Paper or Plastic? Considerations for Printing on Either

Paper or Plastic? Considerations for Printing on Either

In a TV commercial from some years ago, two young men are buying a six-pack of beer and a roll of toilet paper from a local market. Low on funds, they find they have to choose either the beer or the toilet paper. Naturally, they choose the beer. When asked if they want a paper or a plastic bag, their choice is unanimous and emphatic: “Paper!”

You may not realize it, but when it comes to printing media, you now have a similar choice: Paper or plastic (or any of a variety of other media, such as vinyl, metal, or fabric).  Professional printing businesses are increasingly capable of printing on plastic, and it’s less expensive than you might think.

Why Plastic?

You may wonder what possible use it would be to print things on plastic. Consider these applications:

  • Weather-resistant signage: Plastic tends to be more durable than paper, and doesn’t disintegrate in wet weather. If you are printing signage that needs to last more than a couple of days outdoors, or stands a chance of getting wet, plastic is going to be a better choice.
  • Backlit signage: Signs, such as advertisements, restaurant menus, and the like, that are displayed on backlit sign devices (indoors or out) are necessarily going to be produced on plastic media; paper generally doesn’t do a good job in this application.
  • Gift cards and reusable coupons: Businesses are increasingly sending direct-mail gift cards and other types of discount cards printed on plastic stock and mailed as postcards. Because they are perceived as being more valuable than a paper coupon, and less likely to get crumpled up in a customer’s purse or wallet, they stand a better chance of being used.
  • Marketing collateral: Business cards and other marketing pieces stand out when printed on plastic.
  • High-durability applications: Anything that is likely to see rough handling or repeated use—that is, anything that you would laminate if printed on paper—is a good candidate for printing directly on plastic.

What Are the Downsides of Plastic?

Plastic is not appropriate for every application, and there are drawbacks to using the medium. Chief among these is the cost: On a per-piece basis, plastic will cost several times more than an equivalent piece printed on paper (even on specialty papers such as heavy card stock). Not only is the medium more expensive, but it’s trickier to print on; some presses do not handle plastics at all, and some handle certain types of plastic better than others. Special fast-drying inks are required to prevent smearing.

When calculating the cost, however, you must consider the durability aspect: Because paper wears out quickly, your piece might need to be reprinted several times on paper, versus only once for plastic.

Another thing to consider is what happens to printed items when they are no longer useful or relevant. Most plastics are not biodegradable, so there is a potential environmental impact of using plastic. Although most plastics are recyclable, end users might not be aware or might not be bothered to consider placing it in a recycling bin.

A “Happy Medium”?

Depending on your application, there is a third choice available: Synthetic paper. Synthetic paper is a type of plastic that resembles wood-based paper in many ways (such as weight and flexibility) but has the higher durability of plastic.

Whatever you choose, make sure you have considered the total costs and benefits.

Or maybe, like the gentlemen in the TV commercial, just buy the beer instead.