[Bonus] The Big Tyvek Squeeze

Today, we have a bonus episode for you. And it’s all about Tyvek. Yes, that wondrous paper-like, fabric-like material, that is actually neither paper nor fabric, that our industry uses to make race bibs.

Well, that wondrous material is now in a bit of a supply freeze. That’s right - the owners and exclusive manufacturers of Tyvek, DuPont, have informed printers that no more printing-grade Tyvek shall be made available until the end of the year, in an effort to divert production to medical-grade Tyvek, used in PPE and medical supplies, which, not surprisingly, is in high demand lately.

So what is to become of Tyvek race bibs? I sat down with Marathon Printing President and third-generation bib printing specialist, Ryan Zirk, to find out. 

In this episode:

  • Tyvek's special properties making it ideal for race bibs
  • Tyvek's (many) other industrial uses: PPE, packaging, weather barriers
  • Printing on Tyvek bibs: from bulk Tyvek sheets to finished bibs
  • Printing Tyvek at home: can it be done?
  • Recycling Tyvek bibs: where and how you can recycle your Tyvek bibs
  • DuPont's announcement of halting production of printer-grade Tyvek
  • Alternatives to Tyvek for printing bibs, if printer-grade Tyvek inventories are exhausted 

Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 22,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.

Episode transcript

Panos  2:10  
Ryan, welcome to the podcast!

Ryan  2:12  
Thank you for having me.

Panos  2:13  
Well, thank you very much for coming on. It's great to have you on. You are the president of Marathon Printing, is that right? 

Ryan  2:20  
That's correct. Yes. 

Panos  2:21  
For those listeners who don't know you, Marathon printing, why don't you tell us a little bit about the company and what you guys do for races and for race directors?

Ryan  2:31  
Sure. The company was founded in 1989 by my grandfather, specializing in race numbers, running numbers, triathlon, bike events, and that continues to be our specialty to this day.

Panos  2:46  
And from what I understand, you are one of those few remaining companies in the scene who focuses on running numbers which I think there's only maybe, at best, a handful left in the United States - right?

Ryan  3:00  
Yep. There's just a couple of us now. I'd say that there are probably three or four of us left that really focus primarily on the running numbers.

Panos  3:11  
How is business now, coming out of the pandemic? Are things coming back for you guys?

Ryan  3:16  
Things are coming back very well. We've had a very good late summer and fall here. Things are going very well.

Panos  3:23  
Excellent. And now, we have this big shortage of Tyvek that we're gonna be talking about. 

Ryan  3:29  
Yes.

Panos  3:30  
I think by the time this goes out, it will be the first special podcast episode we do regularly on Head Start. We do a topic that's relevant for race directors, we go in quite deep, and we release those episodes every second Monday. But I thought we would have the ability to do this special episode in cases where special stuff comes up. And we were cutting up just the other day and you were mentioning to me - which I found really amazing and fascinating to do an episode on - that Tyvek, which is the cornerstone material for the big printing industry, is going through a bit of a sorted situation here that we're going to get into - right?

Ryan  4:16  
Yeah. So we found out about a month ago now that DuPont who makes Tyvek has really shifted their focus from their print-grade Tyvek to medical-grade Tyvek which - of course, with the pandemic and everything - made sense, but also threw all of us printers that use Tyvek into a little bit of a panic and trying to figure out what to do, how to keep things going, and get what we can.

Panos  4:44  
Okay, that's super interesting. And we'll get into the situation with the Tyvek sorted in more detail later in the episode. I thought because we would be doing this, it might be just a good idea - and I found some fascinating information online - to start with Tyvek itself, which is sort of like the bread and butter of what you printers use, which is also just a fascinating material. So why don't you tell us a little bit about Tyvek itself? 

Ryan  5:10  
Yeah. So Tyvek is a very unique material. I don't know a whole lot about the history of it. But it's basically a very lightweight, tear-proof, and waterproof material. And it almost has kind of like a fabric feel, even though it's plastic. So it's very soft which makes it comfortable to wear when you're running, or just for various things. But beyond printing, actually, it's probably most well-known for its uses in wrapping houses. They use it in a lot of construction and, as I mentioned earlier, for medical uses like full-body suits and various other medical things. So it's actually used for a lot of things other than printing. It's a very unique material and is used in a lot of different applications.

Panos  6:00  
And as you said, it is manufactured by DuPont. So the 

Ryan  6:05  
Correct.

Panos  6:08  
So presumably, you can only get it from DuPont?

