A recent study on flex banner and its attributes by IIT-Delhi has instilled a belief amongst indigenous manufacturers that the ban would soon be revoked.
It wasn’t a surprise when last year the Government of Maharashtra, following suit of the other four states – Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh, inadvertently increased the strain on the indigenous flex manufacturers. The reasons quoted were not new, but were rather aimed at creating a sustainable environment that will be plastic-free. In February 2019, there came a sigh of relief for these manufacturers when Karnataka High Court lifted the ban with some restrictions over the size and places of installation. But the relief so earned stayed only up to 24 hours as the very next day the order of restoration of the same old ban was passed by the court till further notifications.
The roll-back of the relief once again rolled back the scenario of the country’s signage industry to remain a major cause of worry for the stakeholders. It is a fact that ban over the use of flex banners in five states has continuously been hitting the senses of all indigenous manufacturers, most of whom have invested heavily only recently, while a couple of them are about to flag off their manufacturing facilities later this year. The fear is static as Mumbai and Pune being the two important destinations for local commuters, may become the pilot cities for a plastic-free environment, which the whole country may agree to adopt.
Eventually, to do away the restrictions, the country’s PVC flex manufacturers started exploring ways to combat the cause. They went on to forming an association christened as All India Laminated Fabric Manufacturers Association, and decided to sponsor a study by one of the most reputed institutions in the country – IIT Delhi. The study is focused on the life cycle of flex banners and its impact on the environment. To no surprise, the outcome of the study is more in favour of flex rather than against it. And, why not! After all, it’s a matter of many pros rather than fewer cons, the most vital being its employability and support to crores of Indian citizens.
The industry experts are of the opinion that flex is a ‘common man media’ for promotional needs and that there is no substitute for it till date. A country, which till a few years back was totally dependent on imported stuff, today has more than 12 manufacturers, representing a production state where it is exporting flex to not only the neighbouring countries, but also to far flung destinations in USA and Europe. It is the source for employment for lakhs of Indians and the government too had supported the domestic manufacturing that has enabled it to flourish. And now when the time is right to reap the benefits, how can the same government take such a decision!
Crux of the Study:
The study starts with the basic definition of flex banner – a digitally printed ubiquitous communication medium, which is most widely used for outdoor advertising owing to it being flexible, durable, economical and, more importantly, recyclable. These banners are utilised not just for commercial advertising, but also to communicate information about various social schemes of the government – both at the Centre and states.
According to the Technology Upgradation Fund Scheme (TUFS) launched by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India, Flex banners have been placed under the category of Technical Textiles. A Flex banner is commonly known as a PVC banner in India which is a misnomer as it is a three layer laminated structure wherein the polyester fabric is sandwiched between the films consisting of compounded calcium carbonate (CaCO3), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin, plasticisers and additives. The polyester fabric imparts rigidity and durability while the PVC films provide flexibility and enable low cost digital printability of the Flex banners.
The report has done a detailed study on the three components of flex and has come out with convincing revelations in its favour. The study affirms that all the three components that go in the manufacturing of flex are not as harmful as indicated by the authorities. Also, there are hardly any viable alternatives with similar technological functionality. The nearest contenders are metallic boards and fabric/cloth banners that failed even to match the characteristics of flex and are found to be constrained by size restrictions, poor printability, weatherability, etc. Large, expensive LED screens have also not dented the market for flex banners.
The manufacturing process of laminated fabrics essentially involves three stages of calendaring, lamination and fabrication. In the Calendaring process, PVC films are made from the PVC chips. In the Lamination process, one layer of grey fabric sandwiched between two layers of PVC films is compressed to form a single composite unit under heat and pressure. The composite (flex) passes through the embossing stack to get the desired finish. And, last but not the least, in the fabrication process, the panels are cut to required sizes using automatic cutting machine as per customer requirements.
The study also highlights common misconceptions, associated with flex banners:
Flex banners are flammable: Lab trials as well as international research articles have clearly stated that PVC by itself is self-extinguishing when the source of the flame is removed. In the event of the ignition of PVC during an accidental fire, it mainly contributes in extinguishing rather than spreading the fire.
