Sustainable binding: a print designer’s guide

The first questions people ask about sustainable printing often relate to recycled paper. But it’s a rare print production which contains paper and ink alone.  

Bindings serve a functional purpose, with some options being stronger and more long-lasting than others. They can also be used to enhance a production’s aesthetic, or reflect your brand’s personality. For example, the exposed threads in naked binding may lend an raw, indie feel, while the robust and clean PUR binding can evoke a polished professionalism. 

Each binding type also comes with its own environmental impact: conventional perfect and PUR binding options depend on plastic-based glues, while glue-free alternatives function differently, but can be more expensive, and restricted by pagination and production size. 

This article covers the features and uses of each binding type available, and the environmental considerations attached to each. We cover: 

  • Glue-based bindings 
  • Textile-based bindings 
  • And metal-based bindings…

…explaining the implications of each for a sustainable production. 

This article is part of our sustainable print design series: read our previous article on recycled papers here. 

Glue-based bindings 

Widely-used binding options, PUR and perfect binding depend on plastic-based glues. These glues are difficult to replace due to their strength, affordability, and versatility. They are only applied in small amounts, and they pose no obstacle to recycling. 

PUR and perfect bound jobs are not suitable for low pagination productions. If your pagination is under 40pp you should check with your printer whether these bindings would be suitable. 

Perfect binding 

Perfect binding is the slightly cheaper option of these two bindings, and the least sustainable. It is also the least strong – particularly when used with coated papers and low-pagination productions. 

This method depends on EVA glue, which is hot melted, increasing the energy usage required for binding. EVA glue is thermoplastic, meaning that it melts during the recycling process and is less easy to separate from the paper pulp. A small amount will therefore make its way into recycled paper, where it appears as flecks, known as inclusions. 

PUR binding 

PUR binding is regarded as more sustainable than perfect binding, and produces a stronger, more durable fix, ideal for documents intended to undergo heavy use. It’s also equally effective with both coated and uncoated materials. 

PUR-bound products have the sturdy, square-edged spines that are commonplace in independent magazines, or corporate productions such as the one shown below. 

PUR binding
As with many corporate productions, the Rank Group Annual Report is PUR-bound for strength, and a relatively light environmental impact compared to perfect binding.

PUR glue is considered a ‘less-bad’ plastic for a number of reasons. It is thermosetting so, unlike EVA glue, cannot be remelted. This makes it more easily filtered out from paper pulp, allowing it to be safely burnt (along with other recycling waste) to produce carbon-neutral power. 

It is also stronger than EVA, so about 70% less glue is required. It is applied at relatively low temperatures, which reduces energy consumption compared to perfect binding. 

As with perfect binding, PUR binding does depend on a small amount of EVA glue to apply the cover, but the amount used is minimal. 

PUR binding is only marginally more expensive than perfect binding; the trouble is that only larger printers (Park included) offer it in-house. Costs may increase with printers who depend on outworkers for PUR binding. 

Textile-based bindings 

Before plastics were discovered, books were typically bound using textile threads. Textile-based bindings vary in durability, and some use no plastic whatsoever whilst others require a small amount of glue to affix covers or add strength.  

Thread-sewn binding 

The most common textile-based binding, thread-sewing requires only a small amount of plastic-based glue to affix the cover, but, since the pages are sewn together, far less glue is needed. 

 Thread sewing also lays flatter than perfect or PUR binding, allowing you to better showcase double spread images. The Diarmuid Kelley catalogue for Offer Waterman pictured below was bound in-house at Park, using white contrast thread to add another interesting dimension to the design. 

Thread-sewn binding
Pages lay flatter with thread-sewn binding – perfect for fine art spreads like this.

Naked binding 

A more creative alternative to thread-sewing, naked-bound products have no cover, leaving the threads exposed. Therefore, no EVA glue is needed, and only a small amount of PUR glue (the exact amount of which will vary between printers) is added to the spine to support the textile.  

Naked binding is more expensive than conventional thread-sewing, so more commonly found on highly creative, and shorter-run productions. It allows the pages to open completely flat, making it a great choice for fine art productions. Coloured threads can be chosen for a further flourish – as you can see in this image of Metier, printed by Park for photographer Laura Braun.  

Naked-bound print
Colourful threads add a creative flourish to this naked-bound photography book.

Singer-sewn, two-hole, and three-hole binding 

These binding options use no plastic whatsoever; the pages are simply hand-sewn together with a textile thread. They are generally used for lower pagination productions, since thicker spines cannot easily be sewn. 

