What is sustainable printing?

Over the last decade, sustainability has become a boardroom buzzword; and like many buzzwords, it contradicts the extent of its implications. The first thing most people think of is sustainable materials like recycled paper. But paper is a complex issue and only one of the story. In the printing industry, because of the variety of materials and processes involved and the complex supply chains, many conventional norms have been overhauled as the industry sought to curb its environmental impact, and the process is still ongoing.

For clients, ‘sustainable’ is not a static term. A production considered sustainable by one business may be unsatisfactory to the next. A good printer should be ready to discuss and consider a client’s business goals and marketing objectives to come up with the perfect formula. Sustainability is just another element to be factored in.

If you’re searching for a new supplier, it can be tempting to depend on industry certifications. While some can be used to create a shortlist of suppliers, they will not give you all the answers you need. The most common certification, ISO 14001, is supposed to specify an environmentally conscious supplier. The issue with ISO 14001 is that it does not represent any defined standard. Instead, it shows that the business is aware of monitoring and controlling their environmental impact in accordance with legislation, and showing continual improvement.

This is admirable but it does not offer any useful checklist to match up against your own specific corporate goals. Many conversations about sustainable printing start with materials, like a recycled paper request. However, a printer’s own production processes can influence the environment as much, and sometimes more, than the materials used.

Here are the key questions you need to ask to identify how sustainable your printer really is:

1. Does your printer provide managed recycling?

Ask your printer if they recycle, the answer should be yes. For a clearer picture, ask about how they separate different kinds of waste for recycling. Paper recycling is easy. Unprinted (known as “best white”) paper waste can be recycled as paper; inked paper can be de-inked, and turned into plasterboard.

Plastic waste (things like foils, laminates and large-format productions) introduces a trickier challenge. The easiest, cheapest solution for this kind of waste is to burn it for fuel.

Suppliers are emerging that can make use of industrial plastic waste. Some popular plastics, unfortunately, remain non-recyclable.

2. How does your printer minimize waste?

Of course, the best sustainable practice is to minimize usage of materials, as even recycling practices have an environmental impact.

This isn’t easy to quantify; water, packaging, printing plates usage, and the amount of off-cut and make-ready sheets vary greatly between different printers. There is a helpful indicator to determine whether your printer is taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. 

The companies that build printing equipment are now legally required to reduce their new models’ environmental impact. This means that new production equipment uses significantly fewer chemicals and natural resources than old equipment.

Ask your printer about their equipment and if it has been installed within the past five years? If not, it probably precedes the latest regulations and may be more harmful to the environment than necessary.

3. Can your printer tell you details about ink composition?

The majority of inks these days are vegetable-based, so they pose little environmental risk. UV ink is a popular creative choice, but it is based on unsustainable acrylates and still has no sustainable equal. Fortunately, there are an abundance of alternative technologies that can make details jump off the page. Ask your printer to find an equally eye-catching creative option.

If you’re not sure, it’s worth checking if your printer is still dependent on traditional, petroleum-based inks.

While recycled stocks can typically be swapped in without too much difficulty, inks are sensitive to climactic conditions and press room chemistry, which impacts permanency, color depth and drying time.

4. Does your printer minimize chemical usage?

Unbeknownst to many clients,  some chemicals have proven difficult to be substituted in the printing process. Isopropanol alcohol, used to balance ink chemistry, releases harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Alcohol levels below 4 percent are currently considered acceptable, but traditional processes may see levels as high as 12 percent.

Press cleaning chemicals like ink stripper are also high in VOCs. Your printer might not have removed these chemicals entirely – but you can expect them to make efforts to control their usage, and if they can easily answer your questions about chemical levels, that in itself is a promising sign.

5. Does your printer minimize transport miles?

The easiest way a printer can keep transportation miles down is to internalize procedures. Interesting creative touches, like lamination and most premium binding options, are typically outsourced by printers to specialist third-parties. At Park, all these are now done in-house, not only reducing carbon emissions with each production, but also by enabling faster turnarounds and stricter quality control.

Sustainable printing, like many services, sometimes becomes a question of cost. While rules and regulations are improving all the time, unfortunately, there remains ample wriggle room for businesses to save budget by turning a blind eye to environmental concerns – printers and clients alike.

Cost doesn’t have to be an obstacle. Depending on your business’s definition of sustainability, a sustainable production may not be more expensive. FSC-certified virgin fibre comes as standard, making it cost-neutral. Other services, like managed recycling, do incur additional upfront expense – but may also enhance your brand.

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