Today’s reality is very different from those stereotypical images. Thanks to consumers’ demand for more customized, 1-to-1 marketing, and the accompanying shorter consumer packaged goods product lifecycles, there is tremendous pressure throughout the printing industry supply chain for greater efficiency and less waste, which in turn is driving sustainability improvements.
As the Printing Industries of America points out, running a sustainable printing business requires a holistic approach, rather than a disjointed set of efforts. First, it includes ensuring that the actual product you are printing (whether it be a wine bottle label or a bank statement) and the raw materials required to produce it are sustainably sourced. Second, the manufacturing process, which includes pre-press, printing and post-press, must be carried out in a sustainable way. Third, the printer’s operation itself, including the building, transportation and use of energy, must be sustainably-run.
Thanks to the need for more production efficiency and flexibility, we’re seeing progress on each of these sustainability fronts in our industry.
To understand how these sustainability changes are taking hold, it’s critical to first understand the business reality of printing today. Most commercial printers and packaging and label converters today aren’t just stand-alone printers. Regardless of what technology is used – lithography, flexography, gravure, screen printing, letterpress or digital – most printers now add value by offering secondary services beyond traditional print, including shipping and fulfillment, and even inventory management.
There are different market dynamics with commercial printing compared to labels and packaging, but they share a similar characteristic: competing on price alone is not enough to survive.
Under these competitive pressures, some printers have modernized their processes and completely automated their workflows to increase their productivity and profits, and integrate with large databases to produce more personalized marketing pieces.
Many printers have adopted Web-to-print, a prepress process that allows a graphic designer or printer to work directly with their customers to efficiently edit the design and layout of a project. This new model is “distribute first, print later.”
We’re all aware of Toyota’s “lean” production innovations. The same just-in-time, print-on-demand model is becoming more widespread in the printing industry as customers need to frequently update printed materials such as catalogs, manuals, books, and personalized stationary. Printers are using technology to produce more customized materials in lower quantities.
Book publishing is the industry that may be most transformed by these new business realities. With the popularity of e-readers, such as the Kindle and the iPad, and the ability for authors to self-publish in a very short time, publishers are under pressure to ensure that books are up-to-date, with the most recent research. Book publishers simply can’t afford to maintain large inventories of books given this uncertainty.
Think about all of the waste generated through book printing. There is discarded paper from overproduction or errors, ink, aluminum plates (if it’s printed with a conventional process like offset or letterpress), and cardboard.
As many printers adopt just-in-time printing technologies through short run printing – which means printing small quantities based on actual orders rather than anticipated demand – they cut the amount of obsolete and wasteful inventory, which means less waste sent to landfills.
Paper represents the largest source of waste from the printing industry. About 31 percent of municipal waste is made up of paper and paperboard, according to the Clean Air Council.
Manufacturers are improving their “de-inking” technology to allow for the recovery and recycling of paper and packaging. This is certainly contributing to recycling rates. The Paper Industry Association Council estimates that 63.5 percent of the paper consumed in the U.S. was recycled in 2010, which was nearly double the rate in 1990 (33.5 percent). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the recovery rate for paper and paperboard containers and packaging in 2009 was about 72 percent.
Printing presses, no matter what type of technology is used, consume large amounts of energy and water. But manufacturers of printing presses today are developing innovative technologies to reduce the amount of water that’s used and ultimately wasted to cool the presses. Some of today’s printing presses have integrated water-based cooling systems that don’t rely on an outside water supply. This process goes right to a printer’s or converter’s bottom line.
We’re also seeing industry associations step up to support and encourage sustainability initiatives. In 2009, the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute (TLMI) introduced the L.I.F.E. (Label Initiative for the Environment) Program, which helps members of the association find more sustainable and cost effective ways of doing business. TLMI provides a certification process targeted at the narrow web printing and converting industry.
Examples of projects that L.I.F.E. members are evaluated on are recycling of adhesives, using thinner material construction to cut down on waste, and determining whether liner materials can be recycled.
Going forward, there is reason to be optimistic that the need for efficiency will continue to drive further innovations throughout our industry’s supply chain, from more energy efficient presses to more sustainable toner and inks.
Printers, converters and suppliers who embrace these sustainability concepts are recognizing that what’s good for the environment and what’s good for their business are one and the same.
Michael V. Ring is president of Xeikon America Inc., which designs, develops and delivers high-end digital color printing systems for the global industrial, document printing and commercial market segments.