Ryan  6:11  
Correct? They have the patent on it. And as far as I'm aware, nobody else makes any--I've never found anything even remotely close to the same kind of properties that Tyvek has.

Panos  6:25  
Yeah. And actually speaking of properties, I did some research online - and people should too, particularly if they're a little bit geeky like I am - on both DuPont and Tyvek. So some facts here that I think are going to be fascinating, first of all - about the material, which you said is quite unique - it has a few other properties-- it's used quite extensively in PPE, in like medical attire and wrapping stuff. It's also used in like those FedEx envelopes that feel a little bit fabric-like. That's Tyvek too. And a big part of it is sort of used for wrapping - like weather protection sheets for the construction industry. Because it has a few properties that make it really unique and helpful, fascinatingly, for both wrapping and for bibs, if you think about it. It is very resistant to tearing. Runners would know that - right? I mean, you can scrunch it up, you can do all kinds of it, but it's very difficult to tear. As you say, it's fibrous - right? So it has that kind of paper-like textile feel to it that you can print on and it feels quite soft. And it's also very easy to sterilize. So it's perfect for medical applications. But an interesting thing which is really a bit mind-boggling which, again, makes it perfect for bibs and for wrapping buildings is that it is 100% waterproof. So water cannot penetrate through it, but water vapor can penetrate through it. So basically, you can sweat through it, but it can't get soaked if you splash water on it, which is really interesting - right?

Ryan  8:07  
Yeah, it's breathable. So it doesn't hold in anything. Like you said, it doesn't trap those vapors and sweat moisture in. So, it's very, very cool in a lot of its properties.

Panos  8:21  
And with regards to Dupont, which is another fascinating subject-- they're the only people who can produce Tyvek. And DuPont - for those who don't know, I was just looking up it's on Wikipedia - produce a ton of very profitable kind of patented materials that we're very familiar with. So they do Nylon, they do Rayon, they do Teflon, which goes on to, like, all the pans and stuff. They do Kevlar for body armor and for a million different applications. They do Corian which is a material that my sink is made of. I can't tell you how much time I spent cleaning that thing. So DuPont made their money out of producing magical materials like Tyvek, finding applications for them, and they've done really, really well for themselves. So, now as it pertains to bibs, when you guys - the bib printers - buy Tyvek, what kind of form does it come in?

Ryan  9:28  
So for us, we buy it in flat sheets, cut sheets. It can be produced, purchased, and printed on in rolls as well. For us, we use sheets. And I believe when Tyvek is produced from the factory, they basically produce it in big rolls. The big roll is sold to a mill that then cuts it down to smaller rolls. And then, they sell it to the printers or construction or whoever it's going to. 

Panos  10:02  
And how large are those sheets when you got them? 

Ryan  10:06  
Yeah, you can get them in a lot of different sizes. A lot of Mills will cut them to whatever size you want. Ours are anywhere from 20x30 to 50x40. We purchased a lot of different sizes. Especially right now, I've been buying whatever is out there and whatever I can find. So we can make just about anything work.

Panos  10:37  
Right. So these 50x40, are we're talking centimeters or inches?

Ryan  10:41  
Inches.

Panos  10:42  
Okay, great. And presumably, it comes white, like, unstained? 

Ryan  10:47  
Correct. Some of the mills are able to do some different things with it. They can put different coatings on it, depending on how you're printing or what you're doing with it. We've even purchased it before with like a silver metallic on it. And so, yeah. There are lots of different ways. It just kind of depends on who's processing it after it arrives at the mill from DuPont. But there are lots of different ways they can process it.

Panos  11:18  
Okay. And just so we know where we're starting from, how much does it cost to buy Tyvek, sort of, in bulk?

Ryan  11:29  
Sure. Again, it varies. There's a lot of variables. I want to say that there's six or seven different kind of grades or models of Tyvek that DuPont make for printing specifically. And the price range is anywhere from $1 per sheet to $2 or $3 per sheet, depending on the exact spec or size and whatnot. Average, for us, is between probably $1.50 per sheet up to about $2.25 per sheet.

Panos  12:01  
Which in the end, in terms of the raw cost of Tyvek for a single bib-- I mean, I know bibs come in all kinds of sizes and stuff. But like for your standard bib, what kind of per-unit cost are we talking about?

Ryan  12:15  
Yeah. Once everything's kind of cut down into bib size, the raw cost can be anywhere from probably 8 cents per bib on the small end, and up to 20 to 30 cents for bibs of bigger sizes. So for us, it's probably the single most expensive piece, when you're talking about all the different costs that go into producing a bib. The Tyvek is by far the most expensive piece to that.

