Sustainable book printing: a publisher’s guide

Like any type of print, a simple book can be printed with very little environmental impact. Materials and processes can be selected and managed so that carbon emissions and plastic waste are eliminated, or greatly reduced.

The purpose of this article is to help book publishers and designers understand these options so that they can achieve the most sustainably printed book possible.

Books are often made to be kept – and they often command a premium in price over other print formats. Therefore, the most common printing processes and features associated with books can differ from productions which serve a shorter-term purpose, such as magazines or annual reports.

Adding to our growing catalogue of sustainable printing advice, this article discusses those elements specific to the production of sustainable books, focusing on the following considerations:

  • Durability – producing a long-lasting product and protecting it in the most sustainable way possible
  • Aesthetics – being conscientious of the glues, plastics and processes that are required to achieve popular creative effects
  • Controlling the carbon cost of the production.

More creative, or high-quality productions – such as fine art, or coffee table books – often rely on a wider range of processes and materials in the production, and so may require more careful management from the standpoint of sustainability.

Durability

Since most books are designed to be kept, and in some cases regularly handled, durability is one of the most important factors when it comes to designing a book.

A more durable product may be less likely to be thrown away – so one may be happy to incur a higher environmental cost with the initial production, if it saves the need for reprints and replacements.

The main factors that determine the durability of the book are the choice of binding, and how/if the product is protected.

Choice of binding

Case binding

case bound marketing book

For various reasons, books are more likely to be case-bound. Case binding is often chosen for its perceived quality, to command a premium on price, for practical reasons (i.e. the weight of the cover can help to hold pages flat), and to protect the inside pages.

Thread-sewn case binding may be of particular interest to publishers aiming to use minimal glue in their production – since binding glues set as plastics. In a thread-sewn case bound book, the main text pages are sewn together, so less glue is required to affix the cover.

A case bind does use additional raw materials, such as the 2-3mm grey board which is used to create the hard cover. However, this is easily recycled, and so does not have any impact on the recyclability of the product. However, the extra weight will produce more carbon emissions when transporting and delivering the final products (more on this below).

Soft cover binding

Soft-cover bindings require less board content and are lighter. Common soft-cover binding methods include PUR, perfect, saddle-stitched, and thread-sewn binding.

Thread-sewn binding

Thread-sewn binding is a highly sustainable option for a soft cover book. With no glue used for the binding other than a small amount to fix the cover, this option may be desirable for those publishers looking to reduce the use of plastics in their printing.

Whilst more expensive than PUR or perfect binding, it does allow the pages to open relatively flat, making it well suited to coffee table books or productions intended to showcase imagery across double spreads..

One book whose creators found the ideal formula for their product was Make a Mark. They achieved their goal of creativity and sustainability, using FSC-certified materials and thread-sewn binding.

thread sewn sustainable book

PUR and perfect binding

Both PUR and perfect binding methods will produce a soft-cover book. In both these methods, the pages are held together by a small amount of glue which presents no obstacle to recycling.

PUR uses 70% less glue than perfect binding, and is also the stronger option, so is ideal for books designed for regular handling.

Perfect binding – which is slightly cheaper than PUR binding – is considered a slightly less sustainable option, being less robust and more susceptible to damage. It also depends on EVA glue, which melts during recycling, meaning that small amounts can make their way into recycled paper. EVA is also hot melted, which requires additional energy usage during binding.

Saddle stitching

Saddle-stitching is robust, affordable, and suited for productions of up to 64 pages – so rarely used for what would normally be considered a book. The exception would be short children’s books which are often case-bound.

Saddle stitching is, however, the most sustainable binding option. It uses no glue – and the metal fastenings which attach the pages together can be easily removed by a magnet during recycling to create new metal products.

If you’re looking to create a more stylish soft cover book with higher perceived quality, with more than 64 pages, (such as a coffee table book), PUR and perfect binding, or thread sewing are your remaining options – with thread-sewing being the most sustainable.

Protecting the document

Laminates and coatings can be used to alter the physical feel, and will increase the durability of your book.

Bypassing these additions altogether would reduce the environmental impact of the production process, reducing the amount of energy and materials needed to reach the final product. However, if you require the extra protection of a coating, there are a range of options available, some more sustainable than others.

Aqueous coatings are water-based, containing no oil, which makes them an eco-friendly option. These coatings offer a small amount of protection, albeit less than plastic-based laminates, and are often used to enhance the look or feel of a product – available in gloss, matt, neutral, or soft-touch variations.  A coating also helps to affix ink to the page and reduce the risk of rubbing and marking – so would be highly recommended for any outer cover that is not case-bound or laminated.

Laminates are generally plastic-based, made from mineral oil-derived plastics or bioplastics.

They are a common option for productions which need a higher level of protection, such as children’s books. They are generally applied to the cover of the book, to protect the outside from marking.

Biofilm is a biodegradable version of the typical laminate. It provides the same level of protection but is significantly more expensive. However, it does require an optimal temperature in landfill to decompose, and in reality, most paper products these days are recycled rather than sent to landfill.  This, along with the cost, makes it a less viable option for many sustainable publishers.

