A Closer Look at Green Plastic Decorating

By Paul Uglum, Uglum Consulting, LLC

Green technologies refer to technologies that are considered environmentally friendly based on production processes, material choices and supply chains. Environmentally responsible products and processes are desirable in their own right. They also are advisable due to customer preferences and regulatory controls. It is reported that two-thirds of consumers consider sustainability when making a purchase. On the regulatory side, a complex web of rules exists on the state, national and international levels. Even if a producer is not interested in green technologies, their suppliers, customers and regulatory agencies are.

After realizing the importance of green plastic decorating, things become more complex. Just what is meant by environmentally responsible? How is it defined, and how is it measured? Which raw materials or processes are regulated and how? These questions are of great importance. If the wrong measure is chosen, there is a risk of suboptimizing the supply chain, causing a more negative environmental impact overall.

The purpose of plastic decorating is to add value by the application of decorative materials to the surface of plastics through operations secondary to molding plastic. These processes, by their nature, consume resources, introduce complexity and add to the difficulty of end-of-life processing. Plastic decoration exists for a reason – it is necessary to meet customers’ needs and wants. The decorative technologies often add value beyond the decoration and aesthetics. Plastic decoration defines brands, increases perceived value, adds functional value and communicates important information. Any replacement technology must meet the minimum standard of being as good as the existing process at meeting customer needs and requirements.

ESG measures sustainability based on environmental, social and governance attributes.

Plastics are the foundation to which decorating technologies add value. Unfortunately, plastics have developed a somewhat poor reputation in recent years. Plastics by themselves, prior to decorating, have become an issue. Like decorating, plastics are used because they meet many needs, are a low-cost option and provide optimum performance in many applications. The many varieties of plastics currently in production make end-of-life recycling complex, even before the addition of decoration. Plastics are a critical industry across all market segments. Examples include packaging, medical, transportation, durable goods and many others. Some products contain more than one type of plastic. Flexible packaging, for instance, often uses multiple materials to provide the necessary barriers for shelf stability and sterility in medical and food packaging. The lack of existing infrastructure and variable production volumes, result in most plastics ending up in landfills at the end of life. This has caused Greenpeace to report plastic recycling is a dead-end street and that plastic recycling declines even as plastic waste increases.

Significant work is being done to improve the end-of-life processing of plastic materials, but much work remains both with the chemistry involved and the infrastructure required to make recycling feasible. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) determined that simply banning single-use plastic products and switching to a single-use product made from other materials is not the solution. It is the single-use nature of the products that is the most problematic, more than what they are made of. This basic fact is often ignored by regulators and the general public.

Definitions and measurement systems

Definitions and measurement systems are important because they establish measurable targets and identify successes. They also can be misleading if they do not consider the entire value chain, from raw material production through the end of life of products. Plastic decorators only make up a small but key link in the value chain. Common descriptions of environmentally responsible manufacturing include sustainability, circular economy, recycling, carbon footprint, and environmental, social and governance (ESG).

The problem with any systems of performance measurement or management models is that they do not work equally effectively across all markets or technologies. If the manufacturing is B2B, it is important to remember that upper management is especially prone to follow trends and impose them upon their suppliers. A clear understanding of what the customer expects of the producer and how that will be measured is therefore critical for good decision making.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, service, place or product expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This measure looks only at greenhouse gases, including the carbon-containing gases emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, manufactured goods, materials, buildings, transportation and other services. It misses the impact of the material choices with respect to resource use, toxicity and end-of-life issues. Many documents define how to measure the carbon footprint of a product such as ISO 14067 (carbon footprint of product). Reducing greenhouse gases is a good goal, but it does not cover the full scope of important issues.


Technologies will have differing environmental impacts. In comparing technologies, it is important to decide which have the least overall impact.

Recycling is simply the process of converting waste from the process or end of life into usable feedstock. Recycling is similarly narrow in that it does not consider the other impacts on the environment due to waste, energy usage or other environmental impacts. The variety of state laws, in addition to various national laws, exacerbate the problem. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws are now in place in Maine, Oregon, Colorado and California. They range from a tax on the product to fees collected to fund actual end-of-life processing.

Environmental, social and governance

On the other end of the scale, ESG refers to a collection of corporate performance evaluation criteria that assess the robustness of a company’s governance mechanisms and its ability to effectively manage its environmental and social impacts. Models often show sustainability as supported by the three pillars of environmental, social and governance. While this is widely used to compare companies’ performance, it dilutes the importance of environmental decisions. The environmental portion looks at greenhouse gases, energy efficiency, water management, recycling processes and many related issues. The ethical and financial measures do not as such lead to the best result for the environment and dilute value-added actions.


