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Fantastic plastics

Mar 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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Imagine this: you are attending the American Water Works Assn.’s (Denver) educational conference. You notice the group’s booth features two large fish tanks.

There aren’t any fish floating around in those tanks, just AWWA’s media kits. When you ask for one, an AWWA staff member "fishes" a kit out of a tank, gives it a quick swipe with a dry cloth, and hands it over.

AWWA hasn’t actually committed to this novel display—which might include live fish swimming around the kits—but it’s not such a far-fetched plan. Unusual promotions like this are made possible by the unique features found in synthetic papers. Besides being waterproof, they are tear-resistant, extremely durable and have superior pliability.

These characteristics make synthetic papers especially suitable in niche markets where moisture or other contaminants would damage wood-based papers. Synthetic papers can be used for maps, menus, book covers, signage, point-of-purchase, security cards, loyalty cards and unusual promotions.

What is synthetic paper?
Synthetic paper generally refers to nonfiber-based papers, which usually means plastic-based papers. In addition to their main substance (polypropylene or polyolefin), these papers may contain inorganic fillers as well as silica or clay.

When you think of synthetic paper, the rough feeling of FedEx envelopes might come to mind. These newer synthetics, however, have very smooth, silk-like surfaces that reproduce images and text very well.

The list of commercial applications is nearly endless—the label industry alone utilizes 80 percent of synthetic paper. This leaves a relatively small percentage of applications for the commercial printing sector and a few main players—Hop-Syn, Polyart, Teslin and Yupo.

Just as every coated paper is different, each synthetic paper has its strengths and weaknesses. The choice of stock is important to avoid problems on press or in finishing, as well as to avoid over-specifying the paper.

Tear resistance
Synthetic papers have a long life span because of their high tensile strength (the maximum stress in uniaxial tension testing that a material will withstand prior to fracture). When manufactured, synthetic papers are biaxially stretched. As with all paper, stiffness and tensile strength are higher in the grain direction. Some synthetic papers have a grain direction while others claim no grain direction at all, which can be advantageous when it comes to folding and finishing a piece Tear resistance, however, is higher in the cross-grain direction because it is more difficult to tear across aligned fibers or polymer chains. Yupo and some Hop-Syn grades are tear-resistant in both directions, while other synthetic grades provide tear resistance in only one direction.

Drying time
It’s important to remember that synthetic papers essentially do not absorb ink. Unlike the short drying times experienced with traditional papers, drying times vary on synthetic papers from four to 24 hours, depending on the substrate and ink coverage.

Some synthetic papers (Polyart and certain Hop-Syn grades) have a clay coating that allows ink to set almost immediately and shortens the drying time to a few hours or overnight. This gives clay coating a big advantage, but it also gives these papers less scratch resistance.

Teslin holds a unique place within synthetic papers. It is made of 65 percent silica, which absorbs the ink like a "standard" paper and even allows for work-and-turn applications.

Today, mills work under strict corporate guidelines when it comes to environmental compliance and waste minimization. Mill reps will tell you that pieces produced with their synthetic papers can be recycled easily: "Just put them out with your recyclable plastics." Documentation that actually refers to this recycling option, however, has not yet been seen on a printed piece.

Printing on synthetic papers
Remember, there is a learning curve when first printing on synthetic papers. The mills are well prepared for this and provide detailed written information on how to handle and print their specific product, as well as offer tech support by phone.

One of the mills even goes so far as to call every client who receives a paper shipment, to answer any additional questions. Depending on the amount of paper ordered, they will even send out a technician to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when printing on synthetic paper:

  • The optimum press room temperature is 70-75ºF.
  • The pressrooms humidity is best at around 50 percent.
  • Run speed should be under 7,000 sph.
  • Use metal plates—not paper or polyester—to avoid carrying excess water.
  • Use as little water as possible to print the job.

Because synthetic papers absorb virtually no water, very little moisture is needed in the ink/water balance—around half of what you would need when printing on fiber-based papers. All synthetic papers handle aqueous and UV coatings very successfully.

Inks. Although generic plastic inks are available, it usually is a better idea to choose ink formulated for the specific synthetic paper on which you are planning to print. They are generally high-solid, low-tack inks.

Be careful with fluorescent and metallic inks, which need a lot of extra care when used on synthetic substrates.

For all synthetic papers, UV inks often are the ink of choice; they act like liquid plastic. As the ink is exposed to concentrated UV radiation, a chemical reaction takes place during which the photo-initiators cause the ink components to cross-link into a solid. No material is removed, so nearly 100 percent of the delivered volume is used to provide coloration and the drying time is reduced dramatically.

Static. A general concern when printing on synthetic papers is possible static in the sheets. Good humidity and temperature controls help eliminate this issue. The use of static elimination equipment and humidity fans is very common.