Panos  12:48  
Okay. So after you received the 50x40 sheets or whatever, I'm guessing you will need some pretty big printers for that. Or do you cut that down?

Ryan  12:59  
Yeah, so it gets cut down before we go to the press. Based on the way DuPont produces it and the different-sized rolls they make, it's most cost-effective if we get it in a bigger sheet that we then cut down before it goes to press.

Panos  13:16  
And you guys run your own printers. 

Ryan  13:18  
Yep, everything is produced here in-house in Portland, Oregon. We try to do as much as we can in-house. And it's very, very little do we outsource.

Panos  13:30  
I think that's great. And even if you outsource, I guess, you would outsource to other US companies - right?

Ryan  13:36  
Correct. Usually, it's a local vendor. If there's some special bindary thing or something that we don't have the equipment to do in-house or if we're super slammed and need to just have another place to help us out with something, it'll usually be another company here in the Portland area that we will use to help us out with that.

Panos  13:58  
Okay. That is great to hear because lots of stuff these days gets manufactured overseas. So it's great to hear that the factory, like the DuPont factory where Tyvek comes from, is in the US and then they'll ship to you and everything's kept within the US, which is great - supporting the local economy. Okay. So you get the rolls, or rather, you get the sheets, you cut them down. I'm guessing you use specialized printers for that - right? 

Ryan  14:23  
Yeah, we have a couple of different processes we can use for the printing depending on sizes, and there are some other factors that play into that. But yes, we have several printing presses that are able to run Tyvek. And there are a few different ways you can run it. It's kind of a unique thing to run. There's a lot of printing companies that won't even mess with it just because it's kind of just as unique in the processes. You have to use, to do it, to print on it as it is a unique prop or unique substrate. So it makes us kind of unique - those of us that have kind of mastered the art of running it and running it.

Panos  15:11  
Indeed. And you'll be delighted to hear that every, maybe, couple of months in our Facebook group, the Race Directors Facebook group we have, there's always a question about someone trying to print their own bibs. Some of them trying to print on paper which, I guess, is not the ideal material for bibs. But some people also wondered whether you can print on Tyvek. Is that something you can do on a home printer?

Ryan  15:37  
I have not heard a whole lot of success with that. I've heard some people who - on certain inkjet printers - were able to successfully do it although I believe it's a rather slow process. I know with like your home or office toner printers, they will not run it well. There's too much heat involved. Since Tyvek is kind of a plastic material, it will melt. And toner printers use a lot of heat to adhere the toner to the material. I've not heard of anybody being able to get a bib through kind of a home toner printer. I have heard of people who were able to do it with an inkjet printer but it's not the best quality because the ink doesn't dry fast enough and kind of blurs and runs a little bit. So I've not heard of anybody doing it very successfully.

Panos  16:37  
There's your challenge, listeners, of trying to print a Tyvek bib at home. So one other thing about Tyvek which I think is important to mention in this day and age, particularly, can you recycle it?

Ryan  16:49  
Yes, it is technically recyclable. It kind of depends on the scale and how much you're recycling and kind of local municipalities. I know around here, you can put Tyvek in like just your regular home recycling as long as it's in relatively small amount, because as that scales up and you have more and more of it, it does get a little more difficult to recycle. What we found is most of the companies in our area - that will take it and recycle it - want it to be 100% Tyvek. They don't want any other materials mixed in with it. So it has to all be pre-sorted which makes it a little bit of a challenge for the manufacturing process to keep Tyvek separate from everything else and be able to do that.

Panos  17:42  
But having ink on it should not be a problem?

Ryan  17:45  
No, as long as it's just ink. They don't like timing chips and things like that they put to the bib. Most of the recyclers, basically, will reject it if they find anything like that on the bib.

Panos  18:00  
Okay, yeah. Because I was reading somewhere that Tyvek is classed as HDPE material or something. People are familiar with different numbers of recycling materials and it's actually number two which is sort of in the same category as shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, and stuff like that. So presumably, I guess, you can recycle it. Do you guys offer any kind of service for directors for recycling bibs?

Ryan  18:34  
That's funny. You should ask that. That is something we're working on and trying to figure out. We've been kind of working on that for a couple of months now - figuring out the logistics of how we can do that and make it efficient and economical both for us and the race directors and make sure that it's going to work. But that is something we are in the process of figuring out and trying to find some good partners to work with to, hopefully, be able to do something along those lines.