Better measures are sustainability and circular economy. Sustainability in plastic decoration is the creation of manufactured products through economically sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources. This is more useful since it looks at the impact of the entire value chain from raw material production through end-of-life disposal. It also can be used as a measure of both process improvements to current processes and improved design choices for future products.

Circular economy

Circular economy, similarly, is a system of resource utilization where reduction, reuse and recycling of materials prevails, cutting down waste to a minimum, using biodegradable products and recycling the rejected products back to the environment. In a circular economy, materials are not discarded after they are used but rather brought back into the economy through a variety of means. This vision is challenging manufacturers to rethink how they design, produce and ship products away from the old way of the linear economy (take, make, waste) to a more regenerative process. The goal is to reuse so that no material ends up in landfill. It is a process that is driven by up-front choices and the existence of technologies and infrastructure that support it. Although it is an appropriate goal, it is still a work in progress.

When considering the environmental impact of the decorated plastic products and the processes used, producers should look at the entire value stream, including those parts outside of the manufacturing floor. This begins with the development of feedstocks used in creating the materials used in the process and ends with the end-of-life disposition of the no longer useful product. The goal is to create circularity in manufacturing – using the byproducts (outputs) of the process to create more inputs.

At the heart of a circular economy is making choices that reduce or eliminate waste by reuse.

Government regulations and monitoring

Regulations often focus on fixing one issue – such as contaminants, energy utilization or carbon footprint – without considering the environmental impact on the entire value stream. Regulations, although well intended, too often miss the critical point that there is more than one aspect to environmental impact.

Another concern with regulations is the agencies that produce them tend to be bureaucratic, becoming slow and expensive over time. The toxic substances control act is intended to protect the consumer from hazardous materials, but the time to get approval has increased from 180 days to over three years. This makes finding and introducing substitutes for existing materials used in production more difficult.

The basics

Producers need to know the intended function of the decoration process they are using and not compromise on the appearance or performance. All changes have with them the risk of unintended consequences. Any change should be fully validated to reduce risk. Understand the regulatory and reporting requirements for the industry and for the chosen processes. At a minimum producers must comply with these. Good ways to keep abreast of regulations are through industry associations, professional societies and directly from the regulatory agencies.

Once potential improvements have been identified, take time to consider any potential unintended consequences. Then be intentional in developing an action plan that measures progress toward the goal.

Existing products

The most significant first step is to eliminate waste in the existing processes, in all forms. This is easier said than done, but it has the important benefit of reducing operating costs as well as improving the environment at the same time. Look beyond the materials and processes used when evaluating environmental impact. Include energy utilized in providing compressed air and humidification.

Regulations can force changes in existing materials. If producers wait until they can’t get a critical additive or material, it is too late. Identify at-risk materials and begin to evaluate alternatives. Industry associations and governmental agencies are good sources of early warnings about future regulation.

New designs

With new designs, identify the manufacturing and design options that minimize material utilization and waste. Look for feedstocks that provide adequate performance and use materials that are renewable or have the lowest impact. Avoid materials containing forever chemicals like PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and known toxic chemicals.

Choose technologies that use the minimum volume of materials. Painting often has a high loss due to the transfer efficiency. Direct-to-part printing, in contrast, has a near 100% transfer efficiency. When possible, use direct-to-product decoration, thereby eliminating intermediate steps that consume resources and materials. Even better, decorate with the same chemistry of materials which increases the odds of successful recycling.

Always look to technologies that move toward an improved environmental impact. Replacing chrome plating with PVD or paint is a move in the right direction but still has some impact. UV-cured coatings consume much less energy and often are more robust than thermally cured products.

When comparing technical options for new products or processes, the best answer is the one that meets the product requirements in the application and minimizes the total environmental impact. Selections should be made in looking at all of the impacts. There often is no one perfect answer. Once several options have been identified, it also is useful to compare the environmental impact with the total cost in choosing the best option.

Tools like ISO 14044 (life cycle assessment) and ISO 14006 (eco-design) provide guidance in this regard and help in creating the basis for analyzing the life cycle of products and services.

Risks to consider

Any change involves risk. Changing the base plastic in any way can have a significant impact on the decorating process. The use of bio-based polymers or remanufactured polymers involves both opportunity and risk. Issues include variations in appearance to adhesion and long-term performance in the field – this is especially true when using remanufactured materials or making a significant material change.


There is no easy answer to being environmentally responsible with plastic decoration. Often, the best decision is to identify the option with the least damaging impact on the environment and profitability.

Paul Uglum has 43 years of experience in various aspects of plastic materials, plastic decoration, joining and failure analysis. He owns Uglum Consulting, LLC, working in the areas of plastic decoration and optical bonding. For more information, send comments and questions to paul.a.uglum@gmail.com.