October 2008
Hiding behind a green screen
The printing industry is being tarnished as an environmental menace. It
I’m probably not going to be very politically correct with this column and I’m likely going to get into trouble (it wouldn’t be the first time) but I am getting a little tired of the bashing the printing industry is getting from the green crowd. The industry is being tarnished as one of the big environmental problems that plagues our society. If people would just stop printing all these things we would save a lot of trees and stop all that landfill. Some companies are tracking—and boasting about—how many trees they’re saving by not printing certain items.

Onyx has boasted about how environmentally responsible it is by not printing its annual report. Many public companies use a negative response option (you have to say you want a printed document or they will not send it) with their shareholders, cutting back on printed communications in the name of helping the environment. Banks and some utility companies are trying to encourage consumers to receive their statements and invoices via e-mail instead of printed and mailed, again all in the name of the environment. I recently ran into a situation where I asked a company to mail me a brochure and was told they don’t print it any more because they were saving trees.

I think it’s time to get a few facts straight first. Cutting back on printed materials is not going to save many trees. Most paper companies in North America plant at least two trees for every one they cut down. The pulp and paper companies have done a good job of reforestation. Among other things, they need trees that they can harvest in future. They run their woodlots like responsible farmers. FSC, SFI and other certifications all indicate that the paper industry is managing forests in a long-term sustainable manner.

As for minimizing landfill, the printing and paper business is ahead of many other industries. Recycling is a way of business in printing. Most printers have recycling programs in place for managing paper waste. Paper for recycling has become a valuable commodity with some cities running into the problem of people stealing it before the city can pick it up. What printing that gets by recycling and makes it into landfill is still biodegradable.

Printers are also adopting other environmentally responsible practices. As we pointed out in our last issue, many have eliminated film from prepress operations, and isopropyl alcohol from the litho process. Some have gone totally UV to cut down on VOCs, some have installed fountain solution filtration systems, and some have even taken the bold step of showing their clients how they can print less and still be effective.

The alternative to printing—computers and electronic equipment—is not environmentally friendly. Not much has been done to recycle computers and many end up in landfills. They’re not biodegradable and contain some hazardous waste parts. Most new computers become obsolete after only a couple of years with many of them going to landfills.

All too often, claims of cutting back on printing to save the environment, are really just an attempt to cut costs. If a company is going to forgo the benefits of printing something because it feels it would be better off saving the money, then fine, it should say that. But please don’t say you’re cutting back on printing to save the environment. Say what you really mean, that you are cutting costs. Don’t hide behind a green screen or make the false claims that you’re trying to save the environment.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
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