When it comes to sustainability, every detail counts. Even a seemingly minor decision can have significant environmental impact; such is the case in paperboard coatings. 

As a premium packaging company prioritizing sustainability above all else, we recognize the pivotal role our choices play. Let’s take a comprehensive look at common paperboard coatings, unravel their environmental implications, and uncover the best solution for your needs. 

Sustainability Hierarchy of Print Graphics

Graphic Approach
Sustainability Ranking Sustainability RecommendationFinish Effect Print Spec NotesCost Implication
No Coating 
Most SustainableHighly recommended if feasible, as it offers the highest level of sustainability. Matte Soy ink compatible $
Water-Based Aqueous CoatingMore SustainableRecommended if additional protection for printed graphics is needed while maintaining a high level of sustainability.Gloss Finish, Matte Finish, Satin Finish,Soft Touch FinishSoy ink compatible$$
Printed with UV Ink(on kraft)SustainableConsider for high-definition graphics with less likelihood of miscategorization during sorting at recycling centers.Satin Finish, Gloss Finish*Uses UV ink exclusively$$$
UV Coating (Recyclable Formulation)Moderately SustainableConsider if the specific formulation is verified to be recyclable and if the benefits outweigh potential recycling challenges.High-Gloss Finish*, Satin FinishAlthough soy ink compatible, soy ink in combination with UV coating introduces an unnecessary step during the manufacturing process$$$
Film LaminationLeast SustainableUse sparingly, if at all, due to its negative impact on recyclability and environmental sustainability.All FinishesSoy ink compatible$$$$
Whichever method you decide to go with, we will provide a Material Safety Data Sheet to confirm its biodegradability and recyclability.

Environmental Impact: No Coating

cardboard packaging for olive oil
We opted for coating-free corrugated cardboard for Olive Oil Jones to accentuate the brand’s sustainable ethos.

Uncoated packaging presents a compelling case for sustainability-conscious brands, boasting advantages such as recyclability, sustainability alignment, cost-effectiveness, and consumer appeal. 

The fact that it’s 100% recyclable resonates well with environmentally conscious consumers and bolsters brand reputation. 

Moreover, opting for uncoated materials can yield cost savings, making it an attractive choice for businesses who are just staring out. The visible “recyclable” aesthetic of uncoated packaging also enhances brand loyalty and perception for consumers seeking eco-friendly options.

However, uncoated packaging does have its limitations, particularly in retail environments. Its subdued appearance may lack the eye-catching appeal necessary to stand out on crowded shelves, potentially impacting sales.

Furthermore, detailed imagery printed on uncoated surfaces may lack the crispness and vibrancy achieved with coated alternatives. Additionally, uncoated packaging is more susceptible to damage from handling and environmental factors, detracting from its durability and potentially leading to markdowns or credit requests from retailers.

Environmental Impact: Water-Based Coating

cereal box packaging
Cereal boxes are typically printed with water-based food-safe ink.

Water-based coatings may not be inherently biodegradable, depending on the specific formulation and additives used. If not recycled or disposed of properly, these coatings can accumulate in landfills, releasing harmful substances into the environment over time. 

With Zenpack, we utilize 100% biodegradable, 100% recyclable water-based aqueous coating formulations, many of which are food-safe. Our procurement team will always quote these biodegradable formulations, avoiding environmental hazards during manufacturing, application, and disposal.

Compared to coating methods such as film lamination or UV coating, water-based coating is more environmentally friendly. However, the production of water-based coatings requires energy and water resources, contributing to the overall environmental footprint of the packaging.

Environmental Impact: Printed with UV Ink

PET box with UV print
We created a transparent plastic box using PET material to showcase the product, and applied high quality UV print on the outer box.

Printing with UV ink requires a curing process using ultraviolet light, which consumes additional energy during manufacturing. The production of UV coatings involves energy-intensive processes and may require the use of chemicals that can be harmful to human health and the environment.

When printed on kraft paper, the combination of a “natural” brown paperboard look and a low-shine finish communicates to both the consumer and the recycling facility that this material is safe to pulp.

Note: It is not possible to replace UV ink with soy ink.

Environmental Impact: UV Coating

tablet box with UV coating
We applied a UV coating to the Nvidia Shield Tablet graphic for as glossy finish.

The curing process of UV coatings requires ultraviolet light, which consumes additional energy during manufacturing. However, unlike film laminated finishes, UV coating does not require the energy expenditure of additional processing in the recycling process, but this depends on the recycling facility’s ability to identify the packaging during sorting.

Due to its high gloss finish, UV coated packaging is frequently mistaken as film lamination during the sorting stage at major recycling facilities, leading to misclassification and disposal in non-recyclable streams.

Environmental Impact: Film Lamination

While laminated paperboard offers moisture resistance and prevents paperboard from absorbing environmental moisture, it is challenging to recycle. Photo credit: Forests Forward.

Film lamination involves adhering a plastic film onto paper, making it challenging to recycle. The plastic film must be separated from the paper before recycling, adding complexity and ultimately requiring additional energy and resources, This leads to a larger environmental impact compared to recycling uncontaminated materials.

The environmental challenges of this process primarily stem from its impact on recycling processes. When lithographic laminated packaging enters recycling streams, the plastic film contaminates the paper pulp, reducing the quality of recycled paper and potentially rendering it unrecyclable.

Although consumers assume all paper-based packaging is recyclable, it is more likely that laminated packaging cannot be effectively recycled. In many municipalities, this material is routed from recycling centers to landfills, contributing to environmental pollution and resource depletion.

Many retailers are revising their packaging standards to avoid materials like film lamination that can be replaced by other methods.

Wrapping Up

When evaluating your package’s overall sustainability, it’s crucial to consider the impact of paperboard coatings. Opt for eco-friendly options like uncoated or water-based coatings when feasible and ensure proper disposal practices.

By making informed choices, individuals and businesses can minimize environmental impact while meeting their packaging requirements. If you’re still not sure which coating best works with you, talk to us today!

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