What do you mean, ‘sustainable printing’?

What do you mean, ‘sustainable printing’?

Collaboration with your printer is key to meeting sustainability goals.

This is the first in a Park series on sustainable printing, designed to help clients find a sustainable supplier. Return to the Park blog over coming weeks for articles on sustainable materials, sustainable large format, and the creative opportunities of sustainable printing.

Requesting a “sustainable” production from your printer is a bit like requesting a “nicer” haircut from your barber.

No problem. Where would you like us to start?

In the last couple of years, sustainability has become a boardroom buzzword. And like many buzzwords, it belies the extent of its implications.

Most people probably think first of sustainable materials such as recycled paper.  But paper is a complex issue in and of itself – and this only part of the story.

In the printing industry, due to the wide variety of materials and processes involved, and our complex supply chains, many long-established norms have been overhauled as we’ve sought to rein in our environmental impact. The process is still ongoing.

Client-side, ‘sustainable’ is not a fixed term. A production considered sustainable by one business may be unsatisfactory to the next.

For some businesses, emissions are the prime focus. For others, it’s reducing carbon footprint, for others it is reducing landfill through use of recyclable materials or materials that can be recycled. Increasingly, today, the agenda is led by plastic and petroleum products.

For us, this is all in a day’s work.

A good printer should be prepared to discuss and consider a client’s business goals and marketing objectives in order to come up with the perfect formula. Sustainability is just one more dimension to be factored in.

For the best chance of success, bring your CSR goals and budget to the table right at the beginning, and arrive armed with questions to test the limits of your printer’s sustainability credentials.

Environmental certifications: no easy solution

If you’re shopping around for a new supplier, it may be tempting to rely on industry certifications. But while some industry certifications can be used to create a shortlist of suppliers, they won’t give the answers you need.

The most common certification, ISO 14001, is supposed to indicate an environmentally conscious supplier.

The problem with ISO 14001 is that it does not represent any defined standard. Rather, it shows that the business is aware of, monitoring and controlling their environmental impact, in line with legislation, and showing continual improvement.

This is commendable (of course, Park is ISO 14001 certified), but it doesn’t provide any useful checklist against to match up your own specific corporate goals.

“Carbon neutrality” is another possible red herring. The UK government only allows carbon offsets to be purchased outside the EU. So while some printers will promote that their company is certified carbon-neutral, it’s quite possible that these printers are continuing to produce unnecessary amounts of carbon at home.

This seems totally unsatisfactory; Park forwent the certification, and reduced our own carbon footprint instead.

A slightly more useful measure, for clients, was EMAS (the Eco-Management & Audit Scheme).

UK businesses will lose the right to this certification post-Brexit, and this is regrettable. EMAS was widely considered to the gold standard of environmental certification, and Park intends to keep working to these standards.  Under EMAS, businesses were required to publish regular reports on the environmental impact of their operations. Reports were independently assessed, offering an additional degree of rigour.

Nonetheless, even EMAS did not provide the level of detail that many modern CSR policies demand.

Questions to ask: supply chain, processes and materials

Many of our discussions about sustainable printing start with materials – say, a request for a recycled stock.

But printer’s own production processes can impact the environment as much, if not 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 offer managed recycling?

Ask your printer if they recycle, the answer will invariably yes.

For a fuller picture, ask about how they segregate 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 – foils, laminates and large-format productions – presents a trickier challenge. The easiest, cheapest solution for this kind of waste is for it to be burnt as fuel.

Gradually, though, suppliers are emerging which can make use of industrial plastic waste. For instance, we have recently found a supplier who can recycle foam PVC into plastic pipes.

Some popular plastics, regrettably, remain unrecyclable; but as foam PVC accounts for about 40% of all the  material used by our large format department, this is a major step forward.

To really separate the sheep from the goats, ask if your printer can help recycle your own production when it’s no longer needed.

Most businesses find disposal of plastics a real challenge, but if your printer has built relationships with industrial recycling suppliers, through economies of scale, they ought to be able to help provide a cost-effective solution for your print waste as well.

Read our case study on our sustainable large format production for Schroders here.

2. How does your printer minimize waste?

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

This isn’t easy to quantify; usage of water, packaging, printing plates, and the amount of off-cut and make-ready sheets vary greatly between different suppliers.

