Sustainable Challenges, Opportunities

Autumn officially has arrived. As night-time temperatures dip into the low 40s, winter already is knocking on Chicago’s contracting door stoop. Even during the PRINT 13 show in early September, the weather was in the 90s for a few days, which was unseasonably hot, then it dropped. Inside, some show-goers turned on the heat in their hotel rooms; outside, the homeless sleeping on the streets scrambled to keep warm on chilly nights. On the city’s Northwest Side, church volunteers met to repurpose and crochet plastic grocery bags, weaving them together into pads that soften homeless sleep on the hard, cold ground.

There are companies that do this, too. TerraCycle, a global firm based in Trenton, NJ, is focused on recycling everything from worm poop (into fertilizer) to cigarette butts (into plastic pellets). It upcycles and recycles traditionally non-recycable waste (including drink pouches, chip bags, and tooth brushes) into a large variety of consumer products. TerraCycle products are available at a range of retailers, from Target to Walmart, as well as online.

In Seattle, large-format print firm Stella Color has created a profit center by selling products created from its waste. Cleverly sewn bowls made from salvaged off-cuts are priced at $25 or $30, plus shipping, depending on size. Materials vary and can be anything from printed vinyl, mesh, canvas, or fabrics (basically anything that can be sewn). “No two are alike,” claims Stella’s website. “Pop them inside-out for a different look!” Fashion totes ($30) are another product featured in the print firm’s “upcycled goods” line. A $35 portable tool/arts-and-crafts caddy has plenty of pockets, and a re-used cardboard lining keeps it rigid.

Stella Color installed the first HP L65500 latex printer in the Pacific Northwest, boasting a 100-inch print width at 1,200-dpi resolution. The SGP-certified firm continues its commitment to the environment with the region’s first low-VOC ink supply system. It also offers continuous-tone printing at 2,880 dpi with a 64-inch Epson 11880. The device uses a nine-color ink system featuring proprietary UltraChrome K3 inks.

Environmental regs

“There is a trend toward latex, UV, and aqueous -- and away from solvents -- as [environmental] regulatory pressures increase with regard to indoor air quality,” points out Dave Sunderman, marketing manager at Visual Marking Systems (VMS), Twinsburg, OH. In Ohio, he added, a baseline metric now is part of the air-quality assessment process from the state’s Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation. There are rumors about more chemical bans coming in California and confirmed reports from across the “pond” in Europe.

At the national level, it is no secret that to protect workers against the health effects of exposure to hazardous substances, the U.S Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) enforceable permissible exposure limits have gotten more stringent for air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “Limiting employee exposure may mean adding a new shift, improving ventilation systems, or adding other safety equipment,” the VMS executive noted.

“At VMS, we’ve gone completely solvent-less unless a customer requires it, which is less than two percent of our business,” said Sunderman, who also became a board member at the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) this past January. “We’ve also consolidated our supply base for wide-format [print], vehicle graphics, and tradeshow displays … and try to choose new equipment that uses less energy,” such as its latex and two electrostatic inkjet devices (HP Indigos).

Putting on his SGP hat, Sunderman explained that there are two ways to recycle material. The first method is to pulp, grind, and repurpose. The second way is by incineration. “Thermoset basically melts down plastic to remold it,” he said, adding that problems set in when toxic and even deadly emissions are the result of the burning process, depending on polymers and molecular structure.

“PVC [polyvinyl chloride] is a case in point,” Sunderman noted. “It is considered a ‘landfill item.’” SGP works with suppliers to meet ecological standards, he continued. For example, 3M Commercial Graphics offers Envision Print Wrap Film, which is PVC-free. Dye-transfer media also are gaining traction. Substitute products need to meet the durability standards of the original product, he explained. Ideally, they exceed the warranty, too, and are cheaper. “You cannot have environmental sustainability without economic sustainability,” Sunderman concluded.

However, finding economic sustainability can be a problem, according to Nicki Macfarlane, president of wide-format shop ProGraphix in Austin, TX, which is the only SGP-certified printer in the capital city and the second in the entire state of Texas. “For sustainable media that is currently available, it is frequently higher in price than traditional media,” Macfarlane lamented in an email. “It can be difficult to pass this increase in cost on to the customer, so due to the decrease in our margins, we don’t use it. I would definitely prefer to use these products and would if they were closer in price.”

She counts “finding a recyclable and/or non-PVC banner material that is comparable in price and outdoor durability as 13-oz. vinyl” among her two largest challenges. The other: finding media rolls -- especially paper and banner -- that are made with recycled content.

Midwest challenge, too

Such challenges are widespread across the United States. In Madison, WI, the biggest problem for retail graphics specialist Great Big Pictures “is getting material that’s wide,” said Michael Haeger, who heads up the 40-year-old firm’s vendor management and procurement. “In the roll-to-roll paradigm, getting stuff manufactured to size – as large as 102.5 inches wide and up to 112 inches – has become more challenging as mills have shut down and others are running at full capacity.”

While people may be more conscious about green products, most customers still are not willing to pay more for them, Haeger reported. “And finding alternatives is challenging,” he agreed. Fifteen-ounce PET126, a polyethylene terephthalate plastic material with glass fiber reinforcement, is available and is reasonably priced competitively speaking. “But it still costs more than PVC vinyl.” Although his firm’s outdoor vinyl consumption is half of what it was two years ago, there still is demand for heavier materials with internal structures, such as banner and scrim vinyl, he added.

A high-speed Durst Rho 500R super-wide printer, which uses no-VOC, UV-cured inks, is among the printers that Great Big Pictures runs in its 90,000-square-foot facility. Like VMS in Ohio, the firm has put its solvent machines out to pasture in Wisconsin. “We retired them last month,” Haeger said, adding that the 30-year-old technology had been “shut down for quite a while. The market [for it] is smaller, and much of it is moving over to fabric.”

On the re-use side, “China closed its doors to recycling vinyl back in April,” Haeger noted. Sustainability coordinator Kate McCardell is looking into shifting waste products to a Colorado firm that can handle vinyl. "We are in the process of partnering with Ecologic Designs in Boulder, CO. They will be taking our waste vinyl and upcycling it, thus diverting it from the landfill. They will also be using a portion of that vinyl to create custom upcycled products for us," she said.