Carbon neutral printing explained – and myths debunked

The carbon impact of a print production will depend on a range of factors, including the size and weight of the product, and the number of processes and materials involved.

There are various ways in which this can be mitigated by making certain choices throughout the design and printing process.

This article explains these choices, covering:

  • reducing usage of materials & energy
  • choice of materials
  • …and carbon offsetting.

Although you can make efforts to significantly reduce carbon emissions, it is unlikely that a production could ever be carbon neutral without some reliance on carbon offsetting. This is due to factors such as transport emissions which lie outside the brand’s (and the printer’s) control.

Carbon offsetting is readily available in both the printing industry and the wider business world. Although it is controversial in some quarters, it is now widely accepted as an important part of the mix.

Energy & materials reduction: the first step towards carbon neutrality

The starting point for reducing the carbon impact of any printed product is to minimise processes and usage of materials wherever possible.

The two are interrelated. This is because manufacturing of raw materials and transport – from delivery the printer, to the delivery of the end product to the reader – require energy. Therefore, the smaller, lighter product you print, the lower the carbon emissions throughout the supply chain.

Design choices such as page size, choice of stock, and binding, can all help to bring down the weight of your finished product. Selecting the right page size can also help to eliminate paper waste.

print distribution

Print a smaller product

If in keeping with your goals for your production, consider reducing your page count and designing to a smaller page size to reduce its overall weight.

Once your product goes out for delivery, its transportation will most likely involve fossil fuels. Publishers and printers have limited ability to control how their raw materials and end-product are delivered, so the most direct way to mitigate transport emissions is to reduce the weight of the finished product.

Cut to a more efficient page size

Standard page sizes allow more pages to be cut from each sheet of stock paper, and reduce offcut waste.

Park recycles its offcut waste, so venturing outside of standard sizes isn’t a major detriment to sustainability. But additional recycling requires additional energy use, and if more sheets are required to make the product, the weight of materials to be transported from the manufacturer to the printer will increase. So, when planning the dimensions of your product, consider the journey of the materials as well as that of the final product.

Standard page sizes for best efficiency are as below – all of these can be cut with virtually no paper waste:

Standard page sizes from B1 sheets Page dimension
210 square 210 x 210mm
B5 (if saddle stitched or sewn) 244 x 170mm
B5 (if PUR or perfect bound) 240 x 167mm
B4 (if saddle stitched or sewn) 340 X 246mm
B4 (if PUR or perfect bound) 340 x 240mm
Standard page sizes from SRA1 sheets Page dimension
A5 210 x 148mm
A4 297 x 210mm

Print in 16pp sections

Presses typically work on plates that produce 16pp sections. Printing in smaller sections such as 4pp or 8pp would be less efficient as it would increase the number of plates used, make readies, and overs on press, leading to a longer run which uses more energy. Choosing 16pp sections therefore is the most energy-efficient option, also minimising waste.

Paper weight and bulking

A lower-gsm paper will reduce the weight of your product – but heavier stocks are often chosen for their perceived higher quality.

A workaround is to use a high-bulking paper.

High-bulking paper has the physical properties of a heavier stock, but with greater air content, making for a significantly lighter material which doesn’t compromise on feel.

A matt stock such as Magno Volume will for example bulk up 27% more than its silk equivalent Magno Satin.

Binding weight

For many types of print, such as magazines, catalogues, or annual reports, the conventional style would be a soft cover.  But for higher-end book productions, case binding is often preferred, where a heavier 2-3mm grey board is used to create a hard cover.

As mentioned, increased weight will inevitably drive-up transport emissions, whereas it’s eminently possible to have an attractive, high-quality and highly protective soft cover.

This could mean protecting the soft cover with biolaminate, or selecting a premium uncoated cover stock which does not require a laminate, such as Symbol Freelife Vellum, with 5% cotton, from Fedrigoni. Cotton has been used for centuries in archival-quality documents for its luxurious feel and superior strength.

If, however, you are committed to the look and feel of a case binding, carbon offsetting may be your best option to address the additional energy usage.

Read more about the sustainability of different binding options, here.

Transport emissions

Print locally wherever possible to reduce delivery miles, and in turn, transport emissions.

With Park and Graphius, our parent company, you can print locally in both the UK and mainland Europe. Aside from reducing the carbon impact, this also eliminates the cost of overseas shipping.

Processes & creative effects

A range of common printing processes, such as glue-based binding and lamination, often require heat energy in order to achieve adhesion with the paper. And as discussed below, eliminating these processes is usually also a way to eliminate plastics from your production.

With embossing, debossing and die-cutting, heat energy is required to create a metal mould, or die, that’s pressed into the page. A single mould or die will be reused for the entire run – meaning that the longer the run, the lower your energy usage per copy.

In truth, everything you do print incurs an energy cost. The true carbon impact of that will depend on whether the printer’s facility runs on renewable energy – so it could be that the processes described above are more or less carbon neutral.

Selecting low-carbon printing materials

sustainable printing paper

–          Recycled paper vs virgin fibre

There is a degree of complexity regarding whether it is more carbon efficient to print on virgin fibre or recycled paper.

