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Opinion

GRIPES ABOUT WATER-BASED INKS OUTDATED

GEORGE A. MAKRAUER

April 17, 1995

I thought your masthead was dated March 27, 1985, when I read the front-page article "Water-based inks strain California's converters." The only strain I saw in the article was in the credibility of the sources interviewed for the piece.

The complaints, contentions and consequences of using water-based inks recited by the complainant converters are 10 years out of date.

Keep in mind that the marketing and sales folks for these same companies are in the street every day bragging to potential customers about their technological (to say nothing of environmental) prowess in order to write business.

For an order, they promise the moon; in response to change, they promise doom.

In my view, it's not reasonable or responsible to be that inconsistent over the same basic issue - technological improvement.

Nobody likes government regulation to force changes in an uneven fashion.

Whether it's different rates of taxes, different product preferences (e.g. regulations that prefer paper over plastic), different environmental performance standards (e.g. recycled-content definitions for paper vs. plastic), or different penalties for nonattainment, the disdain of an uneven playing field is justifiable and understandable.

However, the fundamental driving principle behind most environmental regulation is supposed to be technology forcing in its consequences.

The president of a prominent California converter looked me square in the eye the evening of Jan. 22, 1991, and said, "George, we set up a plant across the border in Mexico, not just so we can pay our people there 10 percent of what we pay them here, but also because we can completely avoid EPA and OSHA regulations in doing so.''

People who view the solution to environmental compliance as avoidance rather than as technology improvement will do nothing substantive, but rather just complain about government regulations.

The complaints in your March 27 article smack of avoidance. And, bewailing the phase-out of methyl chloroform - one of the most hazardous industrial chemicals one can expose employees and neighbors to in a printing operation - as a loophole solvent doesn't lend any credibility to the industry, either.

Amko Plastics Inc. began converting from alcohol-based inks to water-based inks in March 1984. In the early years it was a gruesome, difficult, frustrating and costly exercise.

Unquestionably, quality and productivity suffered.

We made the final conversion to a fully water-based plant in September 1987.

Today our 11 flexo press permits are based solely on water-inks as the air-quality-compliance technology.

Daily, we print low density and high density polyethylenes, polyester and nylon substrates and satisfy a growing clientele in a total range of flexible packaging applications, including food packaging.

One indicator of a company's innovativeness is its inclination to first call an attorney rather than an engineer to address change.

Attorney [Curtis] Coleman in your article complains, "Part of the problem is that the rules are forcing technology.''

Mr. Coleman, that's not the problem; that's the fundamental purpose.

The fundamental problem is the industry has never come together to create the new breakthrough technologies needed to meet reasonable environmental objectives (where they exist). Today's water-based inks have been developed by incremental improvements rather than breakthroughs.

There are two principal reasons why.

One is that regulatory pressures have been applied on printers who are at the intermediate point in the flow of commerce.

Neither our ink suppliers nor our customers have a regulated stake in helping us perform better. Customers have played-off water printers against alcohol printers for the best price and quality, not the desired environmental benefit.

The other reason rests, in my opinion, with the ink companies. With all due respect to whatever friends I have left in the ink industry, ink company sales reps are trained and directed to be order-takers, not creative, pro-active change-agents.

When they make a call on a prospective customer, they do not say "I've got an exciting, new-technology-based ink that will do a better print job at competitive price and with desired environmental impact."

Rather, it goes something like this: "What are you using? Can I have a wet sample? I'll get back to ya' with some drawdowns and prices."

That approach ain't gonna drive any new technology anytime, anywhere.

"A substantial investment in equipment, time and employee training, in addition to research and development'' is not unique to printing plastic films with water-based inks. They are basic requirements for getting and staying in the manufacturing business and supplying quality in the 21st century.

That's reality. (And if California converters don't like the prospect of doing that for water inks, they sure as blazes will hate what printing wide web with ultraviolet inks requires.)

Similar frustrations bemoaning environmental improvement are being expressed across many industries in the United States by many small and medium-size companies.

They have chosen to ignore 15 years of clear signals from government - clean up or else.

Fortunately, from our point of view, we see many national, image-conscious brand marketers also demanding environmentally clean manufacturing processes from their suppliers.

Right now there are several ink raw material resin companies evaluating the market attitude and demand to determine if it's worth their while to invest in breakthrough water-based ink research and development. They haven't yet become motivated.

The comments quoted in your March 27 article run a substantial risk of dissuading commitment to those research and development efforts which could clearly help solve this important technology challenge. At its base, the problem is attitude, not aptitude.

The industry solution to effectively printing a wide range of plastic films with water-based inks will not come from a group of complainers shouting, "It can't be done."

The breakthroughs - unnecessarily overdue - will come when a group of printers, ink companies, ink raw material resin producers, plastic film resin producers, film/resin additive suppliers, printing equipment suppliers, and printing plate material suppliers finally come together and do something more than just complain about government regulation and move plants to Mexico.

To do that will take competent leadership, something this issue hasn't yet seen.

Leadership by grievance will continue to do nothing for this industry. Leadership by solution will do great things for everyone.

(Makrauer is president and chief executive offier of Amko Plastics Inc. in Cincinnati.)

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