SGP Community Day
With recent sweeping changes out of China, seeking new options for recycling was at the forefront of conversation at the sustainability event.
The Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) gathered SGP-certified printers, partners, brands, suppliers, buyers, and industry leaders for the fifth annual SGP Community Day conference in November, hosted this year in Cincinnati. Cincinnati was named the most sustainable metro area in the nation for the second year in a row by Site Selection magazine, creating an ideal location for the event.
SGP, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, certifies printing facilities’ sustainability practices. The theme “state of sustainability” was weaved throughout interactive educational sessions on in-store retail, plastics and packaging, textiles, and events and building graphics. At the event, SGP also introduced Impact Tracker, a web platform SGP-certified printers will use to track all of the measurable components required for maintaining their certification.
Collaboration Is Key
Keynote speaker Ryan Mooney-Bullock, executive director of Green Umbrella Regional Alliance in Cincinnati, shared her organization’s efforts to coordinate its members throughout the city to work in concert toward measurable, shared, sustainability goals. She emphasized that the successes of Green Umbrella advancing the cause can’t be traced to a single person – collaboration was the key component. “The work our teams are engaged in is beneficial to all involved,” Mooney-Bullock said. “Collaboration is an ongoing process and everyone has something to contribute.”
Paul Glynn, manager of materials, digital technologies, R&D at Designtex, an SGP-certified print shop, also discussed the value of a team approach to sustainability. “It takes a lot of people in the company to be active and aware – it has to be top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top participation. If you don’t have that, you aren’t going to have the impact,” he said.
When it comes to a holistic sustainability plan, it’s also important to tap into the champions of the cause within your organization. Glynn, who is also the incoming chairman of the SGP board of directors, explained how Designtex’s recycling efforts were nearly thwarted when China closed its doors to recyclable imports (more on that topic below). “Our recycling fell by half.” A passionate member of the Designtex team was so disturbed by this, that he pursued every possible alternative avenue for recycling and reusing their waste.
With lots of potentially reusable and recyclable materials no longer accepted at the usual recycling centers, Designtex connected with some of their suppliers to send back some packaging components for reuse – which often took convincing.
“There’s a need for patience, diligence, listening, and finding some little nugget of information in your explorations and just following that,” Glynn said.
A Recycling Dilemma
Throughout the conference, one topic came up as the most urgent issue facing printing companies – and any type of business or individual that recycles: What do we do now that China has stopped accepting our recyclables? In many cases, as Glynn shared, it takes a lot of digging to determine how to prevent recyclable materials from ending up in the landfill. It’s an issue that’s hard to ignore when it comes to running a sustainable business.
“In 2016, China took two-thirds of this country’s recyclable plastic. Today, they take none,” said Ashley Hood-Morley, sustainability director for the Plastics Industry Association. Many other countries that had a market for recycling materials have reached capacity as a result.
The infrastructure – and demand for recycled materials – doesn’t fully exist in the US, but Hood-Morley said there is hope. “Recycling is not dead, but it is very much at a point of transition,” she added. There are signals of growth domestically.
When China passed the law banning the import of recyclables, with an eye toward improving that country’s own environmental conditions, the legislation dramatically impacted recycling access for plastic and paper in the Western world. Hood-Morley cites some positive observations: There are many new investments in recycling facilities in the US – although it will take time to get those plants up and running; upcycling (converting discarded materials into products of a higher quality or value than the original) is becoming easier; and the supply chain is coming together to explore solutions.
“China is probably doing us a favor in the end, because there are some amazing things going on out there that people are creating out of waste instead of putting into the trash,” Glynn said.
Focus on Retail
Hood-Morley shared how the Plastics Industry Association collaborated with SGP and Retail Industry Leaders Association in the last year to educate retailers on three topics: designing products and packaging that utilizes recycled content; how to source recycled materials; and designing a product with end-of-life recycling in mind.
“It’s important to drive that demand for recycled material in this country,” she said. More demand for recycled material pushes forward the investment into facilities that can recycle items to make that material – and make money.
David McLain, market development manager at Printpack, shared how the packaging manufacturer is working toward a circular supply chain, instead of a linear approach, when it comes to their packaging products. They hope to keep their packaging out of landfills and instead have it recovered or recycled.
“The worst thing is when something gets all the way to the consumer and then they throw out that packaging, then you start all the way over again,” McLain said. He cited a recycling plan for polyethylene bags requested by a customer. But he recognizes that just making a recyclable product isn’t always enough. “We have to tell our customers how it can be recycled, while being conscious of Sword (China’s import ban). We have to think: How can we redesign packaging for this aspirational system that doesn’t yet exist in full scale?”
Growing Textile Use
Mike Compton, product marketing manager, Top Value Fabrics, said 85 percent of textiles (primarily garments) are thrown out despite being recyclable, and each American throws away 70 pounds of garments a year. “The pressure on all of us is increasing to find the right avenues for recycling. We have to work together as a community,” Compton said.
In his research, Compton discovered there are companies that take unwanted digitally printed fabric for recycling or reusing the material, as shredded fill for furniture, for example. He cited Europe’s Reach-compliance program, which requires certain environmental standards be met on products, as a guide for the future. “These same mandates will eventually occur in the US,” Compton said.
Single-use recyclable water bottles are not being recycled like they could; fewer than 10 percent make it through recycling, Glynn from Designtex said. He shared that there are companies that can use recycled water bottles to make thread – but only if they can source the material.
Compton and Glynn both encouraged printers to seek out local programs, because recycling varies by region. For companies just starting to explore more sustainable practices, Glynn suggested something simple, like sorting waste and recyclables in the office kitchen or swapping out incandescent lights for LED.
Events Make Waste
Events, tradeshows, and conferences produce a massive amount of waste from events that typically only span a day or two. “Tradeshows are second only to the construction industry as the biggest waste producers,” said Joe Stapley, national accounts manager for Noble Environmental Technologies, which produces Ecor, a foamboard alternative that is recyclable and made from recycled materials. He mentioned a growing demand for more sustainable tradeshow booths, but said that PSPs are often reluctant to address the issues of waste with their tradeshow and event clients for fear they could lose business. “They should go look at the landfills,” Stapley quipped.
Without awareness of available options that can lead to less waste as a tradeshow concludes, there can’t be measurable change. “If designers don’t know they have these sustainable product options, well, they don’t know what they don’t know,” Stapley said.
Marci Kinter, SGIA VP of government and business information, discussed how the event industry has changed – “I now go to events where zero waste is the goal.” But not all tradeshows have caught on. “Our SGP printers ask us to focus on events and venues” for education on sustainable practices.
SGP Community Day is held annually to connect print businesses with brands and print buyers who are working toward a more sustainable supply chain. For more information about SGP certification, the SGP community, and ways to reduce your print shop’s environmental impact, visit sgppartnership.org.