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Reducing the environmental impact of toner production


by Lode Deprez

Over the years, Xeikon has taken many steps to ensure that its products and their output have the smallest possible environmental footprint. 

Environmental impact

When people speak about 'green' printing, they are primarily concerned with whether materials are printed on recycled paper or paper from managed and renewable forests. But that’s only part of what the industry can do to improve sustainability and reduce its environmental impact. Over the years, Xeikon has taken many steps to ensure that its products and their output have the smallest possible environmental footprint. 

Printing is as much about paper as it is about what you put on it. Digital printing technology has radically changed the print production process. The possibility of being able to produce “on demand” in the exact required quantity saves material and prevents waste; and it is therefore both more efficient and more effective. At the same time, Xeikon has successfully focused on reducing the environmental impact of the entire graphic chain – starting with increasing the sustainability of the manufacturing process for its toner. This is due to the recognition that true sustainability requires an examination of the total life cycle of products and their end use, explains Dr. Lode Deprez, VP Technology Digital Solutions at Xeikon: “Printed paper must also be recyclable, the printing process must conserve water and use no VOCs, and the energy use and production of waste must be drastically reduced. Xeikon has met all of these requirements and more – both in its manufacturing processes and in the way its customers use the equipment in the field – to ensure that Xeikon and its customers are ahead of the curve in complying with environmental regulations.”

During the past ten years, the demand for Xeikon’s toner, which has always been fully produced in Heultje (Belgium), has tripled. Moreover, the range of toner offerings has also expanded enormously during this time; where about 10 types of toner and developer were initially manufactured, this has currently increased to more than 270. In addition, during the same decade considerable progress has been made in increasing the sustainability of toner production.

Green energy, less waste

In 2010, Xeikon converted to 100 percent green energy generated from renewable sources – such as wind, sun and water – for its factories. That ensured enormous CO2-reduction. Gas consumption was also drastically reduced by investing millions in a system for heat recovery from the production processes and air compressors. The plant is continuously being optimized to increase efficiency and reduce energy consumption, leading to gas consumption being decreased to 1/6th the volume in just three short years. Electricity consumption dropped more than 1/3rd since 2008.

Through this type of intervention in its working method and by rethinking the energy and material processes, Xeikon has been successful in targeting overall waste reduction, halving the quantity of waste originating from toner production over a period of 10 years. Paper and carton are obviously mostly recycled, but the amount has been drastically reduced at the same time: from some 40 kilograms of recycled paper and board per ton of toner in 2008 down to only 20 kilograms in 2018. Moreover, a large component of the remaining waste is used as raw material in other industries, such as in the production of cement and concrete. And again, the total amount of this type of waste has strongly decreased, from 150 kilograms per ton of toner in 2008 to some 90 kilograms in 2018. Ultimately, only about 40 kilograms of waste per ton of produced toner is ultimately destined for incineration. Zero toner waste from the manufacturing process ends up in a landfill.

Lode Deprez provides yet another small example of increasing sustainability: “We are currently cleaning the extruder axles with a special technique by which the toner resin is removed from the axles as powder, without waste water being created.” This reduces consumption of yet another valuable resource: fresh water.

Ecological choices

Deprez emphasizes that environmental impact again takes center stage in the development of the recently announced “next generation” of toner technology: “We are not going to market any new toner formulas that, in terms of (food) safety, performance and ecology, are a step backwards in respect to the situation today,” he says. Moreover, Xeikon has consciously chosen not to employ production technologies that inherently have negative environmental impact, such as chemically produced toners (CPT). Deprez explains: “These toners are made in a chemical reactor and must be washed and dried after moulding. That leads to a lot of water consumption and the generation of waste water that must be treated, and it requires a lot of energy to evaporate the water and solvents. This method also leads to rounder toner particles with a core-shell structure, comparable to our toners, but certainly not as ecologically friendly as the choices we have made.”

Increasingly environmentally friendly

A reduction in the environmental impact for the entire graphic chain is an important theme for Xeikon. For many years, the company has ensured that all toners used for printing on paper do not constitute any problem for paper recycling: “Material printed on a Xeikon toner press has a deinkability score greater than 90% according to INGEDE Method 11, an international standard, guaranteeing recyclability of Xeikon printed products.” Deprez adds, “We are also acutely aware of the current problem surrounding micro-plastics and are therefore very careful not to introduce that as a problem. The toner resin foam that results from the de-inking process does not end up in the waste water, but is also used as fuel together with the residual paper fibres.” 
Regarding toner bottles, Xeikon has also focused on larger packaging for a long time in order to reduce energy consumed in transport – and therefore CO2 emissions – per kilogram of toner. In addition, Xeikon investigated various ways to reuse empty toner bottles or to improve their local recycling, says Deprez. “Facilitating the dust-free dosing of toner into our presses still remains a major challenge that we are working to address.” He and his colleagues at Xeikon are not daunted by any challenges they might face, however, and are continuing to search for ways to ensure ongoing progress, commenting, “We are keeping our minds open and are proactively working, where possible, to continuously make things more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. Our results prove that eco-logy and eco-nomy can go together very well.”