Singer-sewn binding is shown here in On the Line, a fine art production for photographer Alan McFetridge. In this production, the black cotton thread also makes an understated contrast with the white text pages. 

Singer-sewn print production
A glue-free binding option with black cotton thread to contrast the white text pages.

Singer-sewn binding has the greater number of stitches, so is the stronger of these 3 sewn finishes. It is therefore the most suitable for productions where longevity is required. Two or three-hole sewing both offer similar aesthetics and sustainability benefits, but are less robust. 

Design benefits of these textile binding options include flatter double spreads, and a middle spread which lies completely flat. This, combined with the cotton stitching (which can be in any colour), produces an artisan aesthetic which will suit publishers who wish to differentiate themselves from conventional print productions.  

Cotton, of course, does have an environmental impact, but it’s biodegradable, used in tiny quantities, and like paper, it can be sustainably sourced. Although most printers outwork these binding options, they should be able to find out from their suppliers where their cotton thread comes from. 

Metal bindings 

Metal bindings allow for plastic and glues to be removed entirely. Whilst waste metals pose no environmental risk, they are manufactured at high temperatures. The carbon impact of this heat energy usage will depend on the binding method chosen – since, for example, a wiro-bound production may use significantly more metal per book than a saddle stitched one. 

Saddle stitching and loop stitching 

Saddle stitching is the simplest of the metal-based bindings, with two wire stitches (very similar to staples) applied to the centre of the fold. 

This method isn’t particularly strong, but has the benefit of being fast and affordable. It is typically used on booklet-sized productions of up to 64 pages. 

The stitches themselves are normally a natural steel colour, but are also available in a wide range of decorative colours, making them a fast, affordable, and fun addition. Being made of steel, they’re magnetic, and so easily removed from paper pulp for use in metal recycling.  

 A saddle stitched product will open flat, but may not close completely flat, as seen in the image below of independent climate change magazine It’s Freezing in LA! 

Saddle stitching
This shows the saddle-stitched indie magazine, It’s Freezing in LA! The production doesn’t fold completely flat – which works well with the publisher’s desired indie aesthetic.

Loop stitching is effectively the same as saddle stitching, but the stitches double up as loops for a ring-binder. 

Half-Canadian binding and wiro binding 

Half-Canadian binding is highly robust and lends a distinctive aesthetic to a product. 

The cover wraps around the all-metal binding, giving the appearance of a perfect-bound book when shut. 

Double spreads lay flat, albeit with a gap down the centre of the page. 

Half-Canadian binding
A glue-free, sustainable binding option using metal wire.

Similar to half-Canadian binding, but without the wrap-around cover, wiro binding is another highly durable, plastic-free option, commonly used on diaries and journals.  

Pages also open flat, with a gap in the middle of the double spread. 

Wiro binding
Wiro binding is often used for diaries and journals.

Spiral bindings 

This binding method is generally used for booklets, higher-pagination documents (up to 300 pages) that need to lay flat, and documents referred to often, such as manuals or cookbooks. 

The spiral coils are inserted into holes along the edge of the pages. They are either plastic, or metal coated in plastic, which protects the pages and allows for their frequent usage. 

The spiral can come in any colour, and there are now sustainable options available. For example, Park sourced a recycled plastic spiral for the Spitfire Audio Annual, a bespoke production for a music production company. The black wire complements the natural-coloured, uncoated recycled stock, producing a self-evidently recycled appearance, and a trendy look and feel.  

Sustainable printing
Recycled black wire, a sustainable binding option which Park sourced especially for this production.

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Whether you opt for a bold and creative binding, or an understated one which goes unnoticed by the reader, each comes with its own environmental impact which can be considered and controlled. 

Park offers a range of binding services in-house, including PUR and perfect binding, thread-sewing, and saddle-stitching. Choosing to complete your production within one facility will eliminate any emissions resulting from transporting your print to outworkers.  

Sustainable printing with Park 

Publishers may also choose to engage readers around sustainability, with an imprint in their production which explains all the materials and processes used. 

Although Park’s facility is already carbon-neutral, you can also choose to carbon-offset your materials with a ClimatePartner project – which will also come with a QR code which readers can scan to learn more about your chosen sustainability initiative. You can read in more detail about carbon offsetting for print here. 

Sustainable binding

Read our previous article in this print design series to learn about using recycled paper in your print. 

And download our free book, Sustainable Print Design, for a comprehensive guide to the materials and processes which make up a print production.  

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