardson.
Many of the aforementioned qualities are important in any environment, argues Kylie Schleicher, product manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc., because businesses want to make sure patrons will be safe in the event of an accident. “The smoke and FR ratings help ensure that if there is a fire, the wallcoverings will not help the fire grow. Also, in most environments the wallcoverings will come into contact with a lot of peoples’ hands. You want to make sure they will not grow bacteria as well as they are durable and the graphics will not be distorted or damaged easily.”
“Schools and hospitals are definitely the traditional markets targeted for eco-friendly wallcovering products, but we are seeing a higher demand during the past few years with corporate environments and retail that are specifying PVC-free wallcovering materials. They are concerned with air quality and the offgassing of plasticizers from traditional PVC products,” admits Pappalardo.
Lisa Hardin Berghaus, director of marketing communications, Monadnock Paper Mills, Inc., “sees a heightened awareness of cleanliness and germ spread, in private as well as public spaces. Homes, nurseries, schools, hospitals, libraries, offices, restaurants, and hotels are all perfect candidates for safe and healthy wallcoverings.”
“You see needs for such health-centered wallcovering products in food and beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturing, hotel/hospitality, and restaurants. In short, anywhere that health concerns and high traffic meet and the well being of this in the environment is paramount,” explains Peter Bourgeois.
In addition to wallcovering media, ink sets must be certified to work with them and meet any regulatory requirements for the job in question.
“Media and ink compatibility is critical for the best print results on wallcoverings. Monadnock works with print equipment OEMs during the product development stage to ensure the paper and print receptive coatings are optimized for performance. Particularly with inkjet, while there are limited inkjet printhead producers, there are more print and ink manufacturers. It’s not as easy as you might think to develop the perfectly compatible substrate,” says Berghaus.
One of the more well-known standards related to ink is enacted by the UL Environment, a business unit of UL or Underwriters Laboratories. GREENGUARD Certification helps both manufacturers and buyers in creating and identifying interior products and materials with low chemical emissions. This improves air quality in the areas where the products are ultimately used.
Many ink manufacturers undergo the process annually to certify their ink sets under the program, which is divided into two levels—the GREENGUARD Certification Program and GREENGUARD Gold Certification. Malgieri says Epson eco-solvent and resin inks, as well as HP Latex, are GREENGUARD Gold certified for low chemical emissions.
“HP Latex inks offer a healthier, more sustainable solution than most other ink technologies. They are water-based and don’t require any special ventilation and contain no hazardous air pollutants. Latex prints are odorless and meet a range of stringent human health criteria,” explains Metnick.
UV ink is also an option for printing to certain wallcoverings, depending on manufacturer specifications, but it does present some challenges. “UV cured ink uses the entirety of the ink components by curing it instead of offgassing so to not create chemical emissions. Many UV inks, however, are not recyclable and can affect the recyclability of the final substrate,” notes Peter Bourgeois.
The Canon Colorado 1650 roll printer with UVgel ink is highly rated for wallcovering production. Canon UVgel technology is compromised of a Canon UVgel piezoelectric printhead, the ink, a low-head platen, and LED curing. The UVgel ink offers odorless prints certified for indoor use in sensitive environments like schools and hospitals. It is certified under the GREENGUARD Gold program.
When thinking green, sometimes the end of a product’s lifespan is left out of the conversation. Increasingly, it seems digitally printed products that can be recycled after they have served their purpose are becoming a topic of conversation.
“There is a trend of pursuing recyclable wall materials,” admits Kroll, “but the reality is that current recycling methods do not allow for processing materials that have been coated with a paste or pressure-sensitive adhesive—this goes for traditional mesh-backed wallpaper as much as it does for vinyl or canvas wallcoverings.”
From a media manufacturer’s perspective, Porcell believes it is impossible to “foresee what ink will be used. You need to consider the inks used on the media and how those will be reused, separated, and composted with or from the media after the use.”
Shaneyfelt agrees. “One of the biggest challenges is the inks and the paste or adhesive systems used during the installation process. These need to be factored into the recyclability of the materials. Another significant challenge is how the waste stream is managed.”
Recyclability may impede the purpose of a wallcovering, according to Berghaus. “The most important property for wallcoverings, other than sticking to the wall, is dimensional stability. That inherently requires engineering that will inhibit the recycling process.”
That isn’t to say recyclability of these materials is impossible. “Most wallcoverings have an adhesive component, which makes recycling challenging, so specialized processes are required,” shares Hommes.
Facilities that can separate the ink from the substrate and then recycle/reuse are not widely in practice. “But, it would be ideal if we could recycle all of the wallcoverings at the end of their lifecycle,” admits Pappalardo.
“While there are probably recyclers out there that can handle wallcoverings, they don’t exist in every municipality. Since most wallcoverings are not curbside recyclable, look for materials that will not leach dangerous chemicals in landfills or release toxins into the air when incinerated,” recommends Berghaus.
Depending on the material—paper, plastic, or fabric—recyclability is a possibility. “As the world moves towards more sustainable products and processes, we look for products that have a lower environmental footprint and less impactful lifecycle. Recyclability is a big part of that. PET and PP are recyclable plastics that are used in more environmentally conscious applications, in fact PET is a number one recyclable product and the most recycled plastic worldwide,” shares Peter Bourgeois.
“The question is, is there a market for it? Recycled material is a commodity and like all other commodities, the price fluctuates with supply and demand. Because something can be recycled, doesn’t mean in the end it will be,” argues Richardson.
PVC-based wallcoverings are still popular. Despite the concern for the environment and human health, these materials are often used and will continue to be since they offer a level of familiarity and durability.
“PVC-based films will be with us for a while longer as they are the most durable in heavy sanitation environments. Non-PVC based films are not able to stand up to daily cleaning with disinfecting agents that contain alcohol and other solvents,” explain Braswell and Nguyen.
Schleicher agrees, citing PVC solutions’ durability, widespread availability, and ease of printing and installation as making them leading players in the wallcovering market.
“PVC may decrease in market share in the coming years, but I doubt that it’ll ever disappear from the landscape completely. Printers are comfortable with them, and in many cases, they can be a more affordable option than a non-PVC film,” admits Eck.
Another reason PVC films are likely to stick around are due to their ability to realistically imitate features of other substrates. “We expect to see continued demand for PVC-based wallcoverings. These are durable products that can be embossed to mimic fabric, canvas, and other textures,” adds Hunter.
Manufacturers like General Formulations continue to develop solutions that are environmentally responsible. For example, its WallMark product was reformulated to be compliant with certain requirements like California Proposition 65 and REACH, and the adhesive and manufacturing process improved as well, according to Kroll.
Similiarly, Drytac is committed to using phthalate-free PVC in its manufacturing process. “Much of the concern is around plasticizers, specifically phthalates,” notes Peter Bourgeois.
Regulatory requirements for sensitive environments like schools and hospitals have increased the demand for wallcoverings made up of less hazardous materials or emitting minimal chemical emissions to ensure good air quality for occupants.
This does not mean PVC-based materials are a thing of the past, if anything they still have their place in the wallcovering world and manufacturers are making strides in the development of phthalate-free PVC media. That being said, alternatives like PP and PET or fabric- and paper-based products gain traction as their durability ratings improve and costs decrease.
Jun2021, Digital Output