The past five years have seen an increased discussion of, and emphasis on, the idea of “sustainability.” Sustainability can refer to many things, but one of the oft-discussed components of it is environmental sustainability. That is, what is the impact of a product or process on the environment, and what are the ways of reducing that impact?

In the commercial printing industry, these conversations have taken place in the traditional offset and digital printing market segments, but we have been hearing murmurs amongst wide-format printers. InfoTrends identified “green” wide-format as one of its top trends last year (2011), and this year, more and more companies are seeking to “go green,” often under pressure from print buyers, especially large corporate buyers who are under increased pressure of their own to keep an eye on the sustainability of their supply chains. One of the winners of this year’s WhatTheyThink Environmental Innovation AwardsSandy Alexander—won for the creation of an environmentally sustainable wide-format printing division. So momentum is carrying printers of all types in increasingly green directions.

“Many of our customers have begun to ask questions about SGP [the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership], and they are interested in sustainability and different procurement methods,” says David Sunderman, Sustainable Project Lead Coordinator for Visual Marking Systems, an SGP-certified Twinsburg, Ohio-based producer of signage, banners, overlays, floor graphics, vehicle graphics, signs, and many other types of specialty graphics. “One increased demand is for the types of materials available. Their interest is highly concentrated in the POP (point of purchase) markets. I believe that this will be a growing market for us as the economy begins to pick up.”

(The Sustainable Green Printing Partnership is “the industry standard for the certification and continuous improvement of sustainability and best practices within print manufacturing operations...and provides a benchmark for print facilities’ sustainability endeavors.”)

While wide-format printing offers some of the same challenges as traditional printing—dealing with responsibly sourced and environmentally friendly consumables, implementing sustainable in-plant practices and processes, encouraging and facilitating recyclability of finished materials, etc.—the wide-format shop does have some unique challenges when it comes to going green.

Inks and Substrates

“Different types of inks are a big sustainability topic today,” says Sunderman. “The use of low-VOC [volatile-organic compound] inks and UV-curing inks are important because of worker exposure and risks associated with HAPs [hazardous air pollutants] and solvents.”

Ultraviolet (UV)-curable inks have been touted as a “green” alternative to traditional solvent inks, since they feature reduced VOCs and other pollutants. Other eco-friendly options include aqueous and latex-based inks.

A substantial issue with inkjet inks—and this is also an issue with small-format inkjet presses—is that of de-inking. Inkjet inks are notoriously difficult to run through the de-inking process that is a prelude to paper recycling, as the water-based inks end up contaminating the system. Thus far, inkjet accounts for a very small percentage of overall volume of reclaimed paper sent for recycling, but that may change, especially as recycling becomes more encouraged and prevalent. Although entire conferences have been held on the topic, comprehensive solutions to the de-inking dilemma have yet to appear.

And where there’s ink, there’s paper. Or, more generally, substrates, which, in the wide-format space, provides a challenge, as one of the great advantages of the process is its ability to print on a wide variety of surfaces—not all of which are as environmentally friendly as paper. Despite many rumors to the contrary, paper is a very green product. It can be sustainably procured by using paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council [FSC] or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative [SFI]), which goes a long way toward ensuring that the paper was sourced from responsibly managed forests, and it can be responsibly disposed as, depending upon how it has been printed, paper biodegrades and doesn’t leach dangerous materials into the groundwater. Paper also can be easily recycled.

Not all wide-format substrates are as friendly as paper. Plastics and other materials are often petroleum-based—meaning they are made from non-renewable resources, unlike trees—and non-degradable materials create problems in landfills. However, like paper, these substrates can also be purchased in recyclable grades, and end users can be encouraged to recycle them when the products reach their end-of-life.

“Some of the substrates are more challenging than those found in traditional printing, such as metal and vinyl versus paper,” says Brian Madigan, General Manager of Sandy Alexander’s Wide & Grand Format/Retail Visual Merchandising Division. “We still have the same environmental objectives as in traditional printing—reduce, reuse, and recycle. With newer equipment and strict color management standards, we have quicker makereadies and keep waste at a minimum. Additionally, we have identified alternate uses for the waste product—we reuse the waste metal for promotional pieces, and are exploring reusing vinyl for reusable shopping bags. We are constantly looking for other recycling channels for various substrates.”

