Previously in this series, we addressed the “greenness” of media and inks and greener substitutes for traditional materials, especially PVC. This discussion has been aimed at providing solutions that represent a step forward in reducing the negative impact of inkjet printing and printed materials on people and the planet. Each of these materials can be helpful in our making progress as an industry toward this goal. These are, however, only individual pieces of the larger puzzle. A complete analysis of our products and processes is required if we are to move closer to our goal and not fool ourselves into believing that one new ink or material will have a net positive effect on the environment. Like some biofuels, they may take more energy to produce than the energy they provide us.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
The dictionary defines sustainability as “a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely.” Okay, what does that mean? In my view, to be “sustainable” a process must proceed through its life cycle and not deplete non-renewable resources. How does one do that? Well, one could grow and harvest a raw material like corn for corn-based ink, for example, convert it to a digitally printed product, like a printed cotton-based canvas, use it, take it to a land fill where it biodegrades back to fertilizer to grow more corn and cotton again. This is sort of a perpetual life cycle process. The only hitch is that it takes energy that may not be from renewable sources to produce these products from their raw materials and more energy to transport them. So, the full life cycle may not be as sustainable it appears on first blush.
LIFE CYCLE ANALYSIS (the complete picture)
As we look at what we are doing to produce our graphic products and consider all the “greener” components we might include in our offerings, we should consider all aspects of the “life cycle” if we are to be honest with ourselves and with our customers. For example, it’s true that a lightweight, recyclable polyolefin won’t biodegrade in a land fill, but it requires much less energy to produce and transport than a biodegradable PVC — and toxic vinyl chloride is not required in order to manufacture it. So, which is more sustainable? Only a full life cycle analysis will give you the answer.
If one were to recycle PVC, printed with corn-based inks, the secondary use product might be roofing material. This is a good way to reduce the amount of PVC produced, a good thing, but it only postpones the inevitable. The product will eventually end up in a landfill when it is no longer useful as a roofing material.
In 1973 DuPont’s inventor Nat Wyeth, brother of the famous artist Andrew Wyeth, invented the polyester soda bottle. DuPont made polyester resin and Dacron fibers for polyester-based fabrics. They wanted to sell their resins to bottlers who would use it to make bottles. This was much better than shipping and recycling (or reusing) glass bottles, but it created a big problem — billions of used polyester bottles. Various approaches to recycle these bottles have been undertaken, and solutions were soon discovered. Today billions of polyester bottles are recycled to become apparel, new bottles or polyester cloth banners in its second use. As long as the polyester reenters the recycling process it can be used to produce more polyester products time and time again. This fits my definition of a truly sustainable product.
One company that is taking an innovative approach to sustainable alternatives is Colorep, Inc. This technology development company has created a proprietary solution for promotional signage called Ecobanner that includes application development, program management, as well as a cradle-to-cradle recycling service for their products.
To verify their sustainability claims, Colorep has conducted Life Cycle Assessments of their products that calculates the environmental impact of all phases from raw material manufacture to disposal. This provides objective numbers that allow clients to compare different products with confidence.
With market demand for truly sustainable solutions so high, Colorep has also chosen to license the program to printing companies. The solution includes consumables, hardware and processes to provide final products that reduce green house gases by more than 80 percent and eliminates solid waste by offering collection and recycling of the materials after use. For more information, contact Colorep or visit www.ecobanner.com.
The subject of sustainability and claims that a product is sustainable, is potentially misleading and must be considered carefully to determine exactly how sustainable these claims really are. Consideration of all the elements of the whole “life cycle” remains the only way to really judge the true benefits of a particular product solution. The claims manufacturers and print providers may make that their products are “green” and “sustainable” needs to be questioned thoroughly to avoid the trap that “greenwash” claims frequently provide.