Where the Grass and the Profits are Greener

Cutting through eco-jargon to nail down green practices and products.

Going green is not just a company tagline or a passing fad. It’s here to stay, and sooner or later you’ll likely have to get on the bandwagon-either of your own free will or, alternately, kicking and screaming.

"It will come to the point within the next five years that if your company doesn’t have green strategies and products, people will stop doing business with you," cautions Peter Evans, partner and vice president of IconPrint (www.iconprint.com) in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada.
Here in the States, Brandon Gabriel, principal and head of new business development at LAgraphico (www.lagraphico.com) in Burbank, California, "Now that some of the bigger corporations-such as Wal-Mart and Target-are focusing more on the practice, it has everyone scrambling to be green."

When well-known names like that are dropped, and with all the publicity that sustainability and going green has received in recent months, you may be tempted to dive headfirst into the green movement. The key to success here, however, is the same as in any other aspect of your business: Take small steps and be sure to ask all the right questions up front.

Bang for the green buck

Perhaps the first question that inevitably arises is: "Will green products cost more?" Followed by, "And will customers be willing to pay a higher price for a green solution?" The answer is, alas, a firm "Maybe."

Generally, print providers are finding that clients with a commitment will pay more for "green" graphics. Clients with restrictive budgets, however, will tend to stick with a non-green product if it gives them more bang for their buck. "Right now, those without the corporate commitment aren’t ready," says Evans. "There isn’t enough pressure on them to request and pay for green products." But, he adds, "If you show people that there’s money in being green, they’ll do it."

The trick is to be sensitive to the price issue and to be prepared with green product benefits-as well as non-green alternatives. You’re likely to find many doubting Thomases who don’t believe that going green is possible without busting the budget. "We hear corporations talk about being ‘green,’ but cost and current relationships are still top priority for print buyers in these corporations," say Lisa Mordente, president of Parkway Imaging (www.parkwayimaging.com) of Romeoville, Illinois. "Our customers are not willing to pay more for ‘green’ graphics-I still have to compete on price." But, she adds, "I believe that, in time, the green initiative in corporate America will be pushed from the top all the way down to the print buyers."

"Our green solutions come at a wide range of price points. Some materials don’t come at any premium over non-green solutions, while others are dramatically higher than traditional products," says Don Graham, president of BGM Imaging (www.bgmimaging.com) in Toronto and Calgary, Canada. "While the market has been generally reluctant to pay a premium for green-that’s now changing."

But even when products are deemed green, "There are limits to their use, and costs are usually higher," says Mark Taylor, vice president of imaging for GFX International (www.gfxi.com) in Grayslake, Illinois. No one, neither shops nor customers, wants to sacrifice quality or cost in order to be green, he says.

That’s true even for a company as committed to the environment as Ben & Jerry’s. In Burlington, Vermont, Light-Works’ Marty Feldman has found that even eco-friendly customer Ben & Jerry’s isn’t necessarily willing pay more-nor compromise on the quality. Only when Light-Works (www.lightworksvt.com) has been able to establish parity in quality and price, Feldman reports, has Ben & Jerry’s been willing to go green for a project.

Practices make perfect

There are two basic avenues for print providers to go green, and you can use some combination of these two ways to add shades of green to your shop’s environmental palette:

* Institute company-wide green practices that help push your business into a greener space-these can include a range of actions, including the reduction and recycling of waste media, energy conservation, the use of alternative energy sources, and more.
* Utilize greener tools and technologies-printing technologies, inks, and media-to produce green graphics.

Let’s first take a look at the practices side of things. Gabriel likens adopting a green policy to the commitment to lose weight: "It’s a gradual progression, and you have to start with a plan and then execute. Start small, but think big!" LAgraphico, he says, has identified several key practices that play a role in promoting its own in-house green efforts: education, awareness, and top-down commitment.

GFX International also has developed a step-by-step process: "The first step we take in implementing green practices is to evaluate current consumption and/or waste," says Taylor. "We then benchmark our usage and determine whether a specific practice can be either eliminated entirely or modified to be green."

Two areas that can dramatically impact your company’s footprint on the practices side of the equation are waste and energy.