Folding. Even though synthetic papers have a superior pliability and fold very smoothly in lighter grades, scoring is recommended for thicknesses of 10 mils and up.

Laser compatibility. Most synthetic papers are not suitable for use in heat-generating laser or inkjet printers. Teslin, however, offers two grades that specify laser and inkjet printers as their preferred printing method.

Digital printing presses. Digital 1000, a specially-developed paper line from Teslin, withstands even higher temperatures and is suitable for all digital printing presses. It is also certified for Xeikon toner-based web presses.

The envelopes, please
Due to popular demand, Yupo recently made envelopes produced from their synthetic paper available to everyone. Previously, they were only available with a minimum order of 10,000.

Yupo took the plunge and responded to their customers’ requests, boxing synthetic envelopes in increments of 500, making them available in translucent or opaque and in five standard booklet sizes. Special sizes still are available, and Yupo’s envelope converter can imprint larger orders of envelopes with four-color custom designs.

There are a number of other developments that have become available in the past year, including tamper-evident synthetics (which allow for a limited amount of tear resistance) and synthetic papers that will run smoothly on digital presses. Keep your eyes open for an expanding translucent and envelope line from Yupo, as well as synthetic papers that require shorter drying times even without the clay coating. In this growing market segment, each player is "fishing" for impact—whether used in startling or more traditional applications, synthetic papers offer new possibilities to mills, designers, customers and the print industry.

Now that’s a high-definition poster

Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) recently produced 20,000 promotional posters on Yupo synthetic paper. The 18 x 24-inch poster was printed on Yupo 62-lb. translucent text on two sides using a Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102 10+LX. Each of the poster’s 12 squares features a high-definition photographic image illustrating a different textural quality.

The format was chosen to showcase the visual techniques that can be achieved with Heidelberg’s presses, including UV four-color overprints, spot metallics, quadtone overprints, spot-raised UV coatings and spot gloss varnishes.

"Everyone here calls this the ‘Wow’ poster," says Marian Williams, senior graphic designer, Leo Burnett (Chicago). "The images, textures and the highly saturated colors are just amazing."

What’s new
Yupo | For more than 30 years, Yupo Corp. (Chesapeake, VA) has been researching and developing synthetic papers. Yupo’s swatcbook features both its standard and translucent paper (the only one on the market) in a variety of weights.

Breaking news: Recently introduced standard and translucent envelopes (unique to Yupo) are not featured in the current issue of the swatchbook, but information will be available at soon.

Polyart | Arjobex (Charlotte, NC), the manufacturer of Polyart, is a subsidiary of Arjo-Wiggins, one of Europe’s largest paper manufacturers. The company began offering Polyart in Europe in the mid-1970s. After bringing its synthetic product to North America in the early 1980s, Arjobex started manufacturing Polyart in Charlotte, NC, in 1992.

In addition to offering a wide range of weights, the Polyart swatchbook also addresses popular applications (tags, labels and industrial uses) and gives tips on how to achieve the best printing results. See

Teslin | PPG Industries (Pittsburgh, PA), the maker of Teslin, is a Pittsburgh-based global supplier of chemicals, glass, fiberglass and coatings, with manufacturing facilities and affiliates in 23 countries.

Teslin’s "A different Animal" swatchbook features a variety of case studies (menus, labels, waterproofing, security issues, etc.). Stocking information and typical properties of all Teslin brands—from digital to laser compatibility—are displayed in easy-to-read charts, with printing guidelines provided in the back pages. See

Hop-Syn | Hop Industries (Garfield, NJ) was founded in 1977 with only one thing in mind—synthetic paper. In addition to its large product line, Hop Industries offers value-added services such as in-house slitting, sheeting and trimming.

This swatchbook features Hop Industries’ two brands, Hop-Syn and DuraLite, in a multitude of grades and it highlights their unique properties. See

Where’s Wally?
What does it take to win a "Wally?" You’ve got to be creative, original and use Yupo’s (Cheasapeake, VA) synthetic paper. Here are the winners of 2004’s second annual competition:

Who: Bridget DeSocio, principle of SocioX and lecturer at the Parsons School of Design
What:Photography 2003 Senior Show Catalog, an eight-panel folded brochure with student portraits, and 50 4.5 x 6 inch promotional cards printed on both sides, showing 100 different student photographs.

Who: Liming Rao, architect and designer
What: A reusable, paper serving tray made from Yupo 100-lb. cover.

Who: Concrete Design Communications
What: A client anniversary announcement. The six-page brochure was printed on Yupo 62-lb. translucent.

For more information, see

Sabine Lenz is the founder of PaperSpecs, Inc., an online paper database and "all-in-one swatchbook." Contact her via