Reduce, reuse, recycle—these three words are synonymous with eco-friendly practices. Many industries have the opportunity to improve their environmental presence by recycling and reducing consumption. Print is no exception, although it comes down to cost and convenience. While many print service providers (PSPs) and trusted suppliers show interest in and make an effort towards sustainability; several roadblocks remain in the way of mainstream adoption.
Cost is a major barrier. End users, clients, and PSPs are all for being “green,” but priority is secondary to the price tag. Most often, it is left in the hands of the customer when it comes to responsibly disposing of used media. As many large retailers and big brands work on improving their environmental reputation, they demand partners that reflect this image. Print providers are doing what they can to comply. This includes the use of more eco-friendly ink, media, and printing processes; but also expands into the disposal of graphics after they have served their purpose.
Depending on the determination of the PSP—and the extent of a customer’s environmental demands—there are many steps towards sustainability. In addition to the use of eco-friendly materials or processes, PSPs help educate customers and employees on environmental practices, even implementing programs in house to encourage recycling. Additionally, supply chain management programs help PSPs earn certifications to prove the validity of environmental claims.
Just as solvent ink is considered harsh on the environment, polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC)—or vinyl, carries a similar environmental stigma. Many customers seek PVC-free media alternatives to help launch sustainable programs. A variety of green media solutions are PVC free, recyclable, or made from recyclable products.
Ultraflex Systems, Inc. offers biodegradable PVC, referred to as BIOflex. It is engineered with a nontoxic formula that, at very low levels, enables landfill decomposition of BIOflex PVC. In the landfill, the carbon and hydrogen content of BIOflex are partly consumed by the biomass organisms and partly released as methane from fermentation. In a well-managed landfill, methane is harvested for use as fuel.
The chlorine content of BIOflex is partly consumed and partly converted to soluble chloride, which is valued as fertilizer by making soil nitrogen more rapidly available to plants.
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a growing alternative to PVC. Hewlett-Packard (HP) offers HP HDPE Reinforced Banner, a recyclable, lightweight woven substrate. The media is designed as an alternative to PVC scrim banner products. It offers the performance and strength of 13-ounce PVC scrim in a 5.5-ounce material. A study by HP indicates that the weight difference is a key reason why the HDPE banner has a carbon footprint one-third the equivalent of PVC-based banners.
Fabric manufacturers offer materials created from recycled content. Fisher Textiles, Inc. offers its sustainable media for dye-sublimation (dye-sub), UV, and latex printing. Enviro-Tex Plus Reclaim fabrics are made from 100 percent recycled yarns and 100 percent post-consumer waste. Repreve yarns meet Federal Trade Commission guidelines for recycled products.
Reduction is another step taken by media manufacturers. “We adapted the Environmental Protection Agency’s philosophy of reduce, reuse, and recycle,” says Bryan Rose, VP business manager, Cooley Group. Specific to the billboard market, the company took what was once a 12-ounce material and supplies it as a seven ounce, reducing the footprint by almost 50 percent. “We changed the design and weight, and reduced the amount of PVC being used,” he explains.
Utilization of eco-friendly media is a step in the right direction for most, but the next phase—disposal—is challenging. The availability of facilities that handle digitally printed graphics is lacking and inconsistent. There is a large opportunity for the industry to come together to resolve the issue. “Actual recycling facilities are often municipal and governmental, so it’s difficult to get everyone in the country on board with recycling, even if substrates are recyclable,” notes Shannon Palmer, executive director, the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP).
Palmer does express the importance of starting the process with sustainable media. Currently landfills are the only mainstream lifecycle, so biodegradable materials are critical. “These materials need to exist in the world, and then we can place the infrastructure to recycle them all,” she adds.
Closing the Loop
The recycling infrastructure in the U.S. isn’t as strong as one may believe, points out Marcia Y. Kinter, VP, government and business information, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, and chairperson, SGP. It is a challenge to generate the quantity of recyclable media necessary to interest a recycling facility.
HP is a major proponent for sustainability in the graphic arts. The company offers a take-back program for certain HDPE- and PET-based media targeted specifically towards PSPs and consumers that do not have the quantity necessary to recycle printed end-of-life media.
The free HP Large Format Media take-back program and recycling scheme enables organizations to return media to HP for recycling. Acceptable media is primarily intended for use with HP Latex and other HP Designjet printers.
“The program is targeted at the little guy and for smaller batches of media. When we went to market with our recyclable media, we quickly learned that although it was recyclable in principle, in practice it was pretty difficult to get small amounts of signage media processed,” says Stephen Goddard, environmental leadership program manager, graphics business, HP.
Goddard explains that less than a ton of media makes it difficult to get a recycling facility to talk to you. “This program is meant to make it easier for PSPs and customers that possess small amounts of media to recycle. It’s intended as an aggregation program. We collect the material and send it to a recycling company in a quantity that interests them,” he adds.
Large format substrate manufacturers and suppliers—from roll to rigid—have made a point to offer eco-friendly media. In addition to HP’s take-back program, other eco-conscious media manufactures not only offer recyclable media, but provide an outlet for the next step.
Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc. provides its FabRecycle program, which allows participating Aurora customers to keep used polyester fabrics out of landfills. PSPs are encouraged to contact their local Aurora distributor for collection information or instructions on sending approved, discarded fabric directly to Aurora.
Once a PSP collects at least 25 pounds of any of Aurora’s 100 percent polyester fabric from its dye-sub line—including printed, unprinted, and scraps—participants notify Aurora customer service and follow shipping instructions. The material is collected and placed back into the recycle stream where it is turned into other products.
Cooley offers the Cooley REFLEX Billboard Recycling Program, which provides two approaches for the recycling of its billboard products. The company hopes to develop a commercially viable recycling program in order to circumvent landfill disposal of billboard products.
Cooley-produced billboard materials—such as uninstalled scraps from PSPs and installed billboards that are no longer needed, including both PVC and non-PVC—are accepted. Customers interested in taking advantage of the program are asked to collect enough boards for a full skid, package it, and then contact the company.
Once Cooley receives the material, it is sent to a partner recycling facility where it is reprocessed and transformed into single-ply roofing. A letter of destruction is sent to the customer for their records.
The program has been in effect for a few years, but doesn’t generate a lot of action due to cost and logistics. Cooley handles the material once it is shipped back, but customers are responsible for shipping costs. To address this, the company is in the final developmental stages of creating a 100 percent non-PVC billboard, bulletin, and poster material, which is attractive to large recycling facilities.
“The material is recycled by a company called Avangard. They pick up billboards after use and take them back to their facility to reprocess them into a useful product and ultimately return it to Cooley to be manufactured into new billboard materials,” says Rose.
Visual Magnetics LP creates 100 percent recyclable products and offers a complete end-of-life process for its media, encouraging customers to return all used materials for processing. The magnetic-receptive technology enables the company to revolutionize the way retail outlets go about producing ever-changing, in-store campaigns. By eliminating the need to replace the product after every use, Visual Magnetics helps to reduce waste.
Users are encouraged to return used products to Visual Magnetics to be recycled into automotive manufacturing and electricity production. There are no restrictions to the program; Visual Magnetics takes back any and all of its material. Once returned, 85 percent of the product weight goes into steel production for the automotive industry while the remaining 15 percent is used for electricity production.