Panos  19:02  
That'd be amazing. That would be really, really helpful because it's one of those things that are expendable. I mean, I framed some of them for the bigger races as people do. But most of them, you finish a race, you just throw it away, and you don't think twice about it. And I think probably one of the reasons why you don't think twice about it is because - and I haven't looked very closely - they don't come with any signage or anything that tells you that they're recyclable - right? I mean, maybe, if people saw that on the bib, they will be more inclined to recycle it. 

Ryan  19:32  
Yeah, we do sometimes print in the bottom - a lot of us printers will put what we call a credit line basically - to just say who printed the bib. And I have seen before where it's been added to that credit line that it is recyclable. And I know a lot of races are starting to do kind of bib collections at the end of races for runners who don't want to keep their bibs. So I'll have a special bin just for collecting the bibs so that they can be properly recycled. Because like I said, I know that the recycling companies are very particular about keeping Tyvek separate from everything else. So I know a lot of races are starting to do that. I've heard that the Tyvek is actually recycled into composite decking, the synthetic decking that they make houses with. I've heard a lot of Tyvek goes into that. I've heard some other things and that it's basically melted down since it is basically plastic and used for various other things. Just for whatever reason, I've heard a lot of people say it's not recyclable, but that is a myth. It can be recycled. It's not quite as straightforward as some other things.

Panos  20:50  
Okay, that's interesting. So you're saying it's not a cyclical thing? It's not like you recycled Tyvek into Tyvek? So you have to downgrade it into something else?

Ryan  20:59  
Correct. As far as I know, they aren't able to basically recycle it like paper where they can take recycled paper and make it into paper again. As far as I understand, it's not-- I could be wrong on that. But I believe it's basically then used to make other products after it's recycled.

Panos  21:20  
Okay, cool. So now, let's get into the drama with the latest DuPont announcements. So you said something there at the top of the show. Why don't to tell us, again, what's happening with DuPont and why they're sort of limiting supplies to bib printers? 

Ryan  21:37  
Yeah. What we were told or informed of is that they're basically shifting their production away from the Tyvek they produce for printers, and focusing on medical-grade Tyvek. So like, as we mentioned, the PPE and I know it's used for various other sterilized applications. And so, what we were told is, at least through the end of this year, 2021, they will be focusing primarily on the medical-grade. I haven't heard if they're 100% not going to be making any Tyvek for printers or if they're just shifting a significant amount of their production in that direction. But either way, we've been told that at least through the end of the year, it's going to be very, very difficult to find and source Tyvek.

Panos  22:31  
And when was this announced?

Ryan  22:33  
We heard about it probably about a month ago now. We didn't hear it directly from DuPont. This is through the various mills that we work with to purchase our Tyvek. It's what they were informed of from DuPont.

Panos  22:49  
Okay. And what have you guys been doing since you heard of that?

Ryan  22:53  
Well, the first step was basically we started contacting any and every mill that we could find that handles Tyvek and basically try to purchase up as much as we possibly could from anybody and everybody who has it.

Panos  23:09  
Was there enough inventory that you could get your hands on?

Ryan  23:14  
Yeah. We got pretty lucky and found quite a bit of inventory that was already out to the mills. So we were able to buy up a decent amount which will, hopefully, buy us some time. Our next step is we're looking at other materials and options that are out there that we could use in the event that we do run out of Tyvek or are unable to source anymore for a time period. 

Panos  23:44  
But do you think your inventory sort of stands a chance of getting you through until at least the end of the year, as you said, which is probably when things might come back? 

Ryan  23:52  
Yeah, we hope. Hopefully, it'll get us through until the end of the year. We're kind of coming out of the peak running season here in the fall. Generally speaking, things will slow down as we kind of head towards the dead of winter. So we're hoping that what we were able to source will at least get us pretty dang close to getting through the end of the year - if not into early next year.

Panos  24:19  
Cool. And what kinds of alternatives that you guys are looking into?

Ryan  24:23  
Right now, we're looking at a lot of different things. There are lots of different synthetic materials and plastics and other things out there that have similar properties to Tyvek, at least as far as being waterproof, tear-proof or resistant. But the one thing that we always kind of run into is Tyvek is so unique in its feel and it's somewhat breathable - so it lets those vapors through. There are very few other products I've found that have those kinds of similar properties. And also, Tyvek is a very expensive material when compared to papers. But when compared to other synthetics and things out there, it's actually kind of less expensive. So we're trying to balance out between trying to find something that has the same feel, properties, and uniqueness as Tyvek, but isn't very, very expensive when compared to Tyvek, as well. So we're in the process of sourcing, getting a bunch of samples to be able to test and see how they work in our production process, as well as how they will feel for the runner and the end-user.

