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Environmental Impacts of Laminates and Coatings

Written By Amber Breeden

December 15, 2022

Laminates and coatings are popular finishing techniques because they enhance the durability and appearance of printed materials. If you are trying to print sustainably, however, it’s important to consider the environmental impact of these processes. There are three main types of laminates and coatings we use in commercial printing: laminate film, UV coating, and aqueous coating. In this post, we’ll explain the environmental impacts of each type of laminate or coating.

Laminate Film

Traditional laminate is a thin plastic film that is applied to printed materials to protect them from scratches, moisture, and other types of damage. Producing laminate film often involves the use of petrochemicals and other harmful chemicals, which can have negative environmental effects. Because it’s a plastic, laminate film is not biodegradable, so it can take hundreds of years to break down in a landfill. This can contribute to the growing problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and other natural environments. It’s also important to note that once you apply a laminate to a printed piece, it cannot be recycled

We strongly discourage using laminate for most standard direct mail, such as postcards. However, if you are printing something for long-term use, like a restaurant menu for example, laminate may still be your best option. The added durability means you won’t have to reprint the material anytime soon (which means you will use less paper, ink, and energy overall). You can also choose to laminate recycled material. Printing paper can only be recycled back into printing paper once. By laminating recycled paper, you’re keeping those paper fibers in circulation longer. 

When it comes to printed packaging, laminate is often your best—and only—defense against cracking. The good news is that there are new biodegradable laminate options hitting the market everyday. These laminates are made from cellulose, polylactic acid, and special compound plastics that have additives that break down the chemicals in plastics. We’re in the process of testing out several of these products now, which would be sustainability game changers for our packaging projects. We’ll report back on the results in a future post.

UV Coating

Another type of coating commonly used in commercial printing is UV coating. This coating is applied to printed materials using ultraviolet light, which cures the coating and creates a glossy finish. Like laminates, UV coating protects printed materials and enhances the color and vibrancy of the design. While most UV coatings are both plastic- and VOC-free, some release harmful chemicals into the air during the curing process. It’s important to make sure the UV coating you’re using is VOC-free, as these chemicals can contribute to air pollution and are harmful to human health. 

Unlike laminate, materials with UV coating are recyclable, though they are slower to biodegrade than uncoated materials or those that use a water-based coating. Overall though, UV coating is a solid environmental choice if you need a truly water resistant finish.

Aqueous Coating

Aqueous coating is a water-based coating applied to printed materials. It’s often considered to be the most environmentally friendly finishing technique. It is recyclable, repulpable, and biodegradable. Aqueous coating is applied in-line on an offset press and does not release any harmful chemicals during the curing process. Of the three finishing options, this is the only one that is compatible with FDA food packaging regulations. Aqueous coating is the most eco-friendly, but it has limitations. It doesn’t dry as hard as UV coating or laminate; it’s more flexible, which allows for folding without cracking, but it doesn’t provide quite the same level of protection or durability.

So which option do you choose?

When considering laminates and coatings, first ask yourself if it’s necessary for your project. Some people use a laminate because they like the glossy finish, but there are more sustainable ways of achieving that look. If you need the added durability of a laminate or coating, it’s best to use eco-friendly alternatives whenever possible, including biodegradable laminate and water-based coatings. By choosing environmentally friendly options and recycling used materials whenever possible, you can minimize the environmental impact of your project’s laminate or coating.