Printing words and images on paper may seem like one of the more environmentally benign things your company does, but that isn't necessarily the case. As one begins to examine the life-cycle of printed matter-from turning trees into paper, through the various chemical processes involved with printing and publishing, through the ultimate disposal of the document-the environmental impacts begin to take their toll. As paper and printing continues to fluorish throughout business, many companies are taking a new look at their printing operations, whether they print in-house or contract to an outside print shop.
The printing industry doesn't need much encouragement to improve its environmental performance. Federal and state procurement standards, and those of many companies, specify recycled or alternatively bleached paper. Beyond that, printers are under intense pressure and scrutiny from both federal and local regulators. For example, Graphic Arts Monthly reports, "Water regulators are now conducting environmental inquisitions [of printers] for almost every process component."
Printing, like most industrial processes, uses a wide range of potentially hazardous chemicals, requires energy, and generates wastes, the cumulative impact of which can be substantial, affecting air, water, and land. For example, water pollution comes as waste inks and hazardous effluents from press washes and other fluids are discharged into waterways, or are sent as sludge to disposal facilities.
The good news is that several printing industry leaders have managed to reduce or even eliminate such wastes and emissions, sometimes with little or no capital investment, and almost always with improved efficiency and productivity over the mid to long term.
The Costs and Impacts of Printing
The mechanics of most types of printing haven't changed much over the past half century. Lithography and gravure printing-the methods used to print most books, magazines, and catalogs-employ printing plates, which are used to apply ink to paper, sometimes through intermediary rollers.
For most printers, the chemistry behind these processes hasn't changed much, either. Typically, it involves a variety of inks, solvents, acids, resins, lacquers, dyes, driers, extenders, modifiers, varnishes, shellacs, and other solutions. Only a few of these ingredients end up directly on the printed page. The balance are used to produce films, printing plates, gravure cylinders, or proofs, or are used to clean printing plates or presses.
Many of these components contain hazardous materials. For example:
- etch baths for making printing plates may contain hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, and heavy metals;
- solutions used in platemaking film processing may contain silver, lead, chromium, cadmium, toluene, chloroform, and methylene chloride;
- printing inks may contain a variety of toxic metals, such as chromium, lead, and cadmium, along with hydrocarbon solvents, plasticizers, barium-based pigments, and acrylic copolymers;
- cleanup washes may contain ethyl alcohol, benzene, toluene, xylene, methyl ethyl ketone, perchloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride, and kerosene.
That's not all. Chlorine bleaching of paper is increasingly linked to cancer-causing effluents. Waste inks and solvents often must be disposed of as hazardous waste. Bindings, adhesives, foils, and plastic bags commonly used in printing or packaging printed material can render paper unrecyclable at most facilities.
The economic muscle of print buyers is key to influencing the supply chain to adopt more environmentally responsible technologies. Exercising that clout means working closely with printers, paper companies, and distributors. To do that requires a great deal of education-both self-education (about the environmental impacts of their choices and the more environmentally responsible alternatives) and educating vendors and trading partners (about their specific roles and responsibilities in delivering environmentally preferable products and services).
There are indications the market is increasingly ready, willing, and able to respond to customer demands for greener printing practices. Last year, the Great Printer Project, an innovative partnership involving the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the Printing Industries of America, and the Environmental Defense Fund, surveyed the industry and found a wealth of "best practices" among printers.
Many of these practices are made possible by new, cleaner technologies. Among them:
- Digital prepress technologies, such as computer-to-printing-plate systems, eliminate the chemical and solid waste resulting from traditional photographic platemaking processes. At the Drupa printing expo in Germany in May, a slew of new products debuted, including some systems that require no printing plates at all. For example, the E-Print 1000 digital press from Indigo Ltd. of Greenwich, Conn., allows direct digital color printing using a wet toner technology. Some press manufacturers, such as Germany's Heidelberg, now offer technologies enabling printers to operate offset presses directly from images on a PC screen.
- Imagesetting -- once known as "typesetting" -- is getting eco-friendly, too. At the Drupa show, Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, 3M, and others debuted new products. Polaroid's new Dry Tech film, for example, eliminates chemicals used with traditional wet-processing imagesetting systems.
- Less-polluting inks include soy- and other vegetable-based inks, which continue to improve in performance. There is also much being done with traditional inks to reduce, if not eliminate, their emissions of volatile organic compounds. The ink division of Pewaukee, Wisc.-based Quad/Graphics, found a way to use vegetable oil to replace petroleum-derived oil in its Enviro/Tech line of inks. Enviro/Tech text inks reduce VOC emissions by an average of 15%; VOCs of cover inks are 23% lower. The inks also are free of heavy metals, making them safer for recycling.
There are other alternative inks, including radiation-curable inks, ultraviolet inks, and electron beam inks, which generally contain no solvents; and water-based inks, which are growing in use. But all have their trade-offs. Water-based inks, for example, require greater energy use for drying, and can distort paper that comes in contact with the water. UV-cured inks can be difficult to de-ink and recycle.
Getting printers to adopt to new technologies isn't always easy. For starters, printers are highly competitive, often with razor-thin margins, which inhibits capital investments. While many such technologies yield cost savings and productivity improvements, their profits may take too long to materialize to justify the investment. Training is another obstacle: Many of the least-polluting technologies shift printshop workers from running heavy machinery to operating computers and other high-tech gadgetry.
Ironically, environmental regulators can present additional obstacles, particularly at the local level, where stringent laws may not recognize new technologies. A few states are beginning to seek ways to break through these regulatory barriers. For example, in Washington state, a public-private partnership called "Snapshots" has brought together the state's Department of Ecology, the printing and film-processing industries, and local governments to answer the question, "What prevents printers and film processors from meeting state waste-reduction goals and complying with the regulations?"
