How to Go Beyond Ink
Sustainability has been “trending” for years, but as printing companies invest in ESG efforts, it’s become a standard for many. Whether consumers make eco-conscious purchases or businesses rethink best practices, environmental concern is shaping behavior. For print businesses that want to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable, there are some areas to explore beyond ink and substrate.
“Instead of focusing on the chemistry of the products or the chemistry that you’re using, really review sustainability practices that you’re actually utilizing in production,” says Theresa Vanna, chair of the board of directors, Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP). “Because that has a bigger impact than a few microns of ink on a sheet.”
More Than a Checklist
If a print operation wants to reevaluate and make changes, it needs to understand what sustainability is and is not. Sustainability isn’t just about choosing different ink and checking boxes. “It’s best to look at sustainability as a complete program,” says Gary Jones, vice president of environmental, health, and safety affairs, PRINTING United Alliance. “It’s a journey, philosophy, and framework for a business.”
“Are there good, bad, and ugly with soy-based inks versus water-based inks? Well yes, there is,” Vanna says. “But the bottom line is the finished product has to be decorated in some way.”
While shops can choose better alternatives for consumables, Vanna emphasizes knowing the impact of those products and how to dispose of them. “Analyze your disposal,” she says. “Whether it’s ink cartridges, do you have a takeback program with your supplier? Do you have local recyclers in the area?”
Developing a framework, identifying goals, building a policy, and taking a holistic approach is essential to a successful program, Jones says. “If you have a sustainability policy, you’ve thought that through, and you’re making a statement to stakeholders,” he says. “And your stakeholders are going to be your vendors, your customers, your employees, and your community. Before you start venturing off and doing some individual activities, you need to have a plan; you need to have a vision. You need to have that statement as to what the core values are for your company when it comes to sustainability.”
With core values and policy outlined, companies can begin digging into a very key component: metrics. Printers need to understand their baseline to measure progress, and in turn, metrics provide credibility and transparency.
Tracking Energy Consumption
When deciding what metrics to track, Jones emphasizes energy. It’s a big producer of carbon emissions, with substrate falling shortly behind. Prioritizing energy reduction significantly cuts consumption, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, betters the local and global community, and saves on operating costs, he says.
Unless a print shop already knows its energy consumption, there’s no way to track effectiveness of its program. Understanding where carbon lies in a product and its manufacturing, and looking for ways to reduce those emissions is what decarbonization is all about, he adds. Energy consumption metrics can include:
- Electricity purchased
- Natural gas consumption
- Propane consumption
- Gasoline or diesel consumption for vehicles
- Combustion of ink solvents in an oxidizer
And despite the belief that energy efficiency means high cost and investment, that’s not always the case. While new LED lighting systems and solar panels are costly, the Inflation Reduction Act offers businesses tax credits for investing in these improvements. Companies can also receive additional funding through state programs and local utilities where available. For those on a budget but wanting to be energy conscious, Jones suggests buying room occupancy sensors. “I’ve gone into a lot of printing facilities. You walk in, and there’s lights on and nobody’s in any room,” he says. With sensors, no movement means no light.
Print operations can also investigate and identify what machines, equipment, and computers can be shut down at the end of each day. “Does equipment always have to be on?” Jones poses. Maybe there’s an eco- or energy-saving mode shops can use so they’re not waiting for machines to reboot. Maybe employees can turn off the lights and air conditioning at night. These low-cost changes can add up, but without knowing a baseline of consumption, shops won’t know their impact. Energy is a big umbrella and just one metric to track.
Reducing Solid Waste
Solid waste, and the emissions that come with it, can’t be overlooked either. This includes substrates, shipping materials, packaging, containers, and more.
Jones says some printers take a scientific approach to waste generation — monitoring each workstation and finding ways to reduce waste. Others commit to zero landfill. “Think about that for a second,” Jones says. “If you have a printing operation, and you make a commitment to go zero landfill, that means you’re either finding outlets for all the waste that you’re generating – to be recycled or maybe composted, like food waste out of your lunch area – or preventing it from being generated in the first place.”
If print shops want to rethink waste, Jones says to start at the end of the line. Walk the floor backward and identify what’s going in the dumpster and why. “The answer to that question leads you to the next one, which is typically a ‘why,’ and then it leads you up, up, up the production chain to figure out the source and then figuring out what can be done about it,” Jones says.
Doing this can help businesses find ways to consolidate materials like inks, scraps, and
employee trash. “It’s a challenge, but guess what? It can be done,” Jones says. It comes down to commitment and the framework built to meet goals. If each employee works together to reduce waste, it becomes more manageable.
Minimizing waste can also be money-saving. Jones recalls one medium-sized printer that filled up a 30-cubic-yard dumpster four to five times a year. After committing to reusing and recycling materials and consolidating shipments, the business saved $35,000-$40,000 per year.
Keeping End Product in Mind
According to a study done by NielsenIQ, 78% of U.S. consumers say a sustainable lifestyle is important to them. For printers serving businesses and end-users, sustainable thinking matters more than ever. Printers need to consider the product itself, materials used to make it, and even its life cycle.
From wide-format, industrial, promo, and package printing to apparel decoration, the same questions can be asked about a product:
- What’s it made of?
- What’s going into it?
- What happens to the printed folder, T-shirt, or banner at end of life?
Printing equipment, solvents, inks, and substrates are common talking points in sustainable printing. What kind of paper and coatings are used? How about low-VOC inks? Are fabrics organic, biodegradable, or recyclable? Printers can ask these questions when thinking about their production methods and choosing greener options.
“Conventional UV curing generates a lot of heat and now the LEDs run a lot cooler,” Jones says. “They use less energy, and they’re more efficient.” Companies using this type of equipment probably want to explore LED.
Printers also need to keep recyclability in mind and offer customers support where possible. While many inks and print processes are conducive to recycling, some are not. “You can’t ignore that as part of your sustainability efforts,” Jones says. Shops need to educate themselves via associations and suppliers and be ready to have that dialogue, Vanna says.
While there is recycling and repurposing happening in the industry, including takeback programs, it can be a challenge. Jones says the infrastructure for these programs to be successful isn’t 100% there, but it’s growing with demand.
Resources to Check Out
For shops wanting to know more, a good place to start is The Alliance’s sustainability webpage (printing.org/library/business-excellence/sustainability). Printers can calculate their carbon footprint, discover ESG initiatives, and learn how to enhance their impact.
Jones is available for hire to consult businesses on strategy and compliance. He has a wealth of knowledge and knows the ins and outs of sustainability, allowing him to offer guidance to shops taking the leap.
For accreditation, SGP’s Certification program (sgppartnership.org/why-certify/) helps printers become credible, as the process requires an audit to ensure the operation meets the criteria. If printers meet the criteria, they’re certified and get to use the SGP logo.
While both organizations are ready for printers to ask questions and lean on them, Jones encourages shops to keep their finger on the pulse of the market. When a customer comes with questions, they need to have answers.