Making sense of sustainable printing
Printing choices that are sensitive to the environment are also good for business.
Specialty Fabrics Review | October 2010
By Michael Labella
With the global economy almost five times the size it was half a century ago, sustainable growth has now become the paradigm of the 21st century: a responsibility that our society has for itself and the environment in order to guarantee the well-being of future generations. Sustainability is a wide-ranging term; its meaning is subject to interpretation and its effects are hard to measure. The United Nations’ 1987 Brundtland Report (also known as Our Common Future) defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The satisfaction of our customers’ needs is essential to the survival of our businesses, so any sustainable program requires that those needs and expectations are met—if not exceeded—for our businesses to thrive and sustainable programs to be relevant.
Partnering with customers
Customers need to be your number one partner for implementing an effective sustainable printing program. Without their participation and support, sustainability and profitability will have a hard time coexisting. Educate customers about your efforts and work closely with them, starting as early as the planning process. As active participants they will have a sense of ownership and pride in the products they are purchasing and will contribute to the process by adapting to new procedures, such as selecting from a reduced range of media or adjusting their layouts to fit within certain parameters to reduce waste. Working together to achieve sustainable practices is not complicated; it just requires thoughtful planning.
Size the rolls. Fabric rolls typically come in several standard sizes. Encourage designers to size their projects to make more efficient use of different roll sizes, thereby using less material and minimizing waste.
Computerize. If the fabric will be cut once it is printed, consider using a computerized cutting system or consult with the finishers to see if the space between patterns can be reduced to improve image nesting and reduce waste. If your customer selects the finisher, speak to them about finding a supplier that will work with you. Remember that less wasted material typically also results in a lower cost to you, making your company more competitive.
Keep it simple. Complex cutting specifications and designs can use more fabric, resulting in more waste; in general, less complexity equals less waste, so simplifying a structural design pattern can help. Sometimes reducing complexity might be as simple as adjusting the size of a pocket. Consult with your customer and the designer to see if there are ways to achieve the same result with less complicated or irregular design patterns.
Think digital. Digital printers are becoming faster, making them a viable option for more than just sampling. Apart from the obvious advantages of being able to change designs and colors “on the fly,” printing on demand eliminates waste associated with unsold inventories typical of large production runs.
Applying ink only to the areas of the fabric that will be used and not to the areas that will be discarded as waste will greatly reduce ink consumption. This can result in economic savings as well as a reduced impact on the environment because many inks are harmful. With digital printing there is also less waste generated in making screens, cylinders or plates.
Combine jobs. Combining multiple jobs in a single run can reduce the amount of fabric used. By working with customers early in the conceptual stage and, when possible, encouraging them to choose from a limited selection of fabric, it will allow combining similar print jobs in the same print run.
Many modern RIP software packages include smart nesting features that optimize media usage. Loading and unloading your equipment less often will reduce the amount of media typically wasted during this process.
The printing of textiles requires the use of natural resources. How much and how efficiently those resources are used depends on the type of fibers used and the printing technique necessary to print them. By steering customers toward selecting textiles that can be printed with processes that use less water and power or emit less volatile organic compounds (VOCs), you can still satisfy your customers’ needs while reducing their impact on the environment.
When making capital investments in new equipment take into consideration their use of resources such as water and power, and choose the model that uses those resources most judiciously. An oil-filled calender on a rotary press, for example, will use one third the power of an equivalent electric one.
Thinking about ink
From a sustainability standpoint, there are several factors to consider when researching ink options. They include the effect of the printing process on the environment and the recyclability of the finished printed piece. The effects of VOCs on the water supply and the atmosphere—and by extension every living being on earth—are potentially devastating, and solvent inks emit large amounts of VOCs.
The use of nonrenewable resources in the production of many colorants, as well as the use of heavy metals used in pigments, are important subjects to address. Printers might not have a choice when it comes to the technique they need to use to print a certain type of material; however, it is advisable to speak to different ink suppliers about their manufacturing process, and the type of colorants and chemicals they use in their formulations.
While regulations, if any, change from country to country (and the U.S. is certainly not a leader in this field), the Ecological and Toxicological Association of Dyes and Organic Pigments Manufacturers (ETAD) website is a good place to find manufacturers that have voluntarily committed to a code of ethics that requires meeting safe standards for toxicity and heavy metal content. The use of solvent-based inks should be limited whenever possible, and when there is no choice, use eco- or bio-solvent formulations.
Environmental conscientiousness includes every step in the process of getting a printed piece into the hands of end users and beyond. Once print options are chosen, but before printing begins, take steps to minimize chemical and fabric waste.
Printers who have gone through the trouble of selecting environmentally friendly materials, such as those made with recycled fibers, low-VOC or no-VOC inks, and have worked with designers to create designs that minimize fabric waste, will want to be sure that all their efforts are not wasted through improper or excessive packaging. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as much as a third of the developing world’s nonindustrial solid waste stream consists of packaging. As a result, the choice of materials can greatly influence a package’s impact on the environment.
Choosing packaging components made from recycled materials is a good way to start. Other considerations include a material’s level of biodegradability, how easily and likely it is to be recycled and whether a material comes from a sustainable resource. In the case of paper or cardboard, for example, ask your supplier for information on the mill’s reforestation programs.
The sustainable link
There is a strong link between sustainable production and consumption, and a true sustainable manufacturing program should take steps to curtail consumption. With a little creativity this can be achieved without hurting sales and the bottom line.
Reducing waste is certainly the first step; however, recycling can also have a great impact on consumption. Offer programs that promote repurposing and recycling of the materials they purchase from you. A trade show display company, for example, could offer customers a credit for returning structural components from old displays to be used to build a new one. Talk to your local waste management company. If there isn’t a recycling program, start one.
When new graphics are being printed to replace old ones, offer a credit for returning or recycling the old ones. This will not only help recycle and reduce waste, but it will improve customer retention and perceived value for your products by offering a credit for recycling rather than discounting your products. If it is difficult to find a recycling facility locally, ask the supplier how it recycles waste from production. If the answer is not satisfactory, look for another that is committed to sustainability.
Too many manufacturers make claims of environmental responsibility and sustainable practices that are based on loose interpretations of the words. If a manufacturer claims that its product has low VOC emissions, no heavy metals, is biodegradable or made with renewable resources, ask them to explain what that means exactly and have them put it in writing.
Ask your suppliers if they have a person in charge of environmental and sustainability issues and speak to him or her about the manufacturing process and what the company is doing to ensure that its impact on the environment is minimal.
Sustainable practices take into consideration the complete life cycle of a product—from raw materials to end of functional use. A printer’s role might seem minimal, but the impact our practices have on the environment is significant. Involve suppliers and customers in developing sustainable production practices. It will lead to a comprehensive, cost-effective and successful program that will help business grow, while minimizing its impact on our natural resources.