Environmental impact of printing. A brief examination
The manufacture of any book or printed product for publishing or marketing involves numerous stages of process and types of materials. As publishers, print buyers or book producers we need to look in enough detail to make meaningful choices and continuously improve how we produce our finished items. How do we break down the environmental impact and sustainability of printed products and get beyond catchall terms such as ‘green’ and ‘eco’ in book printing?
There are numerous factors to consider when identifying suitable printers for your book. Your classic criteria of price, quality, service will always be important. However, given the ecological consequences we are all facing it would be irresponsible not to give sustainability and environmental impact prominence in the decision-making mix.
Let’s take a look at the major areas of focus.
Paper and board have to be a major focus here. Any forest-sourced materials should these days originate from a supply which is renewed and well-managed. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the highest standard for products which originate in forests, so in this context includes text and jacket paper, cover board and grey board used in hardback cases.
There are numerous other details, some small some large, within the specification of any book. If we isolate these we can identify options which have reduced environmental impact.
There has been much focus on paper sourcing in the last decade or so, and comparatively little on ink. Ink used in Litho printing can be fossil-oil or vegetable-oil based.
Fossil-oil based ink is, almost needless to say, from a non-renewable source. It produces more pollution in its manufacture, can be somewhat toxic while in use and releases climate warming compounds. Fossil-based ink also requires more energy to process surplus after use and has more risk of causing pollution in its disposal. It makes paper harder to recycle as it takes more energy and resource to ‘de-ink’ the paper.
The transition to plant-based inks has been happening for a decade or more, but unless a printer is consciously pushing its green credentials you normally can’t be sure what individual companies are using unless you ask. There are ISO standards for inks the same as there are for other aspects of colour quality management. Based on my experience there isn’t a valid case that fossil-oil based inks give a quality benefit.
Vegetable oil-based inks are not without their issues. They can potentially contain heavy metals, solvents and other toxic elements so it’s important to ask the printer an open question to explain the type of ink they use and the environmental and printing attributes of their inks. We can’t settle for them being vegetable-oil based. That’s only part of the story.
Glues used in book-binding can often be petrochemical or gelatine-based. The latter, especially used in hardback binding, is problematic if the requirement is ever for a book to be ‘vegan’, because gelatine is an animal product. Print companies are increasingly incorporating non-fossil derived polymer glues and the use of ‘Vegan approved’ printer accreditations is growing.
Some binding materials such as sewing threads, head and tail bands and ribbon markers can sometimes include plastics. Options exist to use only textile fibres in these components.
Laminates and wrapping (shrink-wrapping of individual copies or as otherwise used to secure books during transit) have in the past tended to be plastic. Cellulose, Corn starch, vegetable oil and other organic base materials exist as alternatives these days, as do (better still) re-useable containers.
Location and transport
Transport has a huge environmental cost. I hope we all know this by now. There is much which can be said about manufacturing closer to home. However it is rarely as simple as saying that the further the distance the greater the environmental impact. If you are printing very close to market then you may well be choosing a ‘greener’ option albeit with room for improvement. If you are considering different options further away comparing environmental impact can be less straightforward.
I am not here to make an environmental case for container ships, but there is a trade-off between distance and method if you look at things purely in terms of carbon emissions. The combination of air, water or rail used to move materials into place and then to deliver finished products can have a huge impact on the carbon cost of your product.
International journeys will often involve more than one method, such as trucks and shipping or trucks and rail, so a granular assessment is required in order to meaningfully compare options. In a hypothetical comparison between two vendors in Europe delivering books to the UK, where an option further away is making more use of freight by train than by truck, it is entirely plausible that the smaller carbon impact of the method will outweigh the greater distance. Daunting as this may feel, carbon calculations need to form part of our conversations with suppliers the same as they do with air and other methods of individual travel.
Design for environment
While materials and logistics can seem the most obvious way to lessen the environmental impact of your book I would also urge you to see your project partly as an exercise in product design. Your book can be made more or less efficiently depending on how you approach it.
At the point I contact a printer to discuss a new project and to obtain some pricing I have certain aspects of the specification of the book in mind. These will be based on discovery conversations I have had with the creators of the content and design. Key details include approximate figures for the page size, page count and the number of copies.
At this stage you should leave scope for the printer to influence your final choice of page size and count. In order to retain some flexibility I always advise not getting too far into design before having discussions with printers. In not committing too early you leave room for the printer to quote pricing based on the most efficient specification.
I mention this because there is a both a cost incentive and an environmental benefit to be gained by handling the discussion this way. Efficiencies in the manufacturing processes of books come from making things in a way which saves time and reduces waste across the various stages of production. Your specification has an environmental impact. It has the potential to reduce the number of plates or machine make-readys required. In turn this can have benefits in terms of machine-time and reduced energy use, ink, water and paper consumption.
I have written about page sizes in book production in a separate post. I won’t go into too much detail about that here. Suffice to say that by discussing your project with prospective suppliers early on in the process of content creation you can invite your supplier to help you optimise the specification of your book. This might just save you cost while also reducing use of environmental resources.
In conclusion – where to begin
Overseeing environmental impact over the entire lifecycle of a product is hard. This is especially so if you are operating on a small scale as a freelancer, sole trader or small company.
We can all choose to support better practice through our choice of suppliers, the discussions we have with them and the priorities we convey. We can all build and manage our projects better, to raise the bar. It’s not something we should or can afford to leave to others.
It needs a more in-depth relationship with your suppliers than maybe we’ve all had in the past. Details matter in this. It may be that your existing suppliers are doing well. They might be using lots of renewable energy and have a detailed environmental plan already in place. They could even be carbon neutral. In my experience printers aren’t always great at PR on these topics. It’s the greatest challenge of our times so we need to show interest and persist in assessing how they are doing. We need our own agenda for collaborators and suppliers, doing things better in your work, giving environmental impact its due attention.
First published April 22nd 2021 as my contribution to Earth Day 2021