Sustainability is integral to the long-term prosperity of the global print industry. It may have been slow to begin tackling the challenges and changes society is demanding of all organisations, but print Paul Franklin, head of UK production print graphic arts business unit at Konica Minolta explained how print has since moved fast and is now leading the way, providing a blueprint for others to follow.

When it comes to sustainability, one of the key factors is the ability to assess and minimise the carbon footprint. There are two distinct sides to reducing the carbon footprint in the print industry, firstly through the manufacturing and distribution process, and through the operating lifecycle of the machines themselves.

When it comes to the manufacturing and distribution side of things, Konica Minolta proudly provides Carbon Neutrality to offset the impact of its customers buying a new product. Logistics are crucial for this, for example when shipping a bulky product it makes far more sense to perform a pre-delivery inspection at the manufacturing plant and then ship it straight to the customer, rather than sending it to a regional supply office first.

We have also developed an innovative air cushioning material to replace styrene foam, which is suitable even for MFPs weighing 80kg or more, but can be flexibly applied to fully protect any product. It is lighter and more compact than styrene and can be reused, which reduces waste, lowers CO2 emissions, storage requirements and costs.

The other side of the equation is the working efficiency of the product – which has seen significant improvements in recent years. This is where working with a savvy vendor really pays dividends in terms of both economics and sustainability. It’s important to consider the ROI not just in terms of cost per print, but also energy consumption and the broader impact on the environment.

For example, energy consumption has been reduced with automated calibration and more efficient use of toner and print materials, which also saves on wastage and the associated costs, along with the environmental impact from premature disposal. Remote diagnostics and intelligent systems ensure service engineers make fewer visits (also reducing their carbon footprint), and plant-based toner is more sustainable as well as kinder to the environment during disposal. Lots of relatively small benefits really add up to a demonstrable and impressive advance in sustainability.   

Recycling and improved operational efficiency

Recycling has long been a key area where the print industry has been very well geared to sustainability. The re-use of toner containers is a prime example, but also (particularly with the high-end presses) there has been a noticeable increase in the size of the container/drum which results in less wastage.

Strict EU rules regarding the size and weight have been in place to protect the people handling them, resulting in components becoming smaller and consequently changed more often. However, now there is a drive towards keeping the machines running at optimum performance for longer periods, but still with the benefits of recycling.

The use of intelligent chips on toner cartridges also enables better accountability and monitoring of resource use, as well as lowering the likelihood of the wrong one being used in the wrong machine, which could result in considerable wastage, as well as an expensive and time-consuming cleaning process.

Workflow efficiency

This is another important aspect of print sustainability and something we are keen to promote. Many commercial printers adopt a certain process because it appears to suit their business needs, but too often there is no consideration of how they could adapt or change it to be more efficient.

Using time and motion analysis can often highlight issues, as well as potential savings that may not otherwise be immediately obvious. This is a perfect conversation to have at the point of sale, as the benefits are obvious, although it can be more awkward when reviewing a customer’s entrenched processes. However, if you can add efficiencies to a business (especially to address specific pain points), there are obvious financial rewards as well as the underlying sustainability gains.

Safe disposal

Whilst most printing equipment components are recyclable (particularly mechanical parts, where over 95% can be recycled), there are still some elements which need to be handled and disposed of carefully, such as electronic components. On a basic level, most printing machines are a metal frame and the mechanical parts are interchangeable and replaceable. Whilst responsible manufacturers aim to recycle as many components as possible, some parts (or even whole machines) can be sold on the used market.

Whilst this has some sustainability merit in itself, we like to keep a trace on parts where possible to ensure we know their source and remaining lifespan. In fact, there have been a number of cases where we have traced parts for customers by serial number and they have been quite surprised by the history of what they have bought! 

Potential barriers to sustainability

As with all industries, there are real-world barriers which can make sustainability a challenge in the print industry. Economic pressures are a key factor in all markets – emerging markets tend to focus on price above most other concerns, but politics can also play a big part in this too. For instance, the current US administration’s viewpoint that costs override environmental concerns has coloured the market, yet in the Nordic countries we are seeing just the reverse.

Undoubtedly attitudes in the market are either a key driver or barrier to sustainability efforts, as it is buyers that ultimately drive this. For example, we are seeing a trend towards fewer base substrates in paper due to concerns over disposal, but biodegradable paper is still more expensive, which doesn’t appeal to all markets.

Arguably we need more sustainability targets set by governments, and in the UK organisations such as the BPIF and IPIA are lobbying the Government to increase these. Brexit may also provide an opportunity for a shake-up in UK legislation, with the British Government soon able to decide its own rules without having to adhere to the more ‘one size fits all’ approach of the EU.

Print versus digital

It’s all too easy to present digital technology as a modern replacement for print as a medium, but this comes down to personal preference and acceptance by the chosen audience. Undoubtedly, digital is a popular choice, but printed media continues to have a vitally important role to play in grabbing our attention. For example, figures from the BPIFshow that for 60% and 50% of the time we spend reading newspapers and magazines respectively, our focus is spent solely on that medium.

Printed information (be it an event programme, a restaurant menu, a wall calendar, a printed novel, important financial documents and even medical prescriptions etc.) is still important because it is practical, robust and always readable (it is never going to run out of battery!) In many cases a tangible physical copy is the preference for real-world usage.

There are also applications where print can’t be replaced – the obvious ones being packaging and signage. As well as branding, print provides important information on the usage of the product inside (from box opening instructions to vital medicine dosage and allergy details – which literally save lives).  

It is also worth pointing out that the paper industry (as a whole) compares very well to the digital systems alternatives in terms of using far more sustainable/renewable and less harmful raw materials.

For example, BPIF figures show that the ICT industry accounts for around 2.5-3% of global GHG emissions (predicted to rise to 14% by 2040), and smartphones accounted for 435,000 tonnes of e-waste in 2016. However, European forests have been growing by over 1,500 football pitches every day and these supply over 90% of the wood used by the European paper industry, whilst 53% of the fibre comes from paper recycling. Paper is most definitely a renewable resource and we need to ensure this is clear in the mind of consumers to ensure these products are not unfairly demonised.

At the end of the day print will continue whilst there is still a demand for the end product and there are no signs that this will end. Direct mail production is an example of a growing trend in the print market, which is currently enjoying a 10% growth rate year on year. Print is still a trusted medium, be it a financial statement, bill or legal letter.   

Reaching sustainability goals

Every manufacturing process has an impact on the environment (be that the carbon footprint or waste), but what the print industry has done is to offset and minimise these factors to a very high degree.

Well-managed paper production has proven itself to be highly sustainable and the use of plant-based inks, along with largely recyclable technology, means that the print industry can rightly hold its head high as an environmentally conscious and considerate sector.

Digital technology may appear to be a cleaner alternative to many, but the energy needed to manufacture and run devices, let alone the issues of dealing with old hardware, mean that it still has a long way to go to replace print in terms of sustainability.