Market Intelligence: Is Print The True Green Technology?

In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, becoming more “green” is one resolution that few can find fault with. Unfortunately Green printing is impossible to define. It all depends on the angle the issue is looked at, how it is perceived by an observer. The biggest contributor to print being seen as a non-green technology is its usage of natural resources. Substrates need to be created, transported to a print shop, printed, shipped to the buyer of print, and stored in inventory. There are a lot of steps in this process, which often causes a waste of resources particularly when the print is never used (an estimated 30 percent of print is never “consumed” or used, it is thrown away because it is outdated or no longer needed).

Electronic content and display is perceived to use energy only when “consumed” by a recipient. There is no transportation, and no waste of paper. However, there is a large and growing hidden use of energy: servers. Today in the US, servers consume more than two percent of the US’s energy consumption. Some project servers will account for 10 percent of the US’s energy consumption by 2020. Regardless of outcome, the energy servers consume imposes a large and growing toll on the environment.

Most print can be recycled. The toxic waste associated with disposing of electronic devices, which often have a life of two to five years, is a very large, hidden cost of electronic content. Once print is created it consumes no additional resources. Electronic content consumes resources in perpetuity, growing exponentially as the content is stored on servers that continue to consume energy.

Being green is still at the early stages of impressions, feelings, and inclinations to do the “right thing. The perception is that print is not green since it consumes natural resources. But everything we do in life consumes resources, every movement we make, every piece of food we eat, every breath of air we take and exhale. Before we reach the stage that establishes a permanent perception that print is not green, we need to identify and help to correctly shape the impressions, feelings, and inclinations that will turn into beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. When the first factors are converted to the second factors the result is reality.

So what can we do as an industry to make print green? Making print green involves using sustainable substrates, none polluting inks, and processes that help the print process use less energy (such as LED-curing of UV-inks). There are many trade organizations trying to establish policies intended to set green standards for printing. All are well meaning, but until there is a cohesive effort and industry-wide recognition of definitions and measurements there are no standards.

Ultimately the most effective impact we can make on making print “Green” is to only print those pages that are going to be “consumed”. This is inevitable in part because electronic content alternatives are causing the elimination of pages that never had much value.

We have to be more careful stewards of our resources. We are only passing through on earth for a short period of time. Print is an important and very valuable tool in helping us to process and manage information; it will never be entirely replaced by electronic content and display. In fact, some day society may come to see print as the greenest way to share and store content since its carbon footprint is “locked” and does not expand in perpetuity unlike electronic content.

Until then, we need to be focused on printing just the amount of print we needed when it is needed. Digital production printing is going to be a big part of the solution of making print green. In 2013 it is expected there will be over 30 billion square feet of ink jet printed wide format output printed. Most of that output is printed as needed, just-in-time. The carbon footprint of this output is “locked”, and much of the output can be recycled. More needs to be done to enable lower-energy consumption related to curing of inks, and more needs to be done to allow recycling of all wide format output, but in the scheme of all other things that are consumed on a daily basis digitally printed wide format output is already very “green.”