It's Not Easy Being Green

With the growing trends toward sustainable or eco-friendly products from major national customers, print-service-providers have been faced with a difficult challenge: unearthing the truth to many of the claims of “biodegradable”, “recyclable”, and “eco-friendly” media products.

Staying in business today is not easy and “going green” can be even harder. Is it worth the time and investment? Two sustainable experts weigh in on some of the most pressing sustainability questions facing the wide- and grand-format industry.


Recyclable? Biodegradable? What’s the difference? Is one more important?

Which should you look for?


Mike Horsten, CEO, Zemt Green & Sustainable Consultants: The question is not what is better but what is the final use of the materials. Most products in the world are recyclable but at what cost and is it economically feasible. The recycling could cost more to the environment (energy consumption and CO2 emissions), than the benefit of having it recycled. On the other hand if it’s biodegradable, you are making a great excuse to still use landfills and get rid of the waste easily. Remember some products are biodegradable, but it takes hundreds of years and they can produce all kind of gasses or leak heavy metals into the soil. Some are even contra productive in the reduction of CO2 emissions.

I would always take a close look at the possibilities of the recycling option as long as it really benefits the general picture. In our industry there are very few biodegradable products—think of PVC (Bysonil) and all the hard core products (Forex/Gatorboard) used in flatbed printing. Most of these can be reused in the production of new products or as insulation for houses, so there is a recycle option.

Make sure when in doubt that you look at the composition of the original material, check how it’s made and ask your vendor. If there is any chance of recycling then go for that option, it’s always better then landfills. Just a note: Recycled paper requires 64 percent less energy than making paper from virgin wood pulp, so that is an advantage to count in.


Marcia Y. Kinter, vice president - Government & Business Information, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA): There is a huge difference between biodegradable and recyclable. To make a recyclable claim, the product must be diverted from the solid waste stream. And, most importantly, the product must be accepted by a recycling program that is available in a substantial majority of communities. Claims of degradability, biodegradability or photodegradability should be qualified to the extent necessary to avoid consumer deception about: (1) the product or package’s ability to degrade in the environment where it is customarily disposed; and (2) the rate and extent of degradation. There is a specific test method that is associated with biodegradability.


Who regulates and approves processes/claims regarding eco-friendly, recyclable, biodegradable products? Does one claim “matter” more or hold more weight than another?


Horsten: This is the real catch 21, there are many organizations that are approving all kind of claims that their product is recyclable or biodegradable, but what is the benefit to the general cause? The economic marketing of green products is something that worries me. The information given is seldom complete and most vendors are not willing to share their trade secrets. Again, most reputable companies are working on getting the standards right and are investing lots of R&D to make their products greener. I really hope that we get into the green mode and look at using the right product for the right job instead of offering products that are available and therefore they must be green.

It’s like UV curable inks they—are not the healthiest products—the monomers in the inks need the UV light to be cured, but most people don’t know that monomers are harmful to the human species. The curing makes the monomers into polymers and these are safe, but the monomers are only cured for 90 percent and the rest of the curing takes time between seven and 14 days, and as long as they are not cured they are harmful.

The result of marketing is that we think products are safe but we know little about them and their safety.

So the claim of green is something that is still a grey area for many products in the market today. I do see many new products appear, and I hope that the common sense of the producers kicks in and the buying of better products will start happening. There are some certifications that are now evolving and are setting standards, FSC was one of the first, the ISO standards are another, but in our industry there are really none. The other main problem with certifications is that there are no long term audits checking if you are still doing what you said that you would be doing. The self audits are something that opens loopholes and gives fraud a chance.


Kinter: Ah, here is the tough question. The federal agency that investitgates, notice I said investigates, environmental claims is the Federal Trade Commission. There may be similar agencies at the state level. There are no regulations governing the use of environmental marketing terms. This is very important to note. There is no approval process, no regulations, and the only federal guidelines is the FTC Green Guides to Marketing that should be updated later this year. And, there is no hierarchy regarding environmental claims. I think the bigger issue is whether or not the company making the claim can actually back it up with data.


When sourcing an eco-friendly media, what should you look for?


Horsten: The sourcing of eco-friendly media is not easy as the customers are demanding products and most signage companies are producing what is asked for. So there is little incentive to offer green products as long as the customers are not informed or if there is a mechanism in place to give advice to use these products. The important factor is that the pricing of these eco-friendly products should not be over the top, although you can ask a bit more than the traditional products used today. Another important factor is if the vendor is standing behind their products with a good reliable recycling program. Hewlett Packard for example is investing heavily in their recycling programs to recall/recollect customers waste of used certain HP products. I stand behind this idea and hope many other vendors will follow. A joint effort of the main five vendors working together would be even better and would give the market a clear statement of the green vision they want to show.


Kinter: Again, I am taking this question from the marketing point of view. A printer should look for actual confirmation, such as data, test method results, etc. I would also recommend that they stay away from broad general claims such as environmental friendly, as this term is not easily defined. Or if they do choose that product, ask why. SGIA is working on an Environmental Marketing project that is intended to aid both suppliers as well as printers understand the terms used and what questions/data is necessary to avoid greenwashing.


In conclusion:

“Staying in business today is not easy. Going green and sustainable is even harder, but the satisfaction of knowing that your company can produce green and sustainable is a joy. The short term benefits are not as obvious as one might think,” said Horsten. “But they are there, 80 percent of the large corporations are looking deeply into the green production and they will make the choice of a green company over a non-green company if the pricing is not more than 10 percent off the current standards. This means that with minimal investments you could realize a 10 percent increase of the profits in the printing company. So is the investment of going green something you need to consider? Yes, you should going green will give your company the advantage in hard times, the advantage in choice and the advantage to do business with you current customers tomorrow.”