6 Ways You Can Be More Sustainable in Print

June 28, 2022 by Denise Kirby

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Climate change is having a serious impact on the planet and requires not only our immediate focus, but meaningful action to avoid doing irreversible and catastrophic damage to the environment.

Human activity is responsible for almost all of the increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) we have seen in the last 150 years. GHG traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere making the planet warmer. The natural systems for dealing with CO2 – plant photosynthesis and dissolution in the oceans, simply cannot keep up. Planting trees can only do so much. Studies indicate that we cannot grow nearly enough trees to capture the increased amount of CO2 that is necessary to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, where it was agreed that global warming should be limited to well below 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. Reports indicate there is a high probability we could exceed this limit by the end of century if we don’t take urgent and positive action now to reduce our emissions.

When world leaders gathered at the G-20 Summit in Rome and Glasgow for COP26, it was an opportunity for world leaders to come together to make decisions on how to tackle climate change and to negotiate coordinated objectives and actions. Countries agree to bind themselves to self- directed targets with the goal of lowering GHG emissions in their respective countries. This year’s meeting was especially important as it is the first time since Paris 2015 that countries updated their pledges around climate change.

While goals are good, action is what we need for humanity to thrive

The print industry is certainly not the worst offender in the environment, however slowing the ecological impact requires a collective effort. We use increasing amounts of plastic (fossil fuel/waste) and contribute to growing CO2 levels. What steps can the print industry take in order to reduce CO2 emissions without compromising the commercial reality or quality of work?

Materials and Design

An obvious place to start is to look at the materials we use. Our industry uses a lot of plastic, mainly PVC. When people think about plastic, the environmental issue that springs to mind is the impact of waste and its enduring durability.  Largely overlooked is the carbon foot print created by making plastic in the first place.

Plastics are made from oil and gas and the energy needed to produce them is very intensive. Some plastics create more of a burden than others and unfortunately PVC is one of the more carbon intensive plastics to make *. Not all projects require the conformability or long term weatherability of PVC so look for better materials to use.

When looking for alternative products consider the whole lifecycle of the product from cradle to grave to get a true appreciation of the carbon impact. You may end up choosing a product that appears to have a lower carbon footprint but creates more carbon during its service life or when it is disposed of end of life.

For paper, look for environmental certifications such as FSC and PEFC to ensure responsible sourcing.

What materials do you use to package your print?  Plastic packaging and tape may be difficult for your customer to recycle end of life.

Consider design and how materials can be used to minimize waste. Displays can be reused by changing the graphics and reusing the framework. Substrates can be refurbished with a new print rather than complete replacement. Consider which materials you use together and how that may impact disposal or recycling end of life.

Processes

It is not just what we print but how we print it and the electricity we use to run printers and equipment, as well as heating and cooling workshops and print rooms.

It can be as simple as switching off lights and machinery when not needed, improving efficiencies in printing and workflow or consulting with different energy service providers to access more renewable energy sources. Using solar tints on windows is another great energy saving tool to reduce the energy needed to heat and cool workspaces.

And, of course, using a high quality printer profile in your workflow helps you manage color and achieve the desired print outcome with far less trial and error. We recommend always checking the ColorBase Profile Search tool to see if professionally developed ICC profiles exist for the material you are using before starting any new print job.

Transportation

Transport is a large contributor to CO2 emissions. Electric vehicles - while not zero emissions - emit less carbon overall. It is certainly not a perfect solution as the sourcing and disposal of the material used for batteries is carbon intensive, and while they don't directly burn fossil fuel, EVs use electricity which typically come from a power plant that is. However, it still an improvement and the way of the future.

Improving your transport logistics by planning deliveries and installations more efficiently is a quick and easy way to make an immediate change. For some campaigns you can choose products that customers can apply themselves to reduce site visits.

Better managing your inventory and consolidating your material orders will cut down on those urgent courier deliveries for small amounts of stock (as well as saving you money).

End of Life

Recycling has significant value in reducing GHG. While recycling uses energy, it does so in far less quantities than sourcing and manufacturing with raw materials.

Recycling also means less waste in landfills. Some materials, like paper, create methane when they decompose in anaerobic environments (environments without air). Methane is more efficient at trapping heat and therefore far more potent than CO2. Look for materials that can readily be recycled locally and make the effort to recycle them!

Carbon Offsetting

Reduction is always the best option, but when you have done all you can, there are many initiatives you can invest in to offset your carbon emissions.

Mindset

Sustainability is more than just a goal it is a way of being. Before you can commit to something you need to care and you need motivation.

Not everyone believes in climate change, its impact or role that humanity plays. Skeptics may say that the planet has warmed and cooled before, it is just a natural cycle, but it is not just about saving the planet. Changes in temperature have the power to wreak havoc on life on earth. Just ask the dinosaurs.  The effects of a warmer earth may not end up in complete annihilation but even small rises in temperature are severely disruptive to quality of life.

Rising ocean levels displace communities who live on the coast. Increased heavy rainfall or warmer and dryer seasons impact farmers and communities who rely on crops and animals for their wellbeing. The climate window for human life is very narrow. At very high and humid temperatures our bodies can’t effectively cool down. Over the last 40 years, dangerously high heats are increasingly recorded. Extreme heat effects people’s ability to function properly and increases mortality. Jobs that require people to work outside are disrupted.

Global warming is also a social issue. These changes disproportionally impact on people in poorer environments and create even more social inequality. This is all in addition to the direct and far-reaching consequences on species and the ecosystem.

We have an obligation to future generations to do our part.  It does not have to be at the cost of business either, in fact, as consumers increasingly favour doing business with companies who have an environmental conscious, it many even improve it.

Data source:* Life cycle inventory analysis of Co2 emissions manufacturing commodity plastics in Japan  N Naritta, M Sagisaka, A Inaba .Article first published in Image Magazine Dec 2021/Jan 2022

Denise Kirby

Denise Kirby

Denise Kirby has over 29 years of experience as a supplier of self-adhesive films to the sign and print industry. She started Kirbyco 2 years ago with the goal of enabling print and media buyers to have access to eco-friendly films that are less impactful on the environment while still meeting the commercial needs of print. Denise developed ZERO, a portfolio of PVC-Free, recyclable print films to improve sustainability in the industry.

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