Panos  25:43  
So these are materials that people have sort of printed on in the past that share in the same kind of applications as Tyvek has, and you've just never used them for bib printing that kind of thing.

Ryan  25:57  
Yeah. I mean, there are materials that are used for like door hangers and signage. There are some signage materials that are a more durable kind of weatherproof thing. But again, when you get into the field and know that somebody is going to be wearing it and running, potentially, a marathon or even an ultra marathon, you don't want something that's got hard plastic edges that are going to be poking and rubbing and things like that. So that's been the tricky part - finding a material that will be durable but yet have some of that softness and not be more of a hard plastic-like material,

Panos  26:36  
Right. I guess other people might get there sooner than you guys, given that you've been stockpiling Tyvek. Maybe the whole industry might need to get there for at least some period of time. Would that mean, I guess, higher prices for bibs for race directors and everyone else?

Ryan  26:58  
Potentially. Our hope is to at least have a few different options, kind of, depending on what people are willing to deal with. There might be some smaller fun runs and things like that that aren't as concerned with how the bib feels when wearing it, so there may be a lower-cost option for that. And then, potentially, as you get into some of the products that have a somewhat softer, more Tyvek-like feel, it is very possible that the price may go up. But we're going to do everything we can to hopefully mitigate that and keep any increases as low as we possibly can.

Panos  27:42  
Well, yeah, it's interesting because the whole industry has been relying on Tyvek for such a long time. I also think that you guys need to test the new materials for printing and stuff. Then, the timers, I guess, may also need to do some testing for the bib tags that they put at the back of the bib. So the whole industry may get through a little bit of a trying time to find something that works, if Tyvek is not available.

Ryan  28:14  
Yeah, it's very possible. I'm by no means an expert in the timing end of things and how all the different RFID technologies work. But, yeah. I have heard that the material can affect those timing tags and the RFID and how all that's read. So it's very possible that some of that could potentially affect other things down the line as well beyond just how we print and produce them.

Panos  28:43  
There's no kind of like the special paper-like thing that can be used for printing?

Ryan  28:49  
There are a few options out there. We've looked at a few kinds of more paper-like options, in terms of the durability side of things. We've actually tested a few more paper-like materials. We've actually used some different paper-like materials most commonly for mountain biking-type events that are tear-proof but not so weatherproof. It'll handle a light mist, but if it's a downpour or something like that, it's gonna start to kind of dissolve and just doesn't quite have the durability of Tyvek and some of the other plastic materials that we use for the bike bibs.

Panos  29:33  
Okay. Well, let's hope we don't have to live through that. Let's hope we don't get that. I guess the next best thing is we ask all race directors to email a petition to Dupont or something to start printing Tyvek again - if it comes to it. So last thing from you, Ryan, if people on the back of this or anyone else want to get in touch with you, how do they do that?

Ryan  29:56  
Yeah. The best way to get in touch with us would be to visit our website, which is marathononline.com. Most of our products are up there. And there are various ways to contact us through that website. There's a contact form and email address. All our information is up on the website. 

Panos  30:15  
So if someone has like, even questions on like, "What's happening with Tyvek?" they can just hit you on the website?

Ryan  30:21  
Absolutely, yeah. Shoot us. Contact us through the website and we'd be happy to share what we know. We're kind of hearing it second and third-hand. So, we'll share what we know and what we're experiencing, and we're happy to help any way we can.

Panos  30:40  
Okay, cool. Well, thank you very much for being my first guest for this special episode. I really appreciate it on such short notice. 

Ryan  30:48  
Not a problem. 

Panos  30:49  
This has been super informative. We will speak again, I'm sure, perhaps on a future episode. 

Ryan  30:55  
Thank you. 

Panos  30:56  
And thanks to everyone listening in. And we will see you guys on the next episode.

Panos  31:07  
I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode, on Tyvek with my guest Marathon Printing President, Ryan Zirk.

And we have a special offer from Ryan and Marathon Printing for 10% off your race bibs order, which you can claim directly from our website by going to racedirectorshq.com/offers. That's 10% off all race bib products, and you can use that offer even if you're an existing Marathan Printing customer.

If you've got any questions or thoughts about any of the stuff discussed in today's podcast, come share them in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.

If you enjoyed the podcast, please don't forget to subscribe or leave a review on your favorite player and, also, check out the podcast back-catalogue for more great content like this.

Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races

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