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Of 12,000 or more printing companies in the UK, only a small minority have taken voluntary steps to reduce their environmental impact over and above the legal requirements.


In the government’s Envirowise Attitudes 2000 survey, print came bottom of the list in terms of the number of firms which had adopted environmental policies.


The paper and print industry is the 4th largest industry in the UK. Printing has a huge impact on the environment and we, as graphic designers, are in a position to do something about it.





Like many other large industries, print uses masses of energy and chemicals. But it also consumes huge amounts of water, paper, aluminium and plastics.


But it is getting better: today, chemicals are rarely flushed into the drainage system, and computer-to-plate technology has done away with all that film. And just to prove that the industry is changing, we’ve listed the most environmentally aware printers – see Printfinder for more details.


However, there are still some things that environmentally aware designers should know.






This section encompasses both sheet-fed and web litho. Details have been given where there are differences in the environmental impacts of the two processes.



There are five main problems with litho printing:


Energy & Emissions


Printers collectively use a significant amount of energy – from electricity to run the presses, to fuel for delivering the finished product.


The industry can adopt measures to reduce energy consumption, such as using voltage optimisers on the presses, driving fuel-efficient delivery vehicles, and switching to green electricity suppliers.


But until measures like these are widespread, energy consumption will keep on creating carbon emissions.


Some printers have adopted so-called ‘carbon neutral’ schemes to offset emissions. However, these are ineffectual unless they address the causes of the emissions. Read more


All the printers on Lovely as a Tree are ISO14001 certified or have the Greenmark standard which means that they have focused on reducing their carbon emissions as well as, in some cases, offsetting them. See our Printfinder





In 1995, 92 percent of the global population had a sufficient supply of water. If the world continues to consume water at its current rate, it is projected that water sufficiency in 2050 will be only 58 percent. It is further predicted that nations will go to war over water supplies within the next two decades.


The print industry makes a negative contribution to this situation. Large quantities of water are used in most printing processes (even digital), the exception being waterless printing.


Printers can reduce water usage by recycling the water used on the presses, and for example, by using sprinklers and pressure taps.


At the other end of the process is the issue of water contamination. All printers are legally required to clean waste water before disposal – but some are more rigorous than others.





The print industry generates relatively high levels of waste. As shown below, a lot this waste can be recycled or reused, but currently much of it ends up in landfill.


  • Waste inks and varnishes can be used as low grade fuel or mixed with concrete and buried in 'special (or hazardous) waste landfill'. A large printer could be chucking out around 9000 tins worth of waste ink per year.
  • Ink tins are usually crushed and recycled.
  • Ink cartridges are often favoured over tins, but although these plastic cartridges waste less ink than tins, they're classed as hazardous waste and usually sent to 'special waste landfill'. More environmentally aware printers will pay for them to be collected and recycled into drainpipes etc. A large litho printer could be generating around 800,000 of these cartridges per year.
  • Waste chemicals (solvents, developer, fixer). In a year a large printer could chuck out around 65,000 litres of waste solvent and 85,000 litres of waste developer. Responsible printers will make sure they're either used as 3rd grade fuel or that they undergo ‘bio-digestion’ to make the chemicals safe before before flushing them into the water course.
  • Wooden pallets are usually sent to landfill, but are occasionally recycled into chipboard.
  • Plastic wrapping will usually be sent to landfill. However, if recyclable, it can be washed, shredded and recycled into more plastic wrapping.
  • CDs and cases are usually sent to landfill, although they can also be ground up, washed in caustic solution to remove the ink and foil, and then re-used.





    One particularly harmful solvent is isopropyl alcohol (IPA), used as a dampening solution. As it dries it releases VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) – colourless gases that contribute to the production of ozone, as well as being hazardous to pressroom workers.


    It is possible to avoid using IPAs by operating and maintaining machinery to the highest standard or converting to waterless or alcohol-free technology. Reducing IPA in the dampening solution can also make the print dry faster, using less energy.





    For litho inks there are five main areas of concern:


    • Heavy metals such as barium, copper and zinc are contained in certain pigments and can result in environmental and worker health hazards. Generally, metallic and fluorescent inks are the most toxic. Metallic inks in particular do not decompose as easily as other inks and the heavy metal component causes problems by leaching into groundwater.
    • Non-renewable resources are less of a problem than they used to be as very few sheet-fed inks contain non-renewable mineral (petroleum) oils these days, but heatset web inks still contain 30-35% mineral oil.
    • VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are emitted from mineral (petroleum) based inks as they dry, which are damaging to human health and contribute to global warming. This is a problem for web printing (especially heatset) but rarely applies to sheet-fed litho inks which are now almost always vegetable oil based.
    • Soya – these days, instead of containing mineral (petroleum) oil, sheet-fed inks typically contain three parts linseed to one part soya. So by using vegetable oil based inks you're reducing worker and environmental health hazards and avoiding using a non-renewable resource. However, there has been much controversy surrounding the huge expansion of the worldwide soya industry, so this is not a black and white issue. Read more
    • Waste ink can be recycled and made into low grade fuel or mixed to form black ink and then re-used. However, as ink is pretty toxic stuff, it's usually incarcerated in concrete in 'special (hazardous) waste' landfill sites.