Varnishes are another type of coating and are derived from mineral oil. They are a cheaper alternative than an aqueous coat but less protective. They can, however, be an affordable way to protect the ink and they can be used for creative effects, to add interest or variety to the pages in your book.

Aesthetics

embossed sustainable book cover

Some publishers will opt for finishes and flourishes to elevate both the appearance, and the perceived quality of their books. Again, any additional processes will inevitably require energy usage  – but it is nevertheless possible to create a unique and aesthetically appealing book with minimal environmental impact.

For example, instead of a plastic-coated paper cover, consider applying a cloth cover, for a distinctive look which is also biodegradable.

Embossing and debossing are ideal for adding tactility to your production without the use of plastic or other materials. Additional energy is required to create the moulds which press into the page, although these moulds can be melted down so that the metal can be reused.

Foils and UV varnishes are oil-derived plastic, so may not fit with all sustainable goals, but the materials present no obstacle to recycling with the rest of the book. Foils are applied with heat, and UV varnish is dried with UV light, both of which will require supplementary energy usage.

Read more on finishes and sustainable design options in our previous article, here.

Paper size and shape

Choosing a unique shape or size can make your book stand out, without the additional processes needed for the above finishes. Sustainable publishers aim to choose a shape which works for their book’s feel, whilst yielding minimal waste.

The page sizes below are standardised to make the best use of commonly available stock paper. Opting for one of these sizes will allow a single piece of paper to create more pages – making them cost-effective and sustainable options.

Park – like most printers – recycles its offcut waste, so venturing outside of these dimensions isn’t necessarily a detriment to sustainability. But waste unavoidably incurs cost, and additional recycling requires additional energy use – so these page sizes are preferred in most cases.

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

Carbon impact of different production processes

When printing books, as opposed to other print formats, a greater number of processes are likely to be required to achieve the desired look, feel and degree of durability – so the carbon impact may be higher.

These are the primary sources of carbon impact in a print production.

  • Weight

Case bound books will inevitably be heavier than a soft-cover book of the same size, due to the heavy board of the covers. But choosing a larger soft-cover book will also drive up the shipping emissions, and therefore the climate impact of your book. Consider the size options above to reach a formula that works for both your content, and environmental goals.

  • Processes that rely on heat

It is not only the materials used for each binding method which can impact its sustainability, but the energy required. Any binding method which uses glue will also require heat to apply the glue.

Similarly, as mentioned above, most creative finishes such as foils and UV varnishes are also applied with heat, a process which requires the use of heat energy.

  • Processes that use petroleum-based products

Most plastics are derived from mineral oils, which can increase the carbon footprint of a product. Therefore, many mineral oil-based products are considered less sustainable. Oil-based products include:

  • Laminates
  • Foils
  • Press sealers
  • Varnishes including UV varnish
  • Silk screening inks
  • …and some creative inks (though standard printing inks these days are all vegetable-based).

While petroleum may be a natural resource, it’s also non-renewable and extracting it from the earth is an intense process for our planet. The process of recycling paper that has petroleum-based ink on it is harsh too, as it involves more energy usage than others to “wash away” the ink.

Biofilm is not made from mineral oils (see above for more on this), and is will therefore have a lesser carbon footprint than other coating options.

  • Printing locally

Although not possible for all productions, printing locally to your company will save on delivery miles, and therefore transport emissions.

This has the added benefit that you can more easily attend the printing facility to press-pass your book in-person.

With Park and Graphius, our parent company, you can print locally in both the UK and mainland Europe – achieving equally high production values for audiences in both locations, but without the carbon cost of overseas shipping.

Carbon neutral printing

carbon neutral printing

All of the above are, of course, limited by your desired end-product. If you decide the right format for your production is – for instance – a heavy, laminated book that needs to be shipped to audiences far and wide, the remaining solution is to consider offsetting the carbon associated with your production.

Park’s facility runs entirely on energy produced by wind and is certified carbon neutral – but you can still offset the carbon impact of the paper used in your production, with ClimatePartner.

ClimatePartner is Park’s carbon-offset provider. They allow the publisher to choose the environmental initiative supported by their carbon offsets, and provide a QR code to be added to your production so that readers can learn more. Even for very long print runs, this cost would unlikely exceed 2% of your entire production cost.

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Transparency surrounding publishers’ environmental impact and climate action commitments is increasingly important to audiences. Whether or not you choose to use a ClimatePartner, Park would recommend adding a sustainability imprint to your inside cover, informing the reader about the sustainability of the production.

Sustainability is a wide-ranging concept, and different aspects of sustainability are important to different publishers – whether your goals are to reduce plastic, reduce carbon emissions, or create something easily recycled. No matter where your eco-interests lie, making sustainable choices can be an opportunity for publishers to showcase both their creativity, and environmental values to customers.

Park is an industry leader in sustainable printing, being Printweek’s 2022 environmental printer of the year, carrying ISO 14001 certification and working to EMAS standards. Contact us for more advice from our printing experts on how to realise your creative and sustainable goals, and showcase your brand’s environmental commitment through print.

Visit our blog for more print and sustainability thought leadership, and learn more about our sustainable book printing service here.

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