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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Printing -- Flexography Topic Hub: Background and Overview

Basic information on flexographic printing, including pollution prevention options and links to additional resources.

Background and Overview


Printing is one of the largest manufacturing industries in the United States - employing over 1.3 million people in over 55,000 establishments in 2011. The industry is dominated by small and medium sided businesses, most employing fewer than 20 employees.

Flexographic presses are capable of producing good quality impressions on many different substrates. Flexography is the least expensive and simplest of the printing processes used for decorating and packaging printing.

The use of flexographic printing presses is on the rise because it is relatively simple operation and is easily adapted to use water-based inks. The widespread use of water-based inks in flexographic printing means a large reduction in VOC emissions compared to the heatset web, offset lithographic, or gravure printing processes.


A major portion of flexographic printing is housed within flexible packaging manufacturing facilities. Flexographic printing is characterized by relief type plates (raised image areas) comprised of flexible material such as rubber or nitrile. Flexographic printing is used for longer print runs, unlike offset printing which may run short runs of just a few thousand impressions (i.e. brochure) or similarly long print runs of up to 1,000,000 impressions.

Typical products printed with flexographic printing processes include: 

  • food packaging
  • medical packaging
  • newspapers
  • business forms
  • envelopes
  • adhesive and non-adhesive backed tapes
  • labels
  • corrugated containers
  • multiwall and paper sacks
  • plastic bags
  • milk and beverage cartons
  • disposable cups
  • film

Did You Know?

  • Approximately 87,800 people are employed at flexible printing facilities in the U.S.
  • The typical flexographic packaging print shop runs 6 jobs daily, nearly 160 monthly, and 1,850 annually.
  • An average flexographic packaging print shop will consume 9700 gallons of ink and 273,750 linear feet of film on every print job.
  • Out of a population of 2500 flexographic printing plants running solvent based inks, 400 of them will need an add-on pollution control device.
  • The annual shipments generated by printers were estimated by PIA at $1.37 billion according to the Printing Industry of America's 2002 Annual Report to Congress.

Printing industry demographics

Number of printing establishments in the United States (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 County Business Patterns)

EPA Region Number of printing establishments Number of employees
1 3,228 77,145
2 5,512 138,092
3 5,082 149,404
4 9,429 188,187
5 9,955 265,795
6 5,331 99,370
7 3,027 71,223
8 2,522 48,718
9 8,432 206,560
10 2,629 89,798

North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Codes associated with flexographic printing operations

NAICS Code Operation/Product
322211 Corrugated & Solid Fiber Box Manufacturing
322212 Folding Paperboard Box Manufacturing
322213 Set-up Paperboard Box Manufacturing
322215 Non-folding Sanitary Food Container Manufacturing
322221 Coated/Laminated Packaging (Paper & Plastic Film)
322226 Surface Coated Paperboard
322232 Envelope Manufacturing
323112 Commercial Flexographic Printing
511110 Newspaper Publishers

Essential Links