Managing waste: You can reduce waste and implement in-house recycling of waste graphics and scraps; paper and PVC are the most recycled media. As part of GFX’s Green Policy, for instance, in 2006 the company recycled nearly 400,000 pounds of styrene.

"We’ve partnered with a recycling company that provides us with large bins for the paper and PVC waste that we produce during the printing and trimming process," says Parkway Imaging’s Mordente. While digitally trimming its prints to reduce waste from trimming errors, the company also has a policy of printing the exact number ordered to hold waste to a bare minimum.

Beyond recycling print media, print shops can recycle more common office items such as basic office paper, aluminum cans, bottles, and batteries.

Reducing energy consumption: Shops can turn to alternative energy sources, use energy-efficient light bulbs, and cut power to unused areas of the facility. In the Toronto area, for instance, companies pay less for hydroelectric power used during non-peak hours, so IconPrint has moved a lot of its production to the night shift to save on energy costs. The company is also trying to source more local products, recognizing the reduction in energy expended for transportation.

Primary Color (www.primarycolor.com) in Costa Mesa, California, meanwhile, began replacing its local delivery fleet with hybrid vehicles in 2005, a strategy that has produced dramatic cuts in gasoline and oil consumption, says John Shaffer, director of large format. Further, the company’s adoption of soft proofing has not only reduced the need to print proofs, but also eliminated dozens of daily messenger trips.

Here are just a few tips to tune-up your company’s green practices:

* Bring your employees into the decision-making process; ask them how your company can "green up."
* Get company-wide buy-in for all aspects of the greening of your shop: recycling, reduced energy consumption, etc.
* Seek out OEMs that practice green in the manufacturing of machines, media, and inks.
* Be aware of all federal, state, and local green standards that impact your shop.
* Educate your customers about your company’s green products and practices. Clarify why your products are eco-friendly.
* Suggest where and how your customer can implement green practices by recycling printed graphics.
* As industry standards and certifications are available, align your shop’s practices to achieve these standards.

Integrating hardware, inks, media

In utilizing hardware, inks, and media to produce and market green graphics, it’s important to keep in mind that you can only sell what your customers want to buy. For instance, Light-Works’ current business began two years ago when Vermont neighbor Ben & Jerry’s asked the company to research environmental large-format printing options and encouraged it to act on those findings. With the hardy support of other clients as well as employees eager for eco-printing options, last year the company invested in a Durst Rho 600 Pictor UV-curable printer, and the shop has never looked back.

A vast majority of shops implementing green policies are producing those graphics with UV-curable printers or machines using aqueous inksets to avoid the VOCs produced by solvent inks. Not only do the VOCs put workers’ health at risk and require proper venting and monitoring, but there are also strict rules surrounding the disposal of the solvent inks themselves. Likewise, some shops are marketing eco-, mild-, or light-solvents as "more green," but this becomes a trickier sales proposition since there are no industry standards for these inksets, and they are, for all intents and purposes, still solvents.

Beyond hardware and inks, the final component of any green project is the media itself. And, here, there are many categories, not all of which are easy to define and identify. "Finding truly green materials for our industry is very difficult due to lack of clear standards and the inconsistent use of terms by many suppliers," says Don Graham of BGM Imaging.

What follows are the general terms used to identify printing substrates, and how a sampling of media from around the market might fit into a shop’s green product line.

Substrates made from natural products: These include many textiles and papers, can be described as sustainable or renewable, and may be recyclable or biodegradable. Both GFX International and Light-Works report using Pace Industries’ BioGraph.ics, a plastic that’s derived from plant materials. For rigid applications, Light-Works also imports from Europe a board called Re-Board-a reinforced corrugated rigid board that’s renewable and biodegradable. Primary Color is printing on bamboo, wood, and Kraft paper, "all of which are recyclable-and all of which are capturing the attention of our green-leaning clients," says John Shaffer.

