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Green Print and Packaging Materials – More Than Recycle, Reuse, Renew

What is green printing really all about?  When we think green printing the terms “recycled,” “FSC Certified,” and “soy inks” come to mind, but is that all there is?

One ton of recycled paper still consumes up to four trees, 18,000 BTU’s of energy, creates up to two tons of solid waste, and creates thousands of gallons of contaminated waste-water Certainly FSC, SFI, and PEFC are important designations and diverting pulp production from irresponsibly managed forests is critical, but at what point will we begin to tip the balance of FSC paper production versus FSC forestry growth toward the negative?

Many packaging designers turn to soy inks to tell their story. Soy inks have been used by offset printers for years but are they really beneficial for use on labels, tags, and packaging? The point here is that print buyers, green marketers and brand owners have gotten lazy. It’s commonplace these days to market a package with recycled paper, and include “please recycle this package” in small print.

Most consumers simply assume that today’s packaging IS recyclable. Brands focus on “recycled” and recycling because it’s easy, cheap and everybody understands it. What I’d like to see is brand owners, printers, and consumers focus in on the “green issues” that are going to matter most going forward- sustainability (sourcing print and packaging from more abundant, renewable resources), and carbon footprint.

Sustainable Paper Options vs Traditional Tree-Pulp Papers   

Tree-free papers made from rotting plant waste such as banana, papaya and coconut trees, bamboo, and bagasse are an option here. There are a few companies that focus on tree-free paper production, and though the performance of these papers as label/packaging material is limited, in some cases they have successfully replaced tree-pulp papers.

Stone paper made from natural chalk (calcium carbonate) is made from an abundant resource and is one of the high performing options for green printing and packaging materials with a superior sustainability story. It has been used on wide variety of printing and packaging applications including labels.

Carbon Footprint- ‘What Does it Actually Take to Produce and Supply Your ‘Green’/Recycled Paper?

This is the real issue that brand owners and marketers need to be concerned with. By using recycled (post consumer waste) papers we certainly preserve our most significant carbon storage resources but at what point will our forests’ carbon storage capacity fail to keep up with our carbon producing activities?

Pulp production and processing of recycled fibers are the real culprits here – each requiring a significant amount of energy. This massive consumption contributes to an enormous amount of CO2 emitted into our atmosphere. An argument can and should be made for using low carbon footprint materials (lower energy consumption) over recycled papers for printing and packaging.

Identify and Promote Your Eco-Vision Statement

The first step to creating and marketing a brand’s sustainable packaging is to create and publish a solid eco-vision. Start by taking a look at your competitor’s websites and those of companies that have been on this path for some time.

Any eco-conscious brand will have an eco-vision and/or eco mission statement. Your own statement should include which aspects of sustainability and environmental stewardship are important to your company. Be specific here – it is absolutely okay to choose a specific cause such as water conservation, landfill reduction, carbon emission reduction, etc., and to leave out those that don’t fit your company or brand.

From here you’ll need to spell out your environmental/sustainability goals and how you plan to get there.  If source reduction, lean/efficient manufacturing production processes, or sourcing more eco-friendly packaging materials is part of your plan then make sure to say so. Recent studies show that a company’s eco-vision is important to consumers. A savvy consumer who identifies with your vision will not only purchase your product and become a loyal customer but will become an advocate for your company.

One such company that has been successful with this strategy is Patagonia. Part of Patagonia’s eco vision involves the following statement: “We acknowledge that the wild world we love best is disappearing. That is why those of us who work here share a strong commitment to protecting undomesticated lands and waters.”

In choosing water conservation (among other issues). Patagonia has chosen a clear path and makes sure that when sourcing printing and packaging, water conservation is a prime focus and part of the selection criteria.

Stop buying into the oversimplified “recycle, reuse, renew” mantra and dig deeper. Educate yourself  about these concerns and the options that help counteract them. Using recycled packaging and asking consumers to “please recycle” isn’t enough.

Jeff Salisbury is President of Label Impressions, Inc., the only flexographic label printer in the U.S. to be both FSC Certified and Carbon Neutral. Salisbury sits on the TLMI Board of Environmental Best Practices.

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