Taking small steps

In this month’s Transfer Print Column, Zach Pillinger, director of Upstream Printing, explores what the heat transfer market could be doing to become more environmentally-friendly.

With pressure mounting on screen printers to make positive changes within their manufacturing processes and raw material selections over to less environmentally impacting ones, I noted there has not been a huge amount of emphasis on the heat transfer market to follow in a similar fashion (excuse the pun).

As we are all aware vinyl and printed transfers play a huge role within the printwear industry, and are irreplaceable in a large number of applications. With modern day fabrics evolving and the need for greater personalisation of garments, transfers are often the only sensible solution.

So how as consumers and producers of heat applied transfers do we reduce our impact in both the manufacture and the application of transfers?

In terms of printed transfers cold peel plastisol transfers have been the go to for decades. Easy to produce, easy to apply and the finished product gives the appearance and feel of a retail quality print. Although plastisol inks are not what they once were with reductions in the use of phalates and PVCs, we are being encouraged to give them up altogether. Not only should we be looking at the inks used to produce these transfers, we should also be looking at the adhesives, energy consumption and the waste produced by this and similar processes.

Within the various types of transfers there are different adhesives and base fabrics tailored for a wide variety of substrates, whether that is lycra or a polyester blend. These can often be the only solution to printing onto a technically challenging fabric. There is a balancing act between the different production options available to produce a great print, but we have a responsibility to also keep one eye on the environmental impact of the print itself.

The holy grail of transfers

Water-based transfers are the holy grail of heat transfers, but producing them is technical and still produces the same waste, while also potentially using more energy to produce than traditional transfers. Cut and print transfers use more sustainable ink products and less energy, but they produce more waste and have colour limitations when producing bright effects. So are either of these really a true eco alternative to plastisol?

I would think it is safe to presume that 99% of all printwear businesses own and run a vinyl plotter to produce short run personalised prints. A simpler process to screen printing and embroidery in many ways, and in some ways also less impact. Vinyl printing uses less energy than screen printing, there is no run off, no reclamation process and the products do not have a use by date. However the waste produced from vinyl printing is vast, not only with the backing products, but also with the wasted vinyl in between designs that cannot be used. Vinyl printed garments also then become difficult to recycle, any eco friendly credentials of the garment itself become less prominent.

At present there is no out and out transfer that offers a total environmental positive solution to my knowledge, so it is down to us as individual printers to take steps to improve the viability of using the transfer process. We can make small steps to reducing the impact by:

  • Maximising the available space on a transfer substrate by keeping the gaps between personalised names to a minimum or optimising the shape of a cut transfer to fill the space.
  • Keeping used backing paper or vinyl – These can be recycled although you will need to specifically check with locally recycling or specialise recyclers.

We really need to be thinking about the impact of a specific process from the moment we initially engage with our customers. A balance of how we can meet the expectations of our customer needs in terms of garment choice and affordability often affects how we can best finish that product. All to achieve an end result that not only looks great, but the processes involved have been chosen specifically to use the best products, optimise energy usage and reduce waste.

With so many options available one idea could be to introduce a simple scoring system for each transfer option to educate the customer allowing them to make an informed decision. Breaking each option down into waste/ energy usage/ raw material compliance vs price may be easier than you think. The food industry managed to do this with the traffic light system, can we do something similar?

With the dual demand of producing products using environmentally positive materials and also highly personalised, merging the two can be tricky. Using the advances in DTG technology to personalise garments, reduces the majority of plastic waste. While using water-based inks coupled with the recently developed ability of printing onto polyester, this could be a great solution for the future. Or for a truly low impact personalised product, maybe we need to be resorting to good old embroidery using organic cotton threads onto sustainable organic garments, lots of food or in this case ink for thought.

Whatever process we opt for, all of them with some thought and attention to detail can be improved and streamlined with the environment in mind.

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