Metallised film packaging is not recycled

This post is about reusing metallised film to make interesting printing plates. Metallised film packaging is used to keep food fresher, it is made by coating plastic with a very thin film of aluminium, and it is currently not recycled.

How to spot Metallised film

Crisps, coffee, tea, chocolate bars and pet food are a few of the goods that are packed in metallised film. You will probably find a lot more once you start noticing it. It is usually printed with logos and information on the outside and silver on the inside. The bags are heat sealed so they will have ridged seams at each end. It is also used for Christmas decorations and plastic holographic wrapping paper.

metallised film food packaging
metallised film food packaging
non recyclable logo

Q. If you see this logo on plastic packaging, what do you do with it?

A. Don’t throw it away – transform it into a printing plate!

Watch the “Crisp packet printing plates” video

Watch the video showing the whole process of making recycled packaging printing plates. Alternatively scroll down to see a written description of how to do it below.

Instructions for making recycled packaging printing plates

Once you have eaten enough crisps and drunk plenty of coffee you should have what you need to experiment with metallised foil printing plates. It is (worryingly) easy to amass loads of this packaging if you co-opt friends and family into collecting it for you as well.

Heat creates a reaction

We are going to heat the plastic – gently. You will get different results depending on the exact type of plastic* and the heat source you use. The heat causes it to shrink and wrinkle, or melt away. 
*Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are the main plastics used for metallised foil.

Three heat sources

3 tools for melting plastic
3 tools for melting plastic

1. A domestic iron 

Open out the plastic packaging and lay it on an old towel; cover with a sheet of greaseproof paper. Set the iron on a medium heat. Hold the iron loosely on the paper, don’t press down – give the plastic room to crinkle up in the heat. Keep lifting up the paper to see what is happening – once it starts to shrink it can go quite quickly.

2. A craft heat gun

Lay the plastic on the old towel and point the heat gun at it. Once it starts melting move the gun around. The plastic may scrunch up – you can use the iron to flatten it out ready for printing. A craft heat gun is better, as the heat is more gentle; a paint stripper heat gun is too hot.

PET and PP each melt at different temperatures so some packaging melts better with a heat gun, others are more successful with the iron which is cooler. I suggest you do a test piece first to check which to use.

3. A soldering iron

The hot end of the soldering iron will melt little holes in the plastic. Make tiny holes for delicate lacy effects or bigger holes that will reveal the printing paper underneath. This is strangely satisfying. 
You can also draw lines and melt lines or other shapes in the plastic.

holes made with a soldering iron
holes made with a soldering iron

Different types of wrinkles

In my experiments I discovered two different textures, one long thin wrinkles and one round bubble shapes. I am guessing these different reactions are produced by either PP or PET, Are there any scientists out there who can shed light on this?  
It is difficult to tell which result you will get until you try it so I’d suggest you start with some test pieces.

Convex and concave shapes

coconcave and convex shapes

The plastic will form bubble shapes, bulging away from the heat source.

Create different textures by melting it from one side, then turn it over and heat from the other side.

Control the design of your printing plate

Your first experiments may feel exciting and it is easy to get carried away with creating as many different textures as you can. This process of discovery and play is a great way to start designing a print. However, if you can mentally step back and observe yourself you will find you reach a point when you need a break – a cup of tea is always a good idea at this stage.

That is often a signal that it is time to move into a different mode of working; however much fun you are having playing around with textures, remember textures alone don’t make a very interesting print. What is needed now is more control and some focus from you!

Here are some things you can try to help you manipulate the melting process and create printing plates with a more intentional design.

Fusing layers of plastic

recycled packaging fused together
A printing plate made by fusing recycled packaging together.

The plastic is designed to glue itself together when heated under pressure; you can use this property to fix pieces of film together. The printed sides wont stick to each other but the shiny side will stick to itself as well as to other surfaces when heated and pressed. Melting layers together makes the whole plate thicker and more robust. You can also melt extra pieces of plastic on to alter the shape of the printing plate.

Collage different textures on top of each other

layers of melted plastic fused together

Here I cut a circle from very wrinkly plastic and fixed it to a flatter area.

The little patch is ‘sewn’ on using the soldering iron.

Avoid wrinkles by using aluminium foil tape

aluminium foil tape on the plastic plate

Self adhesive aluminium tape will not react to the heat and remains flat.

Sticking pieces of tape to the plastic will prevent it shrinking, creating flat areas amongst the wrinkles.

flat areas amongst the wrinkles
flat areas amongst the wrinkles

Inking and printing your plastic plate

There is no need to seal these plates, or stick them onto a rigid board – just use them as they are as soon as they look ready.

I inked these examples up as intaglio and then rolled a layer of relief ink on them to emphasise the high points. Have a look at the post ‘inking and printing a Collagraph plate’ to see an explanation of the inking technique.

These are printed on thick paper in an etching press, however you could treat the plates as relief prints and roll ink on then simply press against your paper.

intaglio and relief print from a coffee bag printing plate
print from a metallised foil printing plate

Remember you can print from either side of the plate, so designs with (slightly different) mirror images are possible.

Once it has been printed you can continue melting the plastic to alter the plate. It is easy to cut up and re-arrange it so the design can keep evolving.

Don’t chuck your plates away

the finished coffee bag printing plate
the finished coffee bag printing plate

You’ve already saved the packaging from landfill once; now you can double the benefit by reusing your recycled packaging printing plates as finished artworks in themselves. Coloured ink over reflective silver foil looks lovely, as the foil reflects light back through the film of colour. Once plates have been inked and printed a few times they take on a life of their own. Why not consider mounting and framing them in addition to your prints? 

Let me know how you get on with this technique, I’d be interested to hear if you discover other types of plastic that can be used. If you produce any prints send a picture to me and I’ll add it to the blog…..