Products made from recycled products: These include many papers and cardboards, as well as fabrics made from recycled plastics. For rigid graphics, IconPrint turns to Xanita board, which is made from recycled products and can be recycled after use. Orangeburg, New York-based Dream Green Banners (www.dreamgreenbanners.com), a division of Dream Digital Fabric Printing Service, utilizes direct-digital-inkjet printing on its line of Eco-fabric, composed of 100-percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, woven into a printable canvas. These fabrics are printed using the shop’s Reggiani Dream system, using water-based disperse inks.

BGM’s GreenLine Imaging products (www.greenlineimaging.com), launched three years ago, offer various printable substrates including Designtex Duraprene nonwoven wall coverings (made of wood pulp, post-industrial waste, and post-consumer waste), fabrics (Dove, Fern, and the translucent Aqua), and encore 12, a replacement for foam board that’s re-pulpable and recyclable and contains recycled fibers. The company also boasts of eco-friendly printing processes that can image onto metals (Alocomp) and glass (Glazpix).

Products that can be recycled after final use: These aren’t as common as you might hope. Arguably the most popular graphics produced by the wide-format inkjet industry are banners, most of which are printed on vinyl. Unfortunately, these vinyls are generally not recyclable because they’re a compound vinyl/fabric scrim product. IconPrint’s Evans notes that it’s very hard and costly to extract the recyclable products from vinyl banners, not unlike the problems with recycling steel-belted tires. Similar issues are involved with attempts to recycle PS vinyl, foamcore board, and mounted graphics. Primary Color has partnered with companies that re-purpose printed vinyl materials such as Big Green Marble (www.biggreenmarble.com) in Southern California that takes environmentally un-friendly materials and re-purposes them into functional items such as garment bags and purses.

Substrates that can be composted or biodegraded after use: Media such as BioFlex from Ultraflex are on the rise. And while it’s a fine distinction, many companies (and customers) want to understand the difference between products that are biodegradable (can be broken down all the way to their organic elements) and those that can be composted (broken down into smaller pieces of the same thing).

To help educate its customers, Light-Works offers a sustainable media chart that details the products the company recommends, the eco properties of those products (renewable, compostable, recyclable, biodegradable), and the source company. Beyond BioFlex, Re-Board, and BioGraph.ics, the products that have made its list include Earthboard from Lamitech (made from post-consumer waste, renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable) and Fisher Textiles’ Enviro-Tex fabrics made with Repreve yarn (comprising post-industrial fiber waste and post-consumer plastic waste, produced by Unifi).

Still, most shops we talked to for this article complained about the dearth of green media for printing with wide-format inkjet. "Although we’d like to print 100-percent green, there’s still a large void in cost-effective substrates," says Mordente of Parkway Imaging. "The ratio of non-green to green products is still unbalanced."

Consider these tips when seeking green media:

* Check with your regular media distributor. Discuss with your sales rep the type of eco-friendly materials you want to stock, or the graphics application that customers are requesting a green solution for.
* Go to trade shows and read trade magazines focusing on new green products.
* Do research online to find alternative products that could substitute for eco-unfriendly substrates. You may need to widen your search to Europe and other more eco-friendly areas.
* Join local, state, and national trade organizations and network with members who have found green alternatives.
* Educate yourself and your employees on your shop’s environmental policy and the type of products you want to sell.
* Test print "green" materials to see if they meet your quality standards.
* Keep in mind that many of the products you already use might be highly eco-friendly. Natural fiber single-component fabrics (such as cottons and polyesters) are coming back into favor since they’re highly printable, they produce a great looking banners, and they’re not PVC, says Evans.

An ongoing endeavor

Of course, there’s no single green solution for every print shop, so you have to decide what’s right for your business. Do your homework and research options. Also keep in mind that green is an ongoing process. Keep on top of technologies and media as they change to become more eco-friendly. Be on the lookout for newly introduced green media. And when you’re looking to add new hardware, evaluate how a printer fits with your company’s environmental policies.

After your company has determined your environmental policy and settled upon its green printing technologies and media, it’s time to let the world know. Don’t muddy the water with eco-jargon: Clearly define what your company stands for environmentally, in terms of printing technology and substrates, as well as non-print initiatives such as recycling and energy conservation. Finally, be honest with customers-don’t try to pull the eco-wool over their eyes.

Peggy Middendorf is managing editor of The Big Picture magazine.

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