Beyond that is a lack of good information that makes it difficult for many printers, particularly smaller ones, to keep pace with green innovations. As new products and processes are researched, tested, and eventually marketed, product suppliers have opportunities to educate printers and print buyers about their environmental advantages through literature, sales calls, and product demos.
Unfortunately, the quality of such information "is often inconsistent, inaccurate, incomplete, or obsolete," according to The Great Printers Project. What's needed, for example, is more accurate information on chemical composition of inks, fountain solutions, cleaners, and photoprocessing chemicals, and on the ability of different types of equipment to cut pollution. Among other things, the printers project recommends that suppliers use a model information sheet to disseminate information about a particular product, such as VOC percentages. An eco-labeling scheme might remedy the situation, but no U.S. group, with the possible exception of Green Seal, seems poised to take on the challenge.
None of these obstacles is insumountable, especially as printers catch on to the cost savings linked to some of the new technologies and practices. Quad/Graphics saves more than a half-million dollars a year from reducing ink waste. John Roberts Co., a Minneapolis, Minn. printer of annual reports and catalogs, saved thousands by changing press-wash solutions and practices.
Overcoming other obstacles will require continuing and expanding the dialogue that already has begun within and across the affected industries.
That dialogue will be enhanced by the continued demands of eco-conscious print buyers. Despite the rising environmental interest among printers, most shops we've talked to-from small local shops to some of the largest-report that customer interest remains tepid, with only a handful requesting greener print specifications.
But the printers also say even a modest nudge from a relatively small number of customers could incite them to press on to the next level of eco-performance.
A Green-Printing Checklist
One key to getting a print project off to a good, green start is to ask the right questions of your printer. Following are recommended questions to ask about a printers' facilities and operations in general, as well as about your print project in particular. The questions were adapted from recommendations made last fall by the Great Printers Project.
These questions are designed to guide print customers in a long-term relationship with a printer. While a single print project on recycled paper, for example, may cost the printer more if he or she cannot buy a large quantity of the paper, it may be possible to price the project more competitively if the printer expects that a certain type of paper may be used in future projects.
Not all questions will relate to every printer or print project, and a lack of ideal responses shouldn't necessarily disqualify a printer. Still, they provide a basis for discussion, and for mutual environmental education of printers and print buyers.
Questions for Printers
- What is being done to minimize air emissions, including VOCs, ozone-depleting substances, and air toxics?
Printers can take a number of steps to reduce air emissions, and there are a several environmentally preferable products to choose from. Since not all techniques apply to all printers, judgment should be based on printers' knowledge of their systems and their best efforts to reduce as much pollution as possible.
- What is being done to reduce chemical use or discharges to sewers?
A variety of new technologies can reduce or eliminate water-based discharges. There are also systems to capture and recycle silver and other effluents. Advances in digital publishing and electronic image manipulation also have reduced or eliminated the chemicals needed for some printing and prepress operations.
- What is being done to reduce solid waste?
Again, there are a variety of products and processes that can help. Solid waste can be reduced, for example, by ordering more materials in bulk and in reusable packing containers. Much of the waste from print shops-including printing plates, film, and rags-is also recyclable.
- What is being done to ensure the shop is in compliance with environmental and health and safety regulations?
Not all laws apply to every printer, especially smaller ones. But each shop should be aware of all relevant regulations, and have a management system in place to ensure maximum compliance.
- What is being done to minimize the shop's energy consumption?
The possibilities range from more efficient lighting to devices that capture heat from drying ovens and convert it to other uses.
- Are the cleaning solvents used safe for human health and the environment? A printer should determine the chemical constituents of cleaning solvents used in the plant and evaluate potential substitutes.
- What is being done to cut paper waste?
The answer to this can be viewed as a measure of management commitment to environmental issues. Most printers recycle their waste from the pressroom, but it is better to decrease this waste by minimizing its initial production. Automated press controls and sensors can help, though they may be expensive for small printers. Other measures include better oversight of setup procedures, care in handling paper stocks, and climate control to eliminate spoilage.
Questions About a Print Project
- Can the project be printed on recycled paper containing post-consumer fiber?
The answer will determine not only whether a printer can obtain recycled paper, but also whether he or she has a practical knowledge about the characteristics, applications, and environmental advantages of different types of recycled paper currently available.
- How bright must the paper be?
Printers should consider using unbleached or alternatively bleached paper, though it may not be as white as conventional, chlorine-bleached paper.
- Can the project be printed with low-polluting or recycled inks?
Inks represent a potential source of air pollutants, and new inks are available that emit fewer chemicals. In some cases, soy- or vegetable-based inks may be an environmentally suitable option. Another consideration are inks containing heavy metals: Lead, cadmium, mercury, and other metals are commonly used to produce some colors, but they can cause toxic problems when they enter landfills or incinerators. Printers should be able to indicate the heavy-metal content of inks needed for particular projects, and suggest substitute inks or color when possible.
- What is being done to cut ink waste?
The way a printer manages ink waste indicates its commitment to pollution prevention. Methods of reducing ink waste include improved ordering, press-management techniques, and cleanup procedures. Waste ink also can be recycled or re-blended into new inks.
- What is being done to improve the recyclability of the print project?
Coatings, laminates, inks, foils, adhesives, labels, and paper selection will all affect the recyclability of a printed document. A printer should be able to provide information on the environmental impact of a project's design specifications, and suggest alternatives when possible.