Becoming more sustainable in print

Climate change is having a serious impact on the planet and requires not only our immediate focus, but meaningful action to avoid doing irreversible and catastrophic damage to the environment.

Becoming more sustainable in print

Human activity is responsible for almost all of the increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) we have seen in the last 150 years. GHG traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere making the planet warmer. The natural systems for dealing with CO2 – plant photosynthesis and dissolution in the oceans, simply cannot keep up. Planting trees can only do so much. Studies indicate that we cannot grow nearly enough trees to capture the increased amount of CO2 that is necessary to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, where it was agreed that global warming should be limited to well below 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. Reports indicate there is a high probability we could exceed this limit by the end of century if we don’t take urgent and positive action now to reduce our emissions.

The average global GHG emissions per person, per year, is 4.7 metric tons*. Australia has one of the highest GHG emissions per capita at almost 23.5 tons. New Zealand’s per capita is 16.9 tons** The main contributors being energy (coal in AU) and agriculture (methane in NZ).

Recently world leaders gathered at the G-20 Summit in Rome and Glasgow for COP26. It was an opportunity for world leaders to come together to make decisions on how to tackle climate change and to negotiate coordinated objectives and actions. Countries agree to bind themselves to self- directed targets with the goal of lowering GHG emissions in their respective countries. This year’s meeting was especially important as it is the first time since Paris 2015 that countries updated their pledges around climate change.

New Zealand has pledged a 50% reduction of emissions by 2030. Australia has a reduction target of 28% by 2030 which it predicts it will exceed as well as being net zero by 2050. Ambitious plans.
While goals are good, action is what we need for humanity to thrive.

As an industry we are certainly not the worst offenders in the environment however slowing the ecological impact requires a collective effort. We do use a lot of plastic (fossil fuel/waste) and contribute to growing CO2 levels compared to when it was just brushes and bicycles.

What steps can the print industry take in order to reduce CO2 emissions without compromising the commercial reality or quality of work?

Materials and Design
An obvious place to start is to look at the materials we use. Our industry uses a lot of plastic, mainly PVC. When people think about plastic, the environmental issue that springs to mind is the impact of waste and its enduring durability. Largely overlooked is the carbon foot print created by making plastic in the first place.

Plastics are made from oil and gas and the energy needed to produce them is very intensive. Some plastics create more of a burden than others and unfortunately PVC is one of the most carbon intensive plastics to make ***. Not all projects require the conformability or long term weatherability of PVC so look for better materials to use.

When looking for alternative products consider the whole lifecycle of the product from cradle to grave to get a true appreciation of the carbon impact. You may end up choosing a product that appears to have a lower carbon footprint but creates more carbon during its service life or when it is disposed of end of life.

For paper, look for environmental certifications such as FSC and PEFC to ensure responsible sourcing.
Consider design and how materials can be used to minimize waste. Displays can be reused by changing the graphics and reusing the framework. Substrates can be refurbished with a new print rather than complete replacement.

What materials do you use to package your print? Plastic packaging and tape may be difficult for your customer to recycle end of life.

It is not just what we print but how we print it and the electricity we use to run printers and equipment, as well as heating and cooling workshops and print rooms.

It can be as simple as switching off lights and machinery when not needed, improving efficiencies in printing and workflow or consulting with different energy service providers to access more renewable energy sources.

Using solar tints on windows is another great energy saving tool to reduce the energy needed to heat and cool workspaces.

Transport is a large contributor to CO2 emissions in both countries. Running electric vehicles while not zero emissions emit less carbon overall. It is certainly not a perfect solution as the sourcing and disposal of the material used for batteries is carbon intensive and while not directly burning fossil fuel, EVs are using electricity which can be coming from a power plant that is. However, it still an improvement and the way of the future.

Improving your transport logistics by planning deliveries and installations more efficiently is a quick and easy way to make an immediate change. For some campaigns you can choose products that customers can apply themselves to reduce site visits.

Better managing your inventory and consolidating your material orders will cut down on those urgent courier deliveries for small amounts of stock (as well as saving you money).

End of Life
Recycling has significant value in reducing GHG. While recycling uses energy, it does so in far less quantities than sourcing and manufacturing with raw materials.

Recycling also means less waste in landfills. Some materials, like paper, create methane when they decompose in anaerobic environments (environments without air). Methane is more efficient at trapping heat and therefore far more potent than CO2. Look for materials that can readily be recycled locally.

Carbon Offsetting
Reduction is always the best option, but when you have done all you can, there are many initiatives you can invest in to offset your carbon emissions.

Sustainability is more than just a goal it is a way of being. Before you can commit to something you need to care and you need motivation.

Not everyone believes in climate change, its impact or role that humanity plays. Skeptics may say that the planet has warmed and cooled before, it is just a natural cycle, but it is not just about saving the planet. Changes in temperature have the power to wreak havoc on life on earth. Just ask the dinosaurs. The effects of a warmer earth may not end up in complete annihilation but even small rises in temperature are severely disruptive to quality of life.

Rising ocean levels displace communities who live on the coast. Increased heavy rainfall or warmer and dryer seasons impact farmers and communities who rely on crops and animals for their wellbeing. The climate window for human life is very narrow. At very high and humid temperatures our bodies can’t effectively cool down. Over the last 40 years, dangerously high heats are increasingly recorded. Extreme heat effects people’s ability to function properly and increases mortality. Jobs that require people to work outside are disrupted.

Global warming is also a social issue. These changes disproportionally impact on people in poorer environments and create even more social inequality. This is all in addition to the direct and far-reaching consequences on species and the ecosystem.

We have an obligation to future generations to do our part. It does not have to be at the cost of business either, in fact, as consumers increasingly favour doing business with companies who have an environmental conscious, it many even improve it.

Data source:* ***** Life cycle inventory analysis of Co2 emissions manufacturing commodity plastics in Japan N Naritta, M Sagisaka, A Inaba
Article first published in Image Magazine Dec 2021/Jan 2022