LOS ANGELES - Film converters in California, a state that severely has restricted the use of solvent-based inks, are experiencing some problems with the alternative, water-based inks. Printing equipment must run more slowly. Although quality has improved, water-based inks still have problems with adhesion, especially when printed bags are exposed to moisture or extreme cold for long periods.
The California Film Extruders and Converters Association board of directors recently formed a printers committee to study the issue.
Richard Gurewitz, president of Poly Pak America Inc. in Los Angeles, proposed the committee as a way for CFECA's printer members to share resources and collaborate in seeking to meet compliance measures. A CFECA poll showed many printers are having problems using the new water-based inks required under existing regulations. The group expects its problems to be compounded by the phase-out of 1,1,1-trichloroethane at the end of 1995, part of California's continuing effort to reduce volatile organic compounds.
Conversion to the water-based inks involves a substantial investment in equipment, time and employee training, in addition to research and development. Technology has lagged behind the legislation, according to industry officials. The result is an inferior product.
The Los Angeles area is a center for West Coast film converting, which turns film roll stock into T-shirt bags, bread bags, industrial bags and other forms of printed packaging.
``Several years ago [the South Coast Air Quality Management District] started to turn the screws on us [because] we're in a nonattainment area, and they continue to turn them tighter even as we speak,'' said Skip Nevell, president of Diamond Polyethylene Products, an extruder, converter and printer in Los Angeles.
Curtis Coleman, formerly a lawyer with SCAQMD and now in private practice, is helping to form the committee. He got involved when a client, a CFECA member, came to him for help with compliance.
``Part of the problem is that the rules are forcing technology,'' Coleman said. ``When California decided a few years ago to eliminate the use of solvent-based inks, there was no technology for alternatives.
Water-based inks work fine in some applications, such as handle bags, some industrial bags and packaging to hold baked goods, said Donald Clark, president of Western Summit Manufacturing Corp., a film converter with plants in South Gate and North Hollywood, Calif., and Tecate, Mexico.
But other types of uses - especially those in which the bag has prolonged exposure to moisture or extreme cold - present quality problems, he said.
``Let it sit with water for a day or so and it starts to undermine'' the ink, Clark said in a Feb. 13 interview at Western Summit's South Gate plant.
Another problem area: printed bags to hold frozen food.
Nevell said the water-based inks that first came out were very poor, with appalling adhesion problems.
``Now that a time schedule has been established for the phase-in, the ink companies have begun gradually improving the products to what we have today, which is still largely unacceptable in many applications,'' he said.
Working closely with his ink suppliers on research and development has resulted in an ink that is borderline, Nevell said.
``It's a usable product that allows us to ply our trade in the Southern California area,'' he said, adding that was the nicest way he could put it.
Gurewitz of Poly Pak America agreed. His firm produces heavy-duty bags for fertilizer that is stored outside. When moisture forms on the bags, the nitrogen comes through, mixes with the water and creates ammonia, which then removes the ink.
Tortilla chip bags present another problem. The ink transfers from one side of the bag to the other side as they are stacked for shipping.
Nevell cited numerous production and quality problems with the inks. Slower production lines increase the per-unit cost. The inks cause more wear and tear on the equipment, which has forced him to add expensive equipment. The inks cost more, do not go as far and have a shorter shelf life. Also, the inks do not print as well; there is no comparable gloss or razor-sharp release as with solvent-based inks, he said.
Los Angeles-area film converters could buy some time if SCAQMD approves a proposal to allow companies to trade VOC air pollution credits, said Steve Walters, principal engineer at AQC Environmental Engineers Inc. SEFCA retained AQC, based in Diamond Bar, Calif., to work with environmental agencies on printing ink issues.
The proposal, called the Regional Clean Air Incentive Market (RECLAIM), could take affect in 1996. It would be similar to pollution credit trading programs already being used by utilities. Walters said, the version currently being debated would impose a cap on a factory's VOC emissions. That cap would be reduced each year.
Film printers could use any type of ink they want, as long as they stay below the cap. They also could buy credits from other companies, in a market-based approach to environmental regulation.
Even though RECLAIM technically could allow some companies to use solvent-based inks, Walters said that freedom probably would be short-lived because the regulation would force VOC levels down every year. That means water-based inks are here to stay, he said.
VOC reduction means film converters will not be able to expand their businesses, according to Nevell and Gurewitz.
``We can operate within that [VOC] allowance for now, but we can't grow our business or increase our customer base,'' Gurewitz said. ``We'll eventually be forced to either cut our customer base or move to another state, as allowable VOCs is reduced.''
Nevell said he is in the same boat: ``We're legal, but we're not happy.''
Companies are worried about losing business to competitors in nearby states. The fact that Nevell has to use water-based inks while his competitors in other states are still allowed to manufacture using solvent-based inks means that the playing field is not level.
``If my customers can get a better product from a company out of state, that's where they'll go,'' he said.