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Profiting from Recycling

Going green doesn’t have to be black-and-white.

As a business owner, flipping the green switch can require significant capital investments. It may require changing tried-and-true production methods. It can result in more expensive consumables at a time when customers’ price sensitivity is at an all-time high. “Woe is me,” says the print provider. “I want to be green as I can be, but I can’t make any big financial commitments right now. Our first priority is, after all, staying solvent.” (Pun intended.)

But going green doesn’t have to be black and white. One simple and profitable—yes, you read that right—method for getting greener is recycling.

A new sense of (re)purpose
At the risk of over simplifying, I will separate recycling into two categories: external and internal. External recycling is what we all do at home. Put the stuff out into the recycle bin and some guy comes by with a truck and hauls it away to be made into something else. If we’re good citizens and fill up our bins religiously, we’re doing our part to keep these materials out of the landfill and continue their productive use. My family has been totally committed to this type of recycling not only in our personal life, but also with our company. But other than the feeling of social responsibility, as business people there is no immediate or tangible gratification.

Which is why, years ago, we began a modest effort at internal recycling. We also call this repurposing.

For example, when someone orders a 3 x 6-foot poster printed or mounted on foam board, we have a 56-percent yield from that board. What happens to the 44 percent that is left over? I like to define the off-cut from sheet or roll goods as either waste or scrap. In our shop, if it’s waste, it goes into either the trash bin to go to the landfill or the recycle bin to go to someone who will recycle it. \

However, if we determine it’s scrap, it goes back into inventory. In this case, we have a 1 x 2-foot and a 2 x 8-foot foam board that will be stored on a designated shelf for future use. Yes, these are obvious sizes to keep and repurpose, but even if they were 1-inch x 8-foot scraps, they would not go into the trash bin. We ship a lot of product. The odd-sized foam board scrap makes excellent packaging materials. And if it’s Gatorfoam, well we also make standoffs using those odd sizes.

The green consequences are obvious: We try to make use of all the raw materials and energy used to manufacture, ship, and crate the media we buy. If we can repurpose the media rather than buying new, this saves virgin raw materials as well as energy. Our e_ ort also keeps chemicals like polyvinyl chloride out of the landfill.

Green for the Earth and your wallet
But let’s forget the environment for a minute. What does doing this mean from a business perspective? When we price a print on foam board, we factor in the cost of the whole board. If the board is $40 and it yields one print, we charge our customer for the entire board. When, in the future, we make two 2 x 4 prints using the scrap, we charge the customer $1.25 a square foot plus markup for the board. This method adds $20 or more to our net profit on the re-purposed foam board while also helping the environment.

We’re fortunate to have environmentally aware clients like Paul Mitchell Hair Care Products and Imagination of New York and London, and we do meeting and tradeshow work for both. If you’re concerned with the environment and you want to be horrified, hang around the back of a convention facility after a big show. Stand by one of the dozens of dumpsters and watch what will be carted out to the landfill. It’s ugly.

When we do a Paul Mitchell Signature Gathering, it’s a large and vibrant event. In addition to fabric, we print on a lot of black Gator substrate. When the event is over, we send our box truck to pick up all the used signage. We repurpose all of it. We did a job where we wrapped 250 Gatorfoam boards with canvas prints—all of them were done on Paul Mitchell’s repurposed boards. The Paul Mitchell people got their signs 100-percent recycled, which is consistent with their corporate culture, and our canvas customer got a break on the price. We did right for both customers, and it was good for us in an ethical and a business sense.

When Imagination did graphics work for the National Automobile Dealers Association a couple of years ago, the association used 135 sheets of blue 4 x 10-foot Sintra. Again, with the client’s help we brought the used panels back to the shop, chipping away at the pile, using the sheets whenever we could. Then, another good customer, PRG Scenic Technologies, got the contract for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Do you see the color blue coming back into the discussion? A tall, double-sided sign highlighted all the state delegations with white letters on blue. All this signage and more was made with white UV ink on recycled blue Sintra. Again, the cost/benefit ratio was a win-win.

We also do a lot of dye sublimation. We are switching some clients to fabrics that are made from 100-percent postconsumer waste and that are, in turn, 100-percent recyclable. However, most of our fabrics are 100-percent virgin polyester. We can’t hide the prints in repurposing like we do Gatorfoam. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do with the acres of fabrics when the events are over: Our sewing department makes beautiful multipurpose bags and even hats. My wife and I took three of the bags and threw them in the back of our car and now we can’t live without them. These bags carry clothes for yoga, groceries home from the store, and every imaginable item from home to work and back. We love them and they’re catching on with our customers. We now offer this as a service when we do large dye-sub jobs and simply tack it on to the square-foot price.

The real world
The important thing to note is that none of our modest green efforts cost us a dime. It’s real-world recycling and it distinguishes us from our competition. A small core of our customers will remain loyal because they are environmentally conscious. The good news is, in the long run, it also adds to our bottom line.


Craig MIller is president of Pictographics (pictographics.net) in Las Vegas, a large-format graphics service bureau that excels in digitally dyed textiles, wall coverings, and custom applications.

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