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Commentary & Analysis

Sustainability and Wide-Format—It’s Not Just About Substrates

SGIA’s Marci Kinter offers a comprehensive set of environmental sustainability tips and strategies that go beyond merely choosing the right substrate.

By Marci Kinter
Published: April 4, 2016

Unfortunately, discussions between wide-format printers and their customers cannot seem to get beyond talking about substrates when discussing sustainability. There seems to be this universal belief that if a product is printed on a substrate that has a recognized certification or if it can be recycled, then the product can be claimed as “sustainable.” It’s time for both the printer and the customer to move this discussion forward. Yes, substrates are important, but there are other considerations to bring into the equation when considering which to use.

The only substrates with a recognizable certification are paper products. Broadly speaking, those paper products that are sourced in a responsible manner and meet program requirements can be certified. Also, printing facilities that use these certified materials and meet program requirements can also attain this product certification. To the best of my knowledge, there are no other substrate certification programs. True, manufacturers can claim certain attributes; however, these claims are governed in the United States by the Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides to Marketing” and while these claims cannot be seen as certifications, it’s important that any and all claims be validated and relevant to the product at hand.

Just as relevant to the discussion is the shipping of the product. A question to ask the customer is whether or not they track their carbon footprint. If so, then the discussion regarding reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is not only relevant, but important to the customer discussion. A growing number of companies are engaging their suppliers about managing GHG emissions. But what are greenhouse gas emissions, and why should you care?

This is a question that is often asked by many facility owners. Controversy still exists regarding whether or not global warming or climate change is actually occurring. It is not our intent to debate the pros and cons of the occurrence of global warming, but to offer a bit of information to help you understand global warming, as well as how carbon footprinting fits into this issue. Both of these terms are often used by both those in our industry sector as well as the retail sector—facilities state that they have reduced their carbon footprint and thus are no longer contributing to global warming. So, what does this mean, and most importantly, how does this fit into our discussion regarding substrates?

To begin, the term climate change is often used interchangeably with the term global warming, but according to the National Academy of Sciences, “the phrase ‘climate change’ is growing in preferred use to ‘global warming’ because it helps convey that there are [other] changes in addition to rising temperatures.”

A carbon footprint is a measure of the impact our activities have on the environment, and in particular climate change. It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating, transportation, etc. When facilities indicate that they have reduced their footprint, they are referring to steps they have taken to reduce the use of energy and fossil fuels in their facilities. This is how it relates to the substrates used by printing facilities. Your carbon footprint reflects the energy used to not only produce the product but ship it to its final destination.

So, how can a facility reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, also known as its carbon footprint, now that we are all on the same page? To offer effective, straightforward suggestions, we can turn to the certification criteria for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Program. Within the criteria, the following requirements exist.

First, the criteria require that when replacing equipment, purchase Energy Star compliant (or equivalent, based on country of manufacture) equipment such as computers, monitors, servers, refrigerators, and microwaves. Energy Star has long been recognized as a viable eco-labeling program that identifies energy efficient products that can be used in both the home and office. EPA estimates that if all consumers purchased Energy Star products and equipment over the next 15 years, Americans’ energy bills would be reduced by $100 billion. The annual pollution savings would be equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road.

A second strategy is to conduct an energy audit. Specifically, the SGP Program requires facilities to document, through an internal or outsourced audit, options to reduce energy use including occupancy sensors, programmable thermostats, energy efficient lighting, gas and water use and insulation, and implement appropriate energy reduction projects. Conducting an energy audit is a great way to examine your facility for any energy wastage and inefficiencies, in which you perform a walk-through of your facility in order to ensure all equipment is working properly. It is imperative that your company commits to continuous evaluations of your facility’s energy usage, and assigning an energy management team is a great way to ensure your company’s commitment to assessing and improving your energy conservation. The best way to conduct an energy audit is to complete a checklist that covers different areas in your facility which includes lighting, heating and air conditioning, and equipment. Reviewing your utility bills to check which areas of your facility are using the most energy is a good indicator of which areas to focus more on. Areas to focus on include lighting, heating and cooling, office equipment, and energy behavior.

Reducing your energy usage not only reduces your carbon footprint but operating costs as well. Facilities have found that by conducting an energy audit and implementing recommendations, energy usage has dropped as much as 45 percent! However, your energy usage is just one part of the carbon footprint story. Another element to consider is the shipping of the final product.

To determine the footprint of your shipping, a baseline is needed. The most efficient way to start tracking is to join the U.S. EPA’s SmartWay program. SmartWay is an innovative, voluntary, public-private, market-driven partnership. SmartWay helps companies improve their transportation supply chains, to move more ton-miles of freight with lower emissions and less energy, and at a lower cost. And, the best part, it is free to join and use their tools. In 2015, SGIA became an Affiliate Partner of the program in both the U.S. and Canada supporting the efforts of printing facilities to start tracking and reducing the emissions associated with their shipping. Print facilities participating in this program have validated information regarding the shipping of their products providing one more discussion point with your customer.

The overarching conclusion is that even if your customer only asks about alternative substrates, there are ways that you, the print facility, can take advantage and turn the discussion into a deeper dive on sustainability issues. Take a few moments to discuss with your customers their sustainability goals and objectives. You might just be surprised at where it takes you!

Marci Kinter is the Vice President for Government & Business Information for the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association International (SGIA).


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Wide Format Editor

Richard Romano

Richard Romano, Section Editor/Senior Analyst
Richard has written about communication, graphics hardware and software trends for the past 15 years.

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