Environmentally Conscious Printing Pt. 2 of 3: Materials

Are you looking to make your company greener? If your brand is utilizing a printer for jobs such as product packaging, instore displays or outdoor media, the substrates (materials) you are printing on could be doing more damaging to the environment than you realise. This is the second part of a three-part series on environmentally conscious printing. In Part 1 we looked at inks. In Part 2, it’s all about substrates (i.e. the material that the ink is printed onto). And for those who are interested in helping the planet, its key to know what can be recycled, what can break down naturally, and what is downright hazardous to the planet.

The more you understand about the environmental impacts of your brand’s printing, the more empowered you are to make the right decisions and to market the positive decisions that your brand is implementing.

Before getting into specific substrates, there’s one common rule that can be applied across all packaging and printing, and that is to ‘reduce’ where possible.

No substrate is environmentally perfect. It all leaves a footprint. Cardboard and paper come from paper mills, and the pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy in the world and uses large amounts of water as well. The process typically involves the use of chlorine-based bleaches, which leave the air, water and soil with toxic damage. And whilst recycling helps, it only halves the environmental impact. But for the paper and cardboard that ends up in landfill, it contaminates groundwater as well as generating methane which is extremely harmful. Not to mention old growth forests are still being cut down to create more paper and cardboard, causing a further threat to the planet’s carbon levels and biodiversity.

Now that’s just cardboard and paper, which comes from a somewhat renewable source: trees. The impacts of plastic-based substrates are different but at an overall comparable level, with the important distinction that they come from a non-renewable source, i.e. petroleum.

The takeaway here is to reduce because all substrates come with an environmental cost. And when you reduce your packaging, it can boost your sales thanks to the way today’s buyers are increasingly rejecting products that they perceive as being over-packaged.

After applying the common ‘reduce’ rule, we have two more simple rules when delving down into each substrate; 1. Choose recycled materials (or materials made from industrial waste), and 2. Plan for reusability and either recyclability or biodegradability.

Choosing recycled cardboard for your brand’s packaging and marketing needs is generally a readily available option, so this should be an easy item to check off the list. When cardboard is made from recycled material rather than raw pulp, it saves not just trees, but also uses up to 99% less water and up to 50% less energy in the process.

Heading into the future, keep an eye out for paper and cardboard made from products other than wood pulp. They may include recycled cotton fibre, bamboo, rice, wheat chaff, or bagasse (a by-product of sugar cane). These products offer an environmental benefit as they utilise the waste the is created by other industries, or in the case of bamboo, a material that grows more quickly than the typical trees traditionally used to make paper and cardboard.

When it comes to reusability, what we are talking about here is designing your packaging or in store displays in a way that they can continue to have a second or third purpose before being recycled. For example, if your packaging is a cardboard box, think about what shape would allow your customers to reuse it for further applications.

Cardboard is somewhat biodegradable if it has not been bleached or printed on with hazardous inks, however the best environmental outcome is to always recycle cardboard over sending it to landfill. In order to make your cardboard products recyclable, you should keep them simple and no create complicated products that are a mix of cardboard and other materials such as foil and plastic.

Next, in Part 3, we will cover substrates for Poster Printing and Billboard Printing, so stay tuned for this final update to ensure your indoor and outdoor media is ticking the eco-friendly boxes that your customers will admire you for….

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