But there is useful indicator as to whether your printer is taking their environmental responsibilities seriously.

The companies which manufacture printing equipment are now legally required to reduce the environmental impact of their new models. This means that new production equipment uses far fewer chemicals and natural resources than old equipment.

Craig Bretherton of Koenig & Bauer explains some of the recent advancements in technology.

‘Quality refinements have made a big difference – such as inline colour control, which makes adjustments to colour every 10th sheet. This means you can get the colours right much faster than by offline methods, and reduces paper waste by around 60%.

We’ve also switched to LED bulbs in our drying systems, and found ways to recycle waste heat from on drying process to another, cutting about 40% energy usage.

And in place of traditional sheet-fed presses, customers now have the option of reel sheeters, which can use made-to-size paper reels, meaning zero cut-off waste. One client estimates this technology has saved 1.7 million sheets per year, with a traditional sheet-fed press.’

So ask about your printer’s equipment. Has it been installed in the last five years?

If not, it probably predates the latest regulations  – and probably is more harmful to the environment than necessary.

3. Is your printer transparent about inks composition?

The majority of inks these days are vegetable-based, so pose little environmental risk.

UV ink, though, a popular creative choice, is based on unsustainable acrylates and still has no sustainable equivalent. Fortunately, there are a wealth of alternative technologies which can be used to make details pop off the page. Press 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.

Whilst recycled stocks can usually be swapped in without too much difficulty, inks are sensitive to climactic conditions and press room chemistry, which in turn has an impact on permanency, colour depth and drying time.

So if your printer hasn’t yet upgraded their technology, requesting a simple switch to vegetable inks may be easier said than done.

4. Does your printer minimise chemical usage?

Unbeknownst to many clients, some chemicals have proven difficult to replace in the printing process.

Isopropanol alcohol, used to balance ink chemistry, releases harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Alcohol levels below 4% are currently considered acceptable, but traditional processes may see levels as high as 12%.

Press cleaning chemicals such as ink stripper are also high in VOCs.

You printer may not have removed these chemicals entirely – but you can expect them to make efforts to control their usage.

If they can easily answer your questions about chemical levels, that in itself is a promising sign.

5. Who supplies your printer’s energy?

Park’s supplier is Orsted, one of many energy suppliers which now source exclusively renewably-sourced power – usually from wind farms.

This is an easy win for any business, not just your printer.

6. Does your printer minimize transport miles of each production?

The easiest way a printer can keep transport miles down is to internalise processes.

Interesting creative touches, such lamination and most premium binding options, are usually 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 enabling faster turnarounds and stricter quality control.

Weighing up the benefits

Sustainable printing, as with 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 need not necessarily 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. If carbon neutrality is important to your business, Park can certify your production carbon-neutral for as little as £50.

Other services, such as managed recycling, do incur additional upfront expense – but may also enhance your brand.

Brands have been found to be able to command premiums of up to 20% by observing positive CSR practices[i], and with the myriad innovative materials now available, print is a world of creative discovery: the perfect medium through which to channel these values to your target audience.

Brands must ensure, though, that sustainability does not simply become a marketing campaign.

Many brands have come a cropper plugging a trend, only to find themselves caught out by deficiencies elsewhere in their business.

In just one example…

‘Audi spent millions on a feminist Super Bowl spot last year, which proclaimed: “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.” As many people quickly pointed out, Audi has no women on its executive team’[ii].

This underlines further the importance of close collaboration with your printer supplier, with informed and open discussion from the beginning to understand the possibilities, the costs, the benefits, and the limitations where they apply.

After all, this approach underpins every successful business partnership: not just in sustainability, and not just in print.

Interested in sustainable printing?

Park is renowned as the UK’s leading sustainable printer. We’ve either won or been nominated in prestigious industry awards for our green credentials every year for the last eight years.

We’ve also produced some of the industry’s most exciting sustainable productions.

In just one example, 196 recycled coffee cups went into each copy of Unusually Brilliant Brands, a branding portfolio printed by Park for London Agency Watson & Co. Read the case study here.

Want to learn more about sustainable print?

Visit Park’s sustainable printing hub, or get in touch to find out more.


[i] www.hbr.org/2016/10/the-comprehensive-business-case-for-sustainability

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/10/fellow-kids-woke-washing-cynical-alignment-worthy-causes



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