When it comes to printing, it ain't easy buying green

P2 Pathways

When it comes to printing, it ain't easy buying green

It seemed like a simple idea. Print our College of Business Administration publications on environmentally preferable paper. Sustainability is one of the dean’s initiatives, so let’s put our money where our mouth is.

We print an annual report, some periodic updates, some awards publications, and a few other items. We print fewer than 10,000 copies of any item. True, these publications are going to our alumni – our funders – and we want them to be impressed. Also true that we’re a business college, not Patagonia, so expectations are different. Still, in the spirit of “walking the talk,” you’d think we’d be able to make the leap to more environmentally-friendly paper.

The green team needed to do some research before we proposed changes. What constitutes more environmentally-friendly paper? How does it affect the quality? How much more expensive is it? We corresponded with four printers and sent them hard-copies of publications we currently produce, along with the quantities that are printed. We asked them to provide us information about their environmental impact and to provide samples of publications they have done that are more environmentally friendly. We told them we are interested in 100 percent post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper.

When we met with the printers, three out of four seemed to have not heard our request. They did not offer any sample of a product printed on 100 percent PCW recycled paper. In fact, they all were willing to sell us coated papers with about 30 percent PCW, but were quick to point out that we’ll pay a lot more for that paper.

Perhaps it was because our current publications are printed on coated papers. Perhaps it’s because their customers are primarily price-driven. We struggled to convince them that we really did want 100 percent PCW paper. At least, we wanted to see what the trade-offs would be.

The fourth printer, A to Z Printing, has a reputation as an environmentally-friendly printer. It is a small printer and it’s been environmentally friendly since beginning business as an early supplier of recycled paper. This printer taught us a lot. Sue Quambusch, the owner, explained that a clay coating is used on paper to improve its printing characteristics, but 100 percent PCW papers are not coated. Uncoated papers absorb more ink and as a result, the color slightly changes. This printer was able to publish a recent report we had produced on traditional, non-recycled, coated paper by reprinting it on 100 percent PCW recycled, uncoated paper. We were thus able to compare the two publications side-by-side. We noticed that in general, pictures were a little darker on the uncoated paper and dark pictures were not as crisp. Looking at the uncoated, 100 percent PCW publication on its own, however, it looked great.

After convincing the other printers that we really did want to know what it would cost to use 100 percent PCW paper, but we would also consider using the 30 percent PCW coated paper, we were able to get some quotes for comparison. We compared the original price to the that of the same job on 30 percent and 100 percent PCW. We found the cost to be a bit more than 30 percent higher for the 100 percent PCW and the price for the 30 percent PCW was slightly less than 30 percent higher. It was hard to compare, though, because even after meeting with the printers and explaining what we were trying to do, two of them quoted paper that was only 50 percent or 60 percent PCW as their most environmentally-friendly option.

We used the Environmental Defense Fund’s paper calculator to estimate the environmental savings from switching from traditional paper to 100 percent PCW uncoated paper and found we’d reduce energy consumption by 29 percent and CO2 equivalents by 49 percent. Note that most of the “environmentally friendly” papers are produced at the paper mills using renewable energy or carbon offsets, though, so it’s difficult to know how much of the environmental impacts from the calculator are associated with which part of the paper-making process, but certainly using PCW paper helps keep up the market for recycling paper.

Our dean reviewed the quotes listing quantities, prices, and percentage PCW and quickly saw that if we printed fewer copies on 100 percent PCW paper we would stay within budget. We discussed quality and felt that if we could have high-quality photographs, instead of the kind from the point-and-shoot camera, it would improve quality, too. This just means we have to plan in advance to have the university photographer present. We will also design the pages with less black, in some cases, in order to help the images look crisper.

The bottom line is that we want to “walk the walk” and to lead our alumni and other stakeholders by showing them what is possible. The 100 percent PCW paper has a different look and feel, and will help us tell the story of why we chose it.

We started with an idea that we could make a simple change, but like so many times when implementing pollution prevention practices, we found that we changed the process. We reevaluated the number of copies of publications we need, found that just a bit more planning will be necessary, and we will slightly alter the design of the publications. We found value in examining our publications and we hope that this planning process will also help the publications to be a higher-value product – not only in reduced environmental impact but in improved content as well, as we re-evaluate the intended audience.

And, of course, we’re planning for the day when most of these publications are distributed electronically.

Image of Globe in a maze by Fibonacci via Shutterstock.