Flex banners generate dioxins: Due to the self-extinguishing property, the Flex banners do not sustain burning which in turn eliminates the possibility of dioxin generation. Even during the production, the processing temperature of PVC does not exceed 200°C which is much below the threshold temperature.
Flex banners are non-recyclable: Similar to most of the products made from PVC, the Flex banners are also reusable and recyclable which enables them to be used in multiple product life cycles without the degradation of the component materials.
Rising Concerns of Manufacturers
The report has opened a wide window of sustainability for flex. It came as a breather for the manufacturers of this dubious media, which at one time was seemingly at the threshold of dying following legal punches under the strict surveillance of National Green Tribunal (NGT). The manufacturers of flex across the country are very confident of staying in the market as the report not only favours, but also has brought forth valid references from international markets in terms of its longevity, durability and recyclability. The end point is that the material is not that harmful to the environment as indicated by the authorities imposing the ban.
According to Purnendu Kashyap, Vice President (Sales & Marketing), Pioneer Polyleathers Ltd., the contention here was to ban short-life PVC or PVC with one-time use, which doesn’t encompass flex. “We, therefore, decided to bring the truth to the fore. And the recent report from IIT is nothing but instilling the belief that flex is not as harmful as indicated by the authorities. Also, since IIT is one of the premium institutes of India, Government can’t just keep the report aside. We hope that Ministry of Environment, after studying the report, would issue new guidelines in this regard.”
Same sentiments were shared by other flex manufacturers in the league. “Going with the report, we are quite hopeful of good fortune for us in time to come,” says Aniruddh Singhal, Director, SuperSign Industries. Singhal feels that the potential this media has can’t be found in any other substrates. “We are the newest member in the country’s flex manufacturing fraternity and are hopeful of it being a fruitful venture for us. The report has cleared doubts on many points of contradictions like it being non-recyclable and the durability.”
Taking forward the concern, Prayag Patel, Managing Director, Sunlex Fabrics Pvt. Ltd. says, “When the IIT report has already proved that the flex is not as harmful to the environment as stated by the authorities, the ban is not justified. There are many other products which need more attention than flex.” He very strongly suggests that the ban will not continue. “Even in developed countries, almost 70% of outdoor advertising is in flex. How can a country like India, which is still at a developing stage, ban its use?” Patel, however, adds that there will always be some space for fabric.
The Government of India had imposed the Anti Dumping Duty on the import of the Flex banners in 2010 so as to protect as well as promote the local production. This initiative enabled India to emerge as a major manufacturing hub for the domestic consumption and exports. In the Report “Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability” published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2018, the Flex banners have not been identified as single-use plastic materials. Despite the abundant corporate campaigns insisting on warranties between 1 to 5 years for the usage of the Flex banners, their average lifespan in India is around one year.
Due to the numerous benefits offered by the flex banners, they serve as the compelling medium for outdoor communication. There are no other commercially viable alternatives with similar technological functionality. In this study, metallic boards and fabric/cloth banners have been utilised for comparison with the flex banners.
The Indian Flex Industry
According to a recent report published by research firm Mordor Intelligence, the Indian flex banner market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.18% over the forecast period of five years starting 2018 up to 2023. The major players are Pioneer Polyleathers, SuperSign Industries, SunLex Fabrics, Canadian Speciality Vinyls (CSV), Cleena Industries, Navratan Specialty Chemicals (MegaSign), Shree Ram Fibre (SRF), Apollo Poly Vinyl, Qrex Flex, and AllFlex.
According to the industry stakeholders, owing to the long-term image of flex being a significant mass advertising tool, they had continuously been witnessing a decent growth of double digit in past years, as big and colourful posters can create a more startling impact. Moreover, lower investment costs required to deploy these types of banners, coupled with a longer lifespan, are capable of driving the growth of the market. New printing technologies and PVC painting techniques have enabled high definition and attractive banners at lower costs. No wonder, many of the businesses and companies, especially the telecom ones opt for these solutions to reach to the masses.
