Steps to Sustainability

There’s no escaping the “green” movement. These days, everyone is trying to establish themselves as the latest environmentally forward leader. And the sign industry is no different. Plastic manufacturers especially have been under tough scrutiny in recent years, but many are challenging the criticism with eco-conscious practices and recycling programs. And they even offer ways for you to discover more green practices.

AN ECO-CONSCIOUS PLANT

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a carbon footprint is any daily activity that emits greenhouse gases, and plastic providers actively are looking for ways to lessen this environmental impression.

Connie Hartman, owner of Hartman Plastics, says her company has restructured its production process to eliminate harmful volatile organic compounds from entering the atmosphere. When these types of VOCs are released, it is a direct greenhouse gas, which is believed to deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming as well as be harmful to human health.

There also are conservative business practices that plastic manufacturers and distributors are examining. Although it may seem almost too easy, Brett Thompson, director of environmental affairs of Laird Plastics, says Laird has lessened its carbon footprint by making simple changes in its daily routine.

For example, Laird’s Portland, Ore. facility reduced its natural gas consumption by 24 percent through several reduction initiatives, while Laird’s Austin, Texas facility decreased its electrical consumption by 8 percent, just by changing the thermostat settings.

“We practice our sustainability strategy so that it touches every element of our business, everything from invoicing electronically to using less paper,” explains Thompson. “We track the power consumption, water usage, all of the resources we consume as a company. We track the data at every location, every year.”

Measuring these simple standards, he believes, gives credibility to Laird’s sustainability message.

DELIVERING A ‘GREEN’ PROMISE

Typically, when you think of eco-conscious plastic providers, your immediate thoughts may turn to those green terms, specifically recycling. But plastic providers are looking at more options these days, and that includes shipping origins and practices.

To significantly reduce fuel emissions, Jerry White, national sales manager of Kommerling USA, suggests buying from North America. A large ocean-crossing vessel is used to transport the plastic, but not only does this vessel have a vast area to cover, it also consumes one gallon of fuel per 10 feet. For a 7,195-mile trip, that is 3,798,960 gallons of fuel is consumed.

However, trucking in North America provides a more eco-conscious option.

“You look at trucking, which is far less expensive with less consumption and leaves less of a carbon foot print than anything else you can buy, anywhere else in the world,” explains White. “You can trade freely in the North American continent. It takes less time. You can transport by rail or by truck, and those are fairly efficient and less expensive.”

As stated in Alcan Composites’ Care & Conserve sustainability program, plastic providers can reduce shipping inefficiencies and scrap, which begins when raw materials are purchased, and then converted into boards, panels or sheets. The average width of the long-haul shipping trucks is 98", and that only is large enough for two 36" skids. Consequently, this leaves 16" of unused space, resulting in increased shipping cost and a 16 percent loss of capacity and fuel waste.

But, if your project can be designed to fit on a 32" skid, three skids now can fit across that same 98" truck width, instead of two. By simply making a sizing alteration, you can reduce your carbon footprint.

FOCUSING ON YOUR SHOP

Sure, there has been plenty of talk about “biodegradable” plastic, but there also is ample controversy surrounding the idea.

“When you say a product is biodegradable, you’re just encouraging people to generate more trash, and, right now, there’s so much pressure on landfills,” remarks Thompson. 

However, there are types of plastic that can be efficiently recycled, and plastic providers are making that process easy by bringing their efforts to your shop with various recycling programs.

Thompson continues, “We’re all trying to reduce our waste and reduce what we use. Recycling addresses that much more so than biodegradability.”

Although the details of each recycling program vary by manufacturers and distributors, the basic concept is the same: Set aside your used signage and let your plastic provider ensure those scraps go to the appropriate repurposing center, not a landfill. In some cases, the plastic provider may be able to pick up your excesses directly from your shop, but there also might be times where the two of you will have to decide on a mutually agreed drop point. Those situations differ on an individual basis.

White believes this type of program is more convenient for sign shop owners. If you were to recycle on your own accord, you would be required to take the time to categorize all of your scraps and even pay for the recycling service. Failing to sort through your waste is a direct ticket to the nearest landfill. Conversely, a sponsored recycling program takes that extra task off your hands free of charge.

“It won’t cost you anything. We’re going to give you a bin. You fill that sucker up, and when it’s ready, you call us,” says White.

Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t advantages to taking that extra step of sorting your plastic scraps. Thompson notes that some types of plastic are morevaluable than others. Acrylics, polycarbonate and PETG are good examples, but separation is the key to get the most value out of each bin of recycled plastic.

Mail-back recycling programs also are available, such as the one offered by DuPont Nonwovens. Carolyn Burns, marketing manager for graphics of DuPont Nonwovens, cites that DuPont Nonwovens’ recycling program actually is a joint effort with Waste Management, a provider of waste and environmental services. DuPont’s program specifically is designed for signs, banners and other miscellaneous items that are produced from Tyvek, a 100 percent recyclable polyethylene. Customers can track their orders online, the weight of each returned package and receive a cumulative total for the year.

If you are serious about increasing your shop’s green efforts, Burns and Annette Kim, marketing manager for wide format of DuPont Nonwovens, recommend applying for certification from the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, an organization that encourages environmental awareness and practices within the print and graphics industry. 

To meet certification standards, the SGP Web site states that you must comply with all environmental, health, safety and employment regulations as well as adhere to SGP Guiding Principles and produce a written sustainability policy. For a complete copy of the SGP Certification Criteria, you can visit www.sgppartnership.org.

By becoming certified, you should find that potential eco-conscious clients will seek you out, strictly based on your environmentally friendly priorities.

“Instead of having to hunt around for a printer, that client can find someone who is like-minded in environmental responsibility,” explains Kim. “Now you have a group of printers that are audited and want to be responsible, and clients can go right to them and get their materials printed by those printers that share that philosophy.”