A guide to sustainable printing on a budget

A guide to sustainable printing on a budget

Sustainable choices for a print production will often affect the cost of the finished product. Some features will save money; others will drive up costs significantly.

The range of choices is wide-reaching, and decisions at each stage of the process – from paper choice and page size, to the binding, finishing, and transportation of your print – can impact both the price and sustainability of your project.

For a truly sustainable production, the most important thing is to choose a printer that holds the ISO 14001 certification (and ideally works to EMAS standards), since chemicals, waste and energy are the biggest environmental considerations on printing. This whitepaper explains how to choose a sustainable printer – as well as offering good general tips for a sustainable print production.

The purpose of this article is to outline the key choices for the product that affect sustainability, in order of those which have the greatest impact on your budget. These are:

      1. Paper choice
      2. Controlling paper waste
      3. Protecting the product
      4. Binding
      5. Finishing

It bears considering that some choices are not interchangeable: certain options may depend on the size, design, and goals for your specific production. We provide general cost saving tips for printing in a previous article but, with a special focus on sustainability, this article explains how to make the best choices for your budget, and your environmental goals.

Paper choice

Those new to printing often first think of recycled paper as the primary way to make their production more sustainable. In reality, FSC-certified paper is also considered sustainable – and is far cheaper. Different paper weights can also save on cost and carbon emissions when it comes to shipping.

Recycled vs. virgin fibre paper

Choose FSC-certified virgin fibre materials for a cost-efficient yet sustainable production

Recycled materials generally require less water to produce and tend to have a smaller carbon footprint than virgin fibre materials.

However, they cost at least 30% more than typical FSC-certified papers (and many are more than six times as expensive), so they may not be the right choice for a budget-friendly production.

Cost-savvy publishers often opt for a sustainable virgin-fibre paper. Almost all the printing paper used by Park is either FSC or PEFC- certified, and in the UK as a whole, around 67% of paper available for commercial printing hold these credentials. As long as your printer is using accredited paper, therefore, sticking to virgin fibre materials is a sustainable way to keep costs down.

Consider incorporating recycled materials in a small part of your production

Recycled materials do, however, often have exciting textures and appearances. If this is important to you, but a production made entirely of recycled paper isn’t compatible with your budget, an alternative solution is to use a mixture of recycled and virgin fibre stocks.

extract gf smith recycled paper
For people with a budget for luxury paper, ‘Extract’ by G.F Smith is a very popular recycled material. With its intriguing texture, it’s best known for being made from recycled coffee cups.

This could involve incorporating recycled materials via a small part of your product, such as a cover, an insert, a belly band, or a section of the text pages – perhaps to signify a change in mood or showcase a new topic. This would reduce expenditure on recycled paper whilst also adding interest to your product and varying up the reader journey.

For example, Wild Alchemy Journal added a belly band around its journal jacket which was made from Crush Corn Maize, an innovative paper containing vegetable residue.

recyled paper sustainable magazine

How paper weight affects carbon emissions

Choose high-bulking paper to reduce shipping costs and emissions

Considerations surrounding sustainability must also extend to the transportation and distribution of your final product.

Heavier stocks are often perceived to be of higher quality, but this increased weight can drive up both shipping costs and emissions.

High-bulking paper feels high quality whilst remaining relatively light, as it has the physical properties of a heavier stock but greater air content.

Using a high-bulking paper, you could expect to save up to 10% on delivery, when compared to weightier stocks.

This was the route taken by i-D magazine’s Gucci edition. With its global circulation, i-D’s shipping costs are significant, so high-bulking Arctic Matt 100gsm was chosen as the text stock. Arctic Matt has a thickness and a weighty feel comparable to a conventional 115gsm paper, but at a reduced weight.

i-D and Gucci sustainable magazine

Controlling paper waste

Choose a production size which yields minimal offcut waste

Many publishers choose certain shapes and sizes for their productions to achieve their desired look and feel. A well-known, unusually-shaped example is the oversized More or Less magazine.

Page size can impact on cost and sustainability by affecting the amount of waste generated during production. Printing paper is supplied in large sheets, each of which typically produces 8-16 pages – which need to be cut to size after printing.

Printers (including Park) recycle their offcut waste, so it can be argued that this has little or no environmental impact. But waste unavoidably incurs cost, so for a budget and planet-friendly production, the best route is to choose a production size which leaves minimal offcut waste.

This would allow for a single piece of paper to create more pages, keeping costs lower.

Standard paper sizes have been designed to produce the following page sizes with minimal paper waste…

Standard paper size Page dimension
DL 210 x 99mm
A5 210 x 148mm
B5 240 x 167mm
A4 297 x 210mm
B4 340 x 240mm

…but this square Sworders auction catalogue, at 210 x 210mm, also minimised offcut waste.

Sworders sustainable auction catalogue

You may also choose to order paper cut to size, based on the chosen dimensions of your publication. This would not be possible for small orders, but is cost-effective when printing publications using the equivalent volume of paper to 5,000 copies of a 128-page publication on a text weight of 120gsm – and leaves the full range of recycled materials available. However, this does take more time as bespoke makings are currently taking 2-3 months (as of November 2022).

Protecting the product: lamination and coatings

Laminates and coatings can increase the durability of your print, or alter its aesthetic to fit your creative vision.

If this high level of protection is not necessary, you may choose to save time and money by bypassing laminates and coatings altogether. This is the most sustainable option as it eliminates a step from the process, reducing the amount of energy and quantity of materials needed to reach the final product.

Aqueous coatings: plastic free; maximum sustainability and affordability

Aqueous coatings offer some protection,  but less than laminates, and are often used to enhance the look and feel of a product with a gloss, matt, neutral or soft-touch coating. Applied on press during printing, and drying instantly, they’re a fast, affordable, and eco-friendly option.