When it comes to the size the country’s signage industry, an estimate shows the value crosses 50k crore mark. Of this, the print value accounts for a little less than 10%. When being inclusive of the costs of creative, fabrication, rentals and agency commissions, but excluding digital electronic display screens, the value goes up in the region of 18% to 20% of the total value of the signage industry i.e. somewhere in the middle of Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 10,000 crore. In fact, the industry has scaled up to a level where the existing 12 Indian manufacturers of flex materials for signage are not only busy exploring the hidden potential but are also showing the way to many other aspiring entrants.
It was the projected growth rate of the industry that attracted many new players to invest in setting up their manufacturing plants and reap the benefits along with other existing giants. SuperSign is the youngest among the stakeholders of the country’s flex manufacturing industry. Further, the potential can be gauged by the fact that three new plants – two in Gujarat and one in Rajasthan – are expected to be operational later this year. When put together, the industry’s manufacturing capability touches an approximate figure of 15,000 tonnes per month, which is not only sufficient to feed the domestic market but also to cater to the requirements of various overseas destinations.
The Flex Market Now
Over our discussion with flex manufacturers, we realised that their views about the flex market in India stand at the same inflexion point, at which they were a year back. The reactions vary from static to dynamic to fast growing with some newer applications attributed to it. Static is attributed to a state of the industry where domestic supply has taken over the domestic demand, and no further escalation is expected in near future. Eventually, most of the manufacturers started trading across the border and are feeding the overseas markets in the neighbouring countries while expanding their bases further. Output quality is not a bar as the machines, materials and technologies in the current Indian flex industry are all imported, predominantly from China, Korea or Taiwan.
While Pioneer Polyleather being the country’s leading flex manufacturer with 3000 tonnes a month is exporting to 25 countries. “Today, we are self-sufficient in flex manufacturing and are capable of feeding the markets of USA and Europe besides catering to the needs of Middle East and African countries,” says Kashyap. The company that claims to be the world’s largest integrated flex banner manufacturer boasts of its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, which is spread across 60,000 sqm. and houses 6 Calenders (4 roll & 5 roll) of which 4 are 4 mtr. wide and one is 5.6 mtr wide, 11 laminators (8 are hot), 13 Karl Mayer/Liba warp knitting machines, and 4 foam-board machines.
Navratan Speciality Chemicals better known for its brand MegaSign perceives a pretty good market for flex and believes that there is no reason for negativity. Lalit Patel, the company’s Vice President is of the opinion that the industry is going at a good pace and will further improve in time to come. “No doubt the adverse impact following the restrictions from NGT was there, but the recent report from IIT has given us a formidable base to stay here. Also, flex is finding new applications like wall panelling in events and trade shows, thereby bringing new avenues, though not up to the expectations,” he shares adding that the industry is expected to revive in near future. The company that has recently doubled the capacity to reach 2600 tones per month has seemingly been busy meeting its orders.
Vinay Verma, CSV’s Vice President expresses almost the same concern when he says that the industry is currently passing through static phase. “It is not bad at all, but there is definitely an impact of overall economic slowdown wherein brands have put their promotional activities on hold and are competing internally over price. For instance, the telecom industry, especially the service providers which till last year were seemingly in a state of war with each other when it comes to promoting through hoardings and banners.” Together, all this has put the company’s capacity expansion plans on hold. “We hope, it would take six months to a year to bounce back as hoardings and banners can’t be discarded for long. It’s the best and the most cost-effective medium to reach out to the masses.”
According to Avnish Gautam, Vice President – Marketing, Cleena Industries, “The industry is facing a visible setback for which ban is not the only reason. Even if the ban is there, it is more of a regional phenomenon and therefore doesn’t impact the business in other parts of the country. Basically, all the flex manufacturers are highly dependent on advertising agencies and big business houses like telecom industry, real estate, FMCG, etc., which have put their promotional activities on hold for some time. Unless they re-start the brand promotion, we are not going to be benefitted.”
Gautam opines that for now, the market has lost its pace. In fact, the whole economy is at a standstill since last few months. Even in the communication industry, the service providers, which were the main growth drivers for us, have started competing among themselves and are cutting their expenses to a great extent. For now, there is slowdown everywhere, which in turn has restricted the brands from spending on promotional activities. As and when the brands start moving ahead, the market for us will be opened up automatically,” he explains adding that the competition is also with print and electronic media because they have started fearing flex.
