Eco friendly? Cost more or less?

Hello, I run a small business that frequently uses letterpress for small projects including wedding invitations and marketing communication projects. We also offset, engraving and foil stamping.

We currently send our letterpress artwork out for magnesium plates mounted to a wood base. I’ve heard about photopolymer plating for sometime, but at the time we didn’t have anyone experienced in working with it.

I’m thinking that this move may improve our process and also be better for the environment, but from what I’ve found on the web, there isn’t anyone that is speaking about the benefits other than a short term use situation. I’d like to hear from those of you that have been using this process for a couple of years, although I’d LOVE to hear from any of you that has an opinion on a couple basic questions I have.

1) Is the process of using photoploymer plating more or less environmentally friendly than magnesium plating? I know it can be recycled, but are there only certain places that take it? What about the wash process?

2) Is there a substantial cost difference between using the photopolymer plating versus the magnesium plating?

3) Is the quality of the printing better or worse? Are there limitations to the photopolymer plating? Advantages?

Thanks so much. This has been wearing on me for sometime.


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I use photopolymer plates for some of the letterpress work I produce, not because it more environmentally friendly, but mainly because it is a process which can be done in my own shop. I have been making water-washed photopolymer plates for about 10 years now, and appreciate being able to remake a plate quickly and in my own shop.

I don’t know of anything which makes photopolymer plates any more “green” than magnesium. Both processes have waste products which need to be dealt with in some way.

Sorry, I don’t know about the environmental cost of creating either kind of plate, but I do have one suggestion. Instead of using magnesium plates mounted to wood, you should get a honeycomb base and attach your plates to that. This way you wouldn’t have to mount them each to wood, which seems at bit less wasteful. Also you would know that everything would be type high, something I’ve had a problem with before using wood mounted plates.
As far as plate longevity goes, I’ve heard from others that the metal plates last longer than polymer, but I have no knowledge one way or the other myself. All my plates of either kind are last just fine, but the oldest are only a couple years old.

Yes, I’d agree, a base, honeycomb or diagonal, for photomechanical engravings is far better than wood. The rationale for this I won’t go into. I’d also suggest copper over magnesium for both its superior printing qualities and longevity. Neither “mags” or “polys” can survive the corroding effects of oxygen for long.

In regard to environmental concerns, the manufacturing of photopolymer plates is likely far more eco-unfriendly than the manufacturing of photomechanical metals. The processing of these though is the reverse. Photopolymer is processed with water and is sewerable. This is hardly the case with photomechanical processing.

In terms of overall cost, I suspect you are likely far better off going with photopolymer, at least in terms of what you get for your buck. Photopolymer is a far better printing surface than magnesium, but not as good as copper. On the other hand, copper is a great deal more expensive than photopolymer.

This is a money game. How much are you willing to spend for the best there is? How little to just get by? Or somewhere in between?

Heather, your questions take up very little room but the answers to them can hardly be touched on here.


After working toward “Eco-friendly printing” for quite a long time, my opinion is that it is not substantially more expensive to print GREEN than it is to print dirty…. if one takes the time to learn the pros and cons of each process.

I have to concur with Gerald that photopolymer is a better printing surface than magnesium, and is a lot more “Earth friendly”. If I had to choose between the two, I take photopolymer in a heartbeat.

He’s also right about copper being a great choice for printability, but rather costly. My main business involves copper engravings and etchings…. so I am acutely aware of how dear it is. While I love copper as a printing surface, acid etched metals are probably the worst environmental offenders if one does not dispose of the spent materials properly. Disposing of spent acids or ferric chloride properly is not as simple as dumping it down the drain, and disposing of it improperly is bad, bad. When you combine the high cost of the metal, and the cost of disposing of the spent acids, etched copper is not cost effective for anything other than the highest quality work with the smallest of details.

He and I disagree as to whether or not wood is a suitable base, but that’s a different topic. We use it almost exclusively in my shop…. but others have difficulty with it.

Hi Heather,

Another thing to consider is storage, or what to do with the plates when the project is finished. You can slip a photopolymer plate into a ziploc bag and its negative into a glassine envelope and store them both in a dark file drawer, taking up very little space. Even if the plate deteriorates over time, you still have the negative to make a new plate should the need arise. On the other hand, for one-time projects like wedding invitations, copper plates can make a very nice “extra” to give to the bride and groom along with their invitation set. You could retain plates for things like thank-you cards for which they may want additional runs in the future.