According to the Environmental Paper Network, ‘the recycled paper system uses less total energy than the virgin paper system,’ even with the energy used to collect and transport paper waste. This is because recycled paper used for printing brochures and magazines is made from the unprinted waste and offcuts produced by printers. Less energy is required to produce this, as much of the processing and bleaching has already been done. Reducing the processes and energy required to make the paper means that less greenhouse gas is released.

It can also be argued that recycled paper has carbon storage benefits, as no new trees are felled. Whilst the production of FSC-certified virgin fibre paper locks up carbon, it takes time for young trees to grow and replace those which are felled. Creating new paper from existing paper, meanwhile, leaves more trees standing that can absorb and store CO2 from the atmosphere.

That said, certified forests are planted specifically to supply the paper industry without impacting existing natural forests – so the overall industry for virgin fibre paper does help to lock up atmospheric CO2. Almost all the printing paper used by Park is either FSC or PEFC-certified, meaning it comes from responsibly managed forests.

Virgin fibre and recycled materials may both lend sustainability benefits during paper manufacturing. Virgin fibre manufacturers often partly use energy generated from tree waste, lessening dependence on the grid.

Recycled paper manufacturers may use more energy purchased from the grid, which is typically created from fossil fuels. Energy sources will differ between manufacturers, however. Some may invest in more renewable energy sources; hydroelectricity, for instance, is utilised by some mills in mountainous areas.

In general, recycled materials have a smaller carbon footprint, but for a truly accurate comparison, you would need to ask for the specifics from individual paper manufacturers.

Plastics

Many commonplace glues and plastics used in printing processes are petroleum-based. Though used in tiny quantities in print, usage of such materials unlocks carbon from the earth, and also depends on energy-intensive extraction processes.

It would be nearly impossible to eliminate plastics from some commonplace printing formats. In particular, independent magazines and annual reports are nearly always PUR-bound, as the strongest and fastest way to bind documents in the range of couple of hundred pages. In a case-bound product, meanwhile, a tiny amount of glue is used to affix the cover material to the grey board.

At higher budgets, you could consider thread-sewing – where glue is only required to hold on the cover – or saddle stitching, for products under 64 pages.

It is easier, however, to eliminate finishes and creative effects which rely on plastic. These products include:

  • Laminates
  • Foils
  • Press sealers
  • Varnishes including UV varnish
  • Silk screening inks
  • And some creative inks (standard metallic inks contain mineral oils, but mineral oil-free alternatives are also available).

When it comes to protecting the document: use an aqueous coating instead of a laminate, where possible. Aqueous coatings are water-based, instead of oil-based, and can also be applied to the cover or text pages. They provide some protection and can add a visual or tactile effect.

Many productions on uncoated paper, however, feature no coatings at all. Using an uncoated cover without a laminate is the most sustainable option since it reduces the processes, energy, and materials needed for the production.

As to plastic-based finishes and creative effects: consider paper-only options, such as blind embossing, plastic-free overlays, throw-out pages, or mixing stocks. Though not direct replacements, these can be equally effective ways to elevate and differentiate a printed product.

Sustainable Print Design outlines these paper-only design choices in more detail, and you can download the book here.

Recycled plastics

Recycled plastic options are not common or widely available in printing but recycled plastic materials do exist. For example, for Spitfire’s publication, we sourced an unusual black spiral binding made from recycled materials.

Carbon offsetting for print explained

carbon neutral printing

Carbon offsetting involves compensating for any emissions released as a result of your production, by supporting external schemes which reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, such as forestry, or renewable energy projects.

Offsetting has recently become recognised as an essential part of the mix, since it addresses things such as delivery miles, which publishers and manufacturers cannot otherwise control.

However, there are controversies surrounding the use of carbon offsetting by companies as a way to avoid reducing their overall emissions.

There is also a time delay on the carbon offsetting process – so carbon impact reduction should certainly always be prioritised before carbon offsets are considered.

The Guardian has recently investigated this in a series of articles, interviewing Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and chief scientist at Conservation International. Rockström highlights the value of carbon offsetting when used responsibly. He asserts that companies should be encouraged to buy carbon offsets as an additional effort beyond their own carbon emission reductions, rather than as a substitute for this. He describes carbon offsetting as ‘necessary’ and highlights its potential for ‘generating much-needed investments, for example in nature climate solutions.’

With the recent controversies around this topic, transparency surrounding your sustainability efforts is more important than ever, and brands need to make sure to communicate their environmental efforts and offset credentials to consumers.

So, for a sustainable end product, reduce carbon impact in production and distribution, offset the remaining footprint, and communicate these efforts to your customers.

Choose a carbon-neutral printer

sustainable printer

For over 20 years, Park has been advising publishers and brands on how to meet their environmental goals at every stage of the production process.

Although it may be theoretically possible to be carbon neutral without the need for carbon offsetting, the complex supply chain and processes involved in printing mean that this would not be the case for most productions, and there will always be some emissions to offset.

Park’s facility runs on renewable energy produced by wind, so it already uses relatively little carbon. Any remaining carbon is offset by Climate Partner, making us a certified carbon neutral company. Our chosen offset project supports wind energy production in South America, which you can read more about, here.

The materials for your production can also be offset on request by an environmental initiative of your choice, thanks to our partnership with ClimatePartner.

Read more about Park’s sustainability, and sustainable print thought leadership, here. Download or buy our new book, Sustainable Print Design, here.

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