“For now, most of the manufacturers are awaiting the green signal from NGT, their expansion plans have been put on hold. Industry will be getting bigger and production will overtake the demand. Election is all about low grade materials. With one warehouse each in north and central India, we are present through our network of 120 dealers. Besides, we have sales team divided into seven zones to take care of the marketing. Since our plant is new, the quality and the accuracy of the material is guaranteed,” says Singhal.
According to him, SuperSign Industries started its operations in the year 2015 at Roorkee in Uttarakhand with a monthly capacity to produce 1200 tonnes of flex banners. Spread over 10 acres, the company offers flex banners – front-lit, backlit, black back, grey back, from 180 GSM to 710 GSM with widths varying from 1 mtr to 3.2 mtr in different colour tones.
Fabric over Flex
While fabric has definitely shown a few benefits over flex in some usages, flex has been found to be more durable and cost-effective so far. Moreover, the case of handling and usage is found to be easier, while better print visibility in flex remains its biggest advantage over fabric. Going forward, there seems to be enormous potential in the higher quality market for Flex.
Fabric possesses various constraints like size restrictions, poor printability, durability and weatherability which severely restrict their usage even at higher costs of fabrication. Large LED screens have not been able to replace the flex banners for outdoor advertising purposes owing to the sophisticated installation and exorbitant costs of production and maintenance.
Almost all the flex manufacturers are against the opinion that fabric is the true substitute for flex. “Few solution providers have promoted it in the name of Green, which is not the truth as fabric also needs a coating to be used in signage industry. The coating is done with component of the same PVC family for which flex has been put under the scanner. When compared with flex, fabric lacks on many fronts such as availability, feasibility (cost-effectiveness), compatibility, strength, and durability. Moreover, fabric is not biodegradable. In short, fabric doesn’t have the potential flex is blessed with. Flex is actually the common man media, which small vendors/manufacturers, who can’t afford newspaper or TV, can easily opt for the purpose of promoting their respective brands,” says Kashayp insisting that flex is here to stay.
Patel at SunLex has a different take with a soft corner for soft media, when he says, “Even in developed countries, flex accounts for 70% of outdoor advertising. This is despite the fact that those countries are far more concerned for their environment than we are. On similar note, we can’t expect 100% replacement of flex with fabric in India, but can keep some space for it. We understand that for indoor media, fabric can be O.K.; but for outdoor applications especially for big hoardings, fabric is not appropriate because to develop a wider canvas, seaming is still a tedious and costly affair. Besides, the print quality is also not at par with flex.
Elaborating further, Verma says, “There are valid reasons why fabric can’t fully replace flex. Fabric for signage purposes is too costly when compared with flex. The high price of fabric as media is actually deterrent to its growth keeping in view the extreme level of price-sensitivity in our market. Further, the commonly available width of flex is 10 feet, which fabric is yet to match. Moreover, when it comes to strength, flex again surpasses fabric with visible differences, which has made latter’s usage limited to indoor applications. In short, I can’t see a visible shift over fabric due to its limitations.
Echoing Verma’s views, Gautam says that he sees no danger to flex from fabric as the former is much lower priced. “In textile/fabric, the raw material is very costly that leaves people with no other option but flex – the cheapest option for outdoor advertising. Moreover, the durability of fabric is also at a questionable stage when compared with flex. Keeping all this in view, for a decade or two, there is no damage expected for flex from fabric or any other media. It is also a concern that fabric for signage purposes is not compatible with solvent printing, and using UV technology would make it further costlier.”
Patel at MegaSign is confident of the agility of flex in the world of signage. “Flex is the cheapest media which can’t be replaced with any other currently available media including fabric for signage purposes. Even the ban in those states couldn’t fuel the demand for fabric to the expected extent. It is still at a nascent stage and the availability of fabric as media is not so proficient. Further, it has quite a few limitations when compared with flex. Especially for hoardings and billboards, the seaming in fabric is still very difficult. Besides, unlike flex it is not 100% waterproof.”