Whether it be paper or non-paper substrates, there are eco-alternatives, and non-paper substrate manufacturers (such as 3M and Dupont) are touting the recyclability and reusability of their materials. Substrates such as Falconboard or posterboard are paper-based and recyclable, materials such as Duraplast and Insite are biodegradable, and some backlit or cling substrates are compostable. Some substrates (such as TerraSkin) are all three.

“On any wide- and grand-format/retail visual merchandising protect, we now present eco-friendly alternatives as part of the process,” says Madigan. “We have seen a definite increase in clients asking about and requesting environmentally friendly substrates. However, these materials are newer to the market than chain-of-custody sustainable and recycled papers.”

“One of the best ways for a buyer to reduce their environmental footprint is to buy recycled/recyclable materials,” says Sunderman. “Printers can help by offering these products at competitive prices, and providing options during the project planning stage. Printers should offer these products even if the customer doesn’t ask about them.”

Run, Run, Run

One strong advantage that digital printing—be it small- or wide-format—has over offset printing, vis-à-vis sustainability, is that the process facilitates fewer copies per run, which translates to less waste in the makeready, production, and post-production stages. The killer app for traditional digital has been the ability to selectively target printed materials (even if the aim isn’t always accurate). The nature of wide-format printing generally precludes the mass production approach of offset printing, which helps with the greenness of the process.

“There are less test sheets in digital, and a greater amount of the materials that a company uses in set-up can be recycled,” says Sunderman, “so the biggest sustainability issue in digital printing is the ability of the company to implement recycling into its operations.”

Finishing Lines

Perhaps the biggest point of departure between traditional offset and wide-format—again, in terms of sustainability—is in the area of finishing. Offset and small-format digital printing are often bound or finished in some fashion, and adding processes such as lamination can make these materials unrecyclable. But many of the processes performed on wide-format graphics can also impede the ability to recycle them at the end of their useful lives. Lamination is one chief culprit, but not the only one.

“Adhesives are not necessarily the greenest finishing process,” says Sunderman. “However, they are required to make the product work on different applications.”

There is minimal benefit to a standalone wide-format print, alone and naked in the world. What often makes wide-format so useful are the various finishing or mounting processes. Not all of these have any particular impact on the environment, but it’s becoming important for shops—and customers—to understand what is and isn’t an environmentally friendly finishing process.

The Plant Itself

This isn’t limited to wide-format, but the printing facility itself contributes to the overall sustainability and environmental friendliness of a print product. It was Sandy Alexander’s new wide-format printing facility that won the WhatTheyThink Environmental Innovation Award for “Sustainability and Your Plant.”

“In designing and constructing our wide- and grand-format/retail visual merchandising facility, we made protecting the environment an upfront priority,” says Madigan. “First, we reallocated a major portion of a paper warehouse and converted it to a state-of-the art large-format facility rather than start new construction, which would have used more energy and additional raw materials. The remodeled facility was designed to minimize energy usage with drop ceilings to keep in heat; offices on the second floor to capture heat in the winter; the newest equipment, which minimizes makeready and increases productivity; low-flow bathrooms; and silver recapture systems in the photolab.”

Visual Marking Systems’ Sunderman also stresses how productive equipment can help reduce the environmental footprint of the process. “[Faster] turnaround time, less people in the building, less water consumption in bathrooms, and less waste being generated by each press. For wide-format equipment and consumables, one should realize the impact of less set-up time, that it will reduce the cost of each product.”

Improving some of the basic aspects of visual imaging can also pay off environmentally. “We cannot emphasize enough the importance of color management,” says Madigan. “Not only does it reduce makeready time and reduce waste, it ensures consistent brand imagery for a client’s marketing campaign regardless of your substrate, quantity, or piece size.”

As with many things, being “sustainable” is about more than environmental sustainability. It can also help the business “sustain” itself, as most “green” practices are also practices that make shops leaner, more efficient, and generate less waste, and thus reduce costs. This is all good for the environment—and the business.