What is sustainable printing?

Sustainable printing is the process of producing commercial printed materials with the least impact on the environment. So if sustainable printing is to be a goal the first thing that needs to be done is to identify how the commercial printing process affects our environment.

For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to the lithographic printing process, since this is the most common commercial system. However, there are numerous other printing processes that will have issues that are different from those I am about to mention.

The commercial lithographic printing industry overall is generally a dirty and wasteful industry – but it does not need to be so. By combining knowledge, commitment, and technology one can make significant inroads into the environmental impact of the process.

The main issue for printers revolves around energy. This is the largest contributor to the carbon intensity of the printing industry as established in the Trucost Report. There are a number of ways to reduce energy within the lithographic printing process.

  1. Be efficient: less waste and better efficiency means less energy.
  2. Have an energy policy: this will include a switch-off policy and a commitment to analysing where energy is used and wasted. One can also communicate the energy usage of a process to your prospective customers within a quote.
  3. Invest in energy saving and process saving technologies: this may include pdf workflows, CTP, ink profiling systems
  4. Generate your own energy: at Greenhouse Graphics we generate up to 15% of our electricity through our PV Solar panels.

The second issue for printers is waste and recycling. The lithographics process can be very wasteful with several hundred sheets of paper needing to be run through a printing press before the job is at a quality where it is acceptable. Waste from the process can include paper, ink (including ink containers), developer, fix, contaminated water, industrial alcohol and printing plates.

Reducing these can significantly impact the upon environmental issues and again the correct application of technology and training can help to make serious inroads into the amount of waste produced. Where one has waste this needs to be recycled where possible. This involves using products that can be recycled (ie aluminium plates) and ensuring one finds appropriate waste streams so that the waste does not pass into the general waste with the risk of polluting.

The last issue is to do with the emission of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and the use of hazardous waste in the printing process. VOC’s are a big problem in the printing industry and mostly eminate from the use of IPA (isopropanal alcohol) in the printing process, although they also occur in inks and ink washes.

Although there are replacements for substances there can be resistance amongst printers to use these alternatives because of conerns about the effects they have on quality and effectiveness. This means that printers have to embrace these concerns and involve staff in suitable training and work with suppliers to overcome any resistance. There has to be commitment from the Directors/Owners of the company to invest in processes that reduce/eliminate both VOC’s and hazardous waste from the printing process. Low VOC inks, washes and alternatives to IPA are available as are systems that completely eliminate hazardous waste from the reprographic process.

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