    What you can do

    Use less ink by reducing areas of ink coverage in your design (eg. solid colours and dark full bleed photographs). This will also make your product easier to recycle.


    Avoid using fluorescent colours which only come as petroleum-based inks.


    Metallics have traditionally only been available as petroleum-based inks, but a vegetable oil version has just come onto the market so ask your printer if they're using these yet.









    There are some huge environmental advantages to printing digitally:


    • You can run a job as and when needed
    • Re-printing costs no extra, so there is no need to print 5000 extra copies in case you run out
    • No make ready waste





    • Digital inks are currently difficult to remove in the recycling process
    • The choice of paper can be limited to approved papers, which are rarely recycled or FSC certified
    • Large amounts of energy are used in the manufacturing of the machines themselves


    However, new, more energy efficient printers are coming onto the market all the time, such as Konica Minolta’s Bizhub C550 and C6500; and Océ’s VarioPrint 6000 which reduces the amount of energy used during its production.








    The inks used in screen printing traditionally contained more solvents than litho inks. However these days, many screen printers use UV inks, cured under a UV lamp. This uses more energy, but has the advantage of cutting solvents out of the printing process, although solvents are still used for clearing up.






Printing has the lowest take-up of environmental policies of any major industry (source: Envirowise Attitudes 2000 survey).


This is a great shame, because there are several voluntary schemes to help printers improve their environmental performance. The emphasis of these schemes is on continual improvement – so the longer a company has been accredited the more progress it will have made.


The main scheme undertaken by UK printers is ISO 14001 – but for smaller printers especially, the cost can be prohibitive. So schemes such as Greenmark and the British Printing Industry Federation (BPIF), are a good compromise, and offer a stepping-stone towards ISO 14001.


And for truly committed larger printers, EMAS sets the highest environmental standards.



The main schemes on offer to printers:


'Carbon neutral' schemes

Please be aware that so-called ‘carbon neutral’ status is not a good indication of environmental performance. There is currently no regulation in this area and so it can simply be bought through offsetting schemes.


Once CO2 is in the atmosphere, off-setting cannot stop it from changing our climate. Offsetting merely shifts the responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions from ourselves to developing countries. Please ask your printer and paper suppliers what they have done to actually reduce their carbon footprint. Read more


The government is currently setting up a British Kitemark scheme to try to regulate the sector, and the Gold Standard foundation lists carbon offsetters who comply with their quality code.



The Eco-Management and Audit Scheme aims to recognise organisations that go beyond minimum legal compliance. Accredited organizations must regularly produce a public environmental statement, which is independently checked by an environmental verifier. EMAS sets the highest environmental standards of all the environmental management schemes.


ISO 14001

This internationally recognised scheme provides a framework for ongoing environmental monitoring and continual improvement. Accredited subscribers are expected to improve recycling rates, reduce energy and water consumption and adopt general efficiency measures. All companies investing in this scheme report reduced costs in their day-to-day running.


Green Dragon

This scheme is for Welsh companies that wish to improve their environmental performance but don’t have the resources for ISO14001. There are five levels, each one contributing towards the achievement of international and European environmental standards, ISO 14001 and EMAS. Green Dragon Level 5 is in fact a slightly higher standard than ISO14001, partly because it takes carbon emissions into account.



Developed by the London Environment Centre (LEC), this scheme is more appropriate for smaller companies who lack the resources for IS0 14001. Companies have to show a commitment to continued environmental improvement, and set targets for reducing environmental impact.


BPIF Environmental Assessment Scheme

A scheme for smaller companies in its own right, or for medium-sized companies – with greater resources – as a stepping stone towards ISO 14001. It is aimed at assessing, monitoring and reducing environmental impact and consists of eight levels.


FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) Chain of Custody

If a printer holds the FSC Chain of Custody and the paper being used in a project is FSC certified, the end product can be labelled as FSC certified. This certificate is about the fibre tracking process only and ensures that there is no contamination between FSC and non-FSC material. It is not about environmental standards maintained within the factory.




Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

These are carbon-containing gases and vapors that are released from solvents used during the printing process.

The most significant environmental impact of VOCs is their formation with vehicle exhaust to form photochemical smog. However, in liquid form VOCs can effect water and soil quality.

They can also have an effect on the health of pressroom workers if the pressroom is not properly ventilated.



A solvent is a liquid substance capable of dissolving other substances. Solvents used in the lithographic print process include:

  • mineral oil which is used to reduce the viscosity of ink
  • Isopropyl alcohol (also referred to as IPA) which is toxic to aquatic life


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