How can the industry minimise the ecological footprint of packaging and other printed products?

Sustainability is a top priority at Koenig & Bauer AG. In an interview the press manufacturer’s new board spokesman, Dr Andreas Pleßke, explains why the topic is of such high strategic importance and how it is being pushed by financial markets and the more environmentally aware youth.

Dr Pleßke, as the new CEO of Koenig & Bauer AG you have also assumed responsibility for sustainability. Why?

We have dealt with this topic extensively before this, but during the reallocation of tasks at the beginning of 2021, we dealt intensively with the future strategic orientation of our business model. In the process, we identified sustainability as a key issue. We are establishing a new, group-wide department with good staffing and are also strengthening our communication.

The topic of sustainability is moving into a new weight class. It is about decency in dealing with the environment and natural resources. In addition, the boundary conditions have changed. Sustainability is increasingly present in social discourse; regulatory requirements are increasing with the European Green Deal – and from a recent trip to the USA I got the impression that our customers there clearly expect us to support them in making their production more environmentally friendly.

Did they give reasons for this?

On the one hand, they justify it with the fact that the capital market, in the course of risk management, is checking more and more closely whether investments are sustainable and thus fit for the future. Genuine efforts towards sustainable processes are thus becoming a criterion for success in financing. But our US clients, who work exclusively with equity, are also giving sustainability the highest priority and point to the changed awareness of the young generation, who inform themselves precisely in social media.

I have heard in many conversations that the success of a product in the future will stand or fall on how sustainably it is packaged. The trend is clear: more renewable raw materials and more recycling. The packaging discussion will play an even greater role. We are well advised to prepare for this by trimming our machines and processes for maximum resource efficiency. This is the only way we can meet and ideally exceed clear customer expectations.

The United Nations warns of a contrary global trend: by 2050, the demand for resources threatens to double. What are you doing about this in your own production?

The biggest footprint is left by energy consumption, especially as Koenig & Bauer operates its own foundry. There we invest in modern energy-efficient furnaces to reduce CO2 emissions. We light our halls with LEDs. We are currently examining the possibility of starting our own sustainable power supply with photovoltaic systems or a combined heat and power plant. Our metal processing department has established the highest level of recycling – if only for cost reasons. All other operating materials are also separated by type and recycled as far as possible.

Your products offer greater leverage for resource conservation. How sustainable is your printing technology?

It starts with the fact that our machines can run 24/7, 365 days a year. The better a press is utilised and the less often it has to be ramped up to process speed after restarts, the lower the energy and resource requirements. The market trend towards smaller print jobs with constant restarts is rather counterproductive. We compensate for this, at least in part, through more efficient drive technology, regular maintenance and targeted training for press operators.

More important is the use of materials. With the exception of textiles, our machines print on almost all substrates: paper, cardboard, corrugated board, glass, metal, plastics and films made of natural, synthetic and composite materials. Our processes have a major influence on their consumption. On average, a typical medium-format offset sheetfed press in packaging printing prints almost 9 000 tonnes of paper per year with 500 tonnes of ink – a single press. If we increase its efficiency by just a few percent, the leverage effect is enormous.

We are becoming more and more successful in minimising start-up waste, which brings major savings due to the large number of job changes. We are also pushing ahead with solutions to achieve top quality with reduced ink consumption. And the fact that our presses almost exclusively use water-based, food-grade coatings reduces the electricity required for drying by 30 percent – especially since our drying processes use hot air twice.

That sounds like intensive research and development for more resource efficiency.

This has been the driving theme for a long time. For example, we have implemented a thermoregulation system for our banknote printing presses that need both heat and cooling in the process, which intelligently links heating and cooling. If our customers in this market alone were to use this Power Safe solution consistently, this would amount to 45 000 tonnes of CO2 savings per year. Another 10 000 tonnes can be achieved through the consistent use of UV LEDs. The fact that I can give you these figures is, by the way, a first consequence of the EU’s new taxonomy rules. We now have to look more intensively at what happens to our machines at the customer’s site.

To what extent do you coordinate your R&D topics with user industries?

We have set up a strategy process that involves not only our direct customers but also global brand owners and packaging manufacturers, with whom we do not work directly. In interviews, we discuss their views on the megatrends in the packaging market. Based on this, our new strategy “Exceeding Print” is built on three pillars: Sustainability, Modularity and Digitalisation.

Our engineering is geared towards optimally supporting our customers in achieving their sustainability goals. To this end, we are establishing closed control loops in the interaction between inspection in the printing process and AI-optimised control and colour saturation, which readjust themselves in the process. The better we succeed in modularising such solutions, the faster we can bring them to market. It is not only our customers in the USA, who demand resource-efficient, sustainable solutions: The global printing and packaging industry is taking up the social challenge – and is now increasingly investing in sustainable solutions.

Should legislators additionally promote resource-efficient technologies?

Two hearts beat in my chest: Politics naturally lacks deep technical insight into the markets. They should therefore – if at all – promote and regulate in a way that is open to technology. I am also speaking out of self-interest here because Koenig & Bauer covers almost all substrates and process steps. If there were to be interventions, we would almost certainly be affected at one point or another.

The other heart recognises that it can also have a positive influence on the markets if politicians agree on clear framework conditions and promote efficiency in a way that is open to technology. In retrospect, the much-criticised EU emissions legislation has proven to be a successful model. However, it is extremely complicated and burdensome for globally active companies if different framework conditions have to be met in different markets. This drives up costs in our already very cost-sensitive industry. A sense of proportion and harmonisation as far as possible are needed.