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.

Next page: Comparing apples to apples