They are more environmentally friendly and also more protective than varnishes and seals, which are also used to change the appearance and protect the page, but tend to be hydrocarbon-based and therefore come with a higher carbon footprint. Where possible, therefore, it’s more sustainable to use an aqueous coating.

Plastic-based laminate: for affordable protection

Compared with an aqueous coating, laminates have the extra benefit of being more protective against marking, so they are a common option for those productions which require a higher level of protection.

Conventional, plastic-based laminates are relatively affordable and are widely used. They are ideal for documents which will undergo heavy use, reducing the damage caused by repeat handling (and possibly preventing the print from needing to be replaced).

If the product is recycled, the plastic residue will be burnt for energy – so in theory it’s no obstacle to recycling. But to avoid the use of plastic altogether, many customers now prefer not to use laminates.

Biofilm: for a protective and biodegradable laminate

Biofilms are biodegradable versions of plastic laminates, which provide the same level protection at about double the cost.

Biofilm is a plastic with chemicals added which make the molecules more easily digested by microorganisms. This reduces the time it takes for the plastic to biodegrade from 50+ years to only 3 – but this depends on it being thrown in landfill, and even then, it replies on an optimal temperature to decompose.

This can therefore be considered a limitation to the material’s sustainability,  since most printed products are likely to be recycled. These factors, along with its higher cost, mean that biofilm has not gained widespread popularity.


The sustainability and cost of different types of print binding

Your choice of binding will largely depend on your desired end-product, and whether you are producing a mag, a booklet or a book. Saddle stitching, PUR, and perfect binding are the most popular options, being both affordable and relatively sustainable.

Case binding and sewn bindings are premium options, only used for high-budget projects.

PUR or perfect binding: strong and affordable

Using plastic-based glue applied in small amounts, both PUR and perfect bindings are fast, strong, lightweight, and affordable. The plastics used for both of these binding methods are no obstacle to recycling.

PUR binding uses approximately 70% less glue than perfect binding and sets as a thermosetting plastic which can be easily filtered out during recycling. It is also the stronger of the two, and ideal for documents which will be regularly handled. Being a robust option, it can reduce the likelihood that it be thrown away or need replacement – a particularly important consideration for print designed for long-term use. It will produce a smart, square edge and will tend to close flatter than a saddle stitched product.

Perfect binding is the cheaper option but is considered less sustainable. It is less strong, and it depends on EVA glue, which melts during recycling, so a small amount of it makes its way into the recycled paper where it appears as small flecks. EVA is also hot melted, increasing energy usage during binding.

Saddle-stitching: for a cheap and sustainable booklet

The cheapest binding option of all is a saddle stitch: two wire stitches (very similar to staples) in the centre of the fold.

This is a strong and widely used method but can only be used for booklet-sized productions of up to 64 pages.

No plastics are used in saddle stitching. Since the stitches are made from steel, they’re easily separated from paper pulp during recycling using a magnet, and recycled as new metal products.

If cost were of less concern…

The following bindings are very sustainable, since they rely partly or entirely on biodegradable cotton thread to hold the pages together:

        • thread-sewn binding
        • singer-sewn binding
        • two/three-hole sewing.

Thread-sewn binding is more expensive than PUR and perfect binding, and uses much less glue, as it only need a small amount of glue to affix the cover.

Singer-sewn and two/three-hole binding use no glue, but are very expensive as they are done on old-fashioned hand sewing machines. They tend, therefore, to be used for one-off creative productions with larger budgets.


Case binding (hard back binding) is the most expensive type of binding but is also sustainable. The cover (case) for this binding is made of grey board wrapped with either a printed paper or cloth case. The grey board and paper wrap will be pulped during the recycling process. The cloth cover will be separated from the grey board and, along with other reside, burnt as fuel.


Finishes aren’t an essential part of the printing process, so the most sustainable option is to exclude them altogether. Any option will inevitably emit a small amount of emissions, and many will use a small amount of plastic, as well as adding some cost.

Nonetheless, foiling, UV varnish, or embossing/debossing are all highly visible and tactile, and so they remain popular finishing touches for print productions.

Foils and UV varnishes are plastic-based but they pose no obstacle to recycling. Foiling uses plastic layers so thin that they don’t hinder recycling, and UV varnish can be removed following the pulping process – before being burnt to create sustainable energy.

Embossing and debossing are completely plastic-free options, which are more cost-effective and sustainable than foils or varnishes. They do, however, still rely on heat energy to create metal moulds which are used to press into the page.

The importance of budgeting for sustainable marketing

At time of writing (November 2022), UK brands are facing an uncertain economic outlook. This is absolutely a sensible time to revisit budgets, but based on recent experience, a couple of things are clear.

One is that some consumers are still motivated to spend more with sustainable brands, even in tough economic times. In 2021 – in the midst of covid lockdowns – research by EY showed that ‘43% of global consumers wanted to buy more from organisations that benefit society, even if their products or services cost more.’

Indeed, as ecommerce packaging company Ecoenclose reports in 2022,

‘brands that increased their commitment to sustainable goals during previous recessions weathered downturns better than their counterparts and recovered more quickly and successfully.’

Secondly, it’s been repeatedly proven that slashing marketing budgets during a recession ends up incurring greater long-term costs.

Cutting costs should be an objective for every business, but we hope that this article goes some way toward helping brands continue publishing and marketing within their budget, whilst maintaining their sustainable values.

Read more cost saving tips for print productions in this previous article on the Park blog.

Read more about Park’s sustainable printing services here, or click here to get in touch.





Send Alison a note with your brief or enquiry, and we'll get back to you shortly.

What is 8+22?

Alternatively, click here for more ways to get in touch.