Adding further to the points of superiority, Singhal says, “Leave the pricing and availability factors aside, if it comes to biodegradability, all fabrics do not fulfil the criterion. Further, the fabric to be used in signage needs special coating which again is a PVC component. So, considering fabric as environmentally friendly and viable can’t be accepted. Therefore, barring flex on this point doesn’t get justified. This is more like imposing undue restrictions over flex.”
Reuse & Recycling
Flex banners are the most common tool of advertisements in both the urban and rural areas. Having PVC as one of the major components, the non-biodegradable flex is usually perceived as a threat to the environment. Accordingly, adoption of innovative and eco-friendly strategies that encourage the reuse of the flex banners is extremely important in the current scenario. The disposed Flex banners can be used for the protection of buildings and crops from moisture, especially in the areas where there is an absence of direct sunlight. Hence, covers made from the flex banners are prevalent in Assam, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Orissa, etc.
Reputed NGOs like Goonj have been using these banners to cover the leaky roofs of schools, tin roofs of shanties and as sitting mats at the flood relief centres so as to provide protection from the rain and cold weather. Such covers are long lasting, easily cleanable and significantly reduce the impact of the monsoons. Tarpaulin covers made from the flex banners have been extensively utilised during various disaster relief operations in the villages of Uttarakhand, Nepal etc.
Meanwhile, most of the manufacturers have been offering the provision of recycling of the used flex banners. Gautam informs that the packaging of the flex now carries the symbol of recycling, which is a kind of hint to the suppliers as well as the end-users that the material is recyclable and must not be thrown away on the road or dumped in the garbage. “We have initiated the process of recycling as well.”
“We are appealing to the end-users not to throw away flex banners in garbage but to submit the used flex hoardings or banners to us for recycling irrespective of that being from any manufacturer or supplier,” asserts Verma. He adds that it is our responsibility to lessen the burden on environment. “After all what bad we would be doing today to the environment, could possibly be the consequences to face for our children. “By recalling the used banners, we are only performing our duty.”
For this, the industry association is busy devising ways to separate the plastic from flex to make more of a polyester fabric than merely being counted as plastic, the hazardous substance. Industry experts suggest that the used flex banners are generally collected in all the major cities by the local rag pickers and sold to the segregation and reprocessing units. Therefore, they do not reach the masses and cannot be seen in the dump yards.
Further, with the recent technological advancements, it is commercially viable to segregate the components of the flex banners namely, the PVC compound and polyester fabric. This is achieved by a mechanical shredding process after which the shredded mass is separated without heating or reprocessing. These materials are further utilised to manufacture new products with distinct life cycles viz., footwear, geotextiles, canal lining, flooring, PVC sheets for construction and agricultural applications, ropes, pipes, fillers in mattresses/pillows etc. The flex banner scrap can also be utilised for the construction of roads.
“We are also in conversation with the road & transport ministry wherein we have given the option of using the recycled flex materials in the construction of roads by mixing it up with the bituminous. This would in turn increase the life of the roads so constructed. The matter is under the consideration and we are hopeful of soon getting the approval for the same,” informs Patel at MegaSign.
Flex banners clearly belong to the category of B2B products which are printed and installed even by the small and medium business establishments. After their usage, these banners carry an economic value because of their reusability as tarpaulin, roof covers, truck covers, rickshaw covers, food grain covers, bags, sitting mats etc. Flex can also be recycled wherein the constituents are separated by means of a mechanical shredding process.
Going forward, the PVC compound can be utilised for flooring and manufacture of footwear, geotextiles, etc. while the shredded polyester fabric can be used as soft fillers in the mattresses and pillows. The Government of India had recently issued the Guidelines encouraging the use of plastics including PVC for laying roads. The Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) has been conducting research on the usage of the scrap of the Flex banners for bituminous road construction.
Moreover, the Government of India utilises the flex banners to communicate the various social schemes and regulatory announcements to a large audience in urban and rural areas. The commercial advertisements by the private companies help in the extensive marketing of their products/brands/services to the consumers.
There’s no doubt that the regulations regarding the use of plastics has restrained the growth of flex banners. In the meantime, the manufacturers association is doing every bit to get the ban lifted while the growth avenues are waiting at the threshold owing to its cost-effectiveness.