Having actively encouraged the use of environmentally friendly papers and processes for decades, we're delighted to see growing demand for environmentally responsible products and practices. 

Navigating the Certification Maze

There are various "certifications" which address significant issues, but many are driven by the agendas of industry interest groups. Sorting out meaningful claims begins with identifying your goals. Be wary of certifications and marketing programs expressing only what something "isn't," versus what it actually "is," to ensure their agendas and claims are relevant to your goals.

Many certifications one now encounters are, in fact, "product certifications." While most meaningfully address some real concerns, their focus is often driven by self interest. For example, one group (whose members include chemical companies) supports "ECF" (Elemental Chlorine Free) papers (which use chlorine derivatives) as opposed to "TCF" (Totally Chlorine Free) papers. Where experts agree: reducing the use of chlorine in paper making is an important goal.

Another popular "certification organization" has direct ties to the forest products industry. While doing laudable things to protect endangered forests, what they essentially ignore: papers with any percentage of cotton content are actually more environmentally friendly because cotton is a 'rapidly renewable' resource . The only indisputable fact of "Going Green" which all seem to agree upon: using recycled content paper and products is beneficial on every level.

Because vast amounts of money are at stake, several certifying organizations spend heavily to "market" their various brands and logos, aggressively encouraging print buyers to require their logos on printed items. While the clever strategy of pressuring print buyers into "proving" their environmental stance serves these organizations very well indeed, ultimately it simply pushes more ink into the recycling loop.

Understanding "Recycled Content Paper" Terminology

"PCF" - all recycled content papers are Processed Chlorine Free.

All "Recycled Content Papers" contain percentages of the following:

"pre-consumer" waste content (what total percentage of the sheet of paper is made from ingredients not already "used" by a consumer prior to recycling), and

"post-consumer" waste content (what total percentage of the sheet of paper is made from ingredients which have already been used by a consumer before recycling).

"PCW" (post-consumer waste) content papers are considered more beneficial to the environment as they directly reduce pressure upon landfills. However, post-consumer waste generally requires more "cleaning" and "de-inking" of previously used content. These cleaning and de-inking processes historically used chemical treatments which yielded persistent by-products recognized to harm the environment. Newer cleaning methods use energy intensive methods to minimize negative chemical by-products. Given the current shortage of suitable post consumer waste for paper making and high energy costs, 30% post-consumer content papers are more prevalent and usually cost less than 100% "PCW" papers.
All "Recycled Content" Papers do NOT have the same ingredients. Some are 100% cotton content, some are 100% wood pulp, and many are varying percentages of cotton and wood pulp, while others use everything from monoculture pulp to ground limestone. "Recycled Content" labeling alone does NOT distinguish whether a given recycled content paper is, in fact, your best available choice.

The Environmental Impact of Various Printing Processes

While the "printing process" used for a particular item is somewhat dictated by the desired 'end product,' production choices do exist. Understanding and choosing the printing process which meets your environmental goals isn't difficult. Here's a brief "primer" on printing processes and their impacts:

Engraving: This process uses water-based inks which emit no VOC's (volatile organic compounds) in the form of "gases" as inks interact with air during printing to yield raised, tactile printing. Water-based inks are not only ideal for recycling, they require no use of harsh solvents to clean presses. Metal plates are required for engraving, but professional engravers reuse or recycle them.

Lithography: This process uses a variety of "ink types," the most environmentally friendly being "soy-based" litho inks. Nonetheless, even soy-based inks require the use of solvents to clean press rollers. Lithographers using the "direct-to-plate" process eliminate the use of film (which greatly benefits the environment), and litho plates are recycled.

Digital Printing: This process virtually eliminates "make ready" waste, printing huge quantities when less is best, and eliminates the use of printing plates. Caution: "toner-based" digital printing should not be used for items which will later be desktop "over- printed," as the heat desktop printers generate to fuse their toner causes previously applied toner to "break down."

Letterpress Printing: Historically, this process printing used 'lead type' which had many environmental negatives. Now, most letterpress printing uses water soluble "photo-polymer" plates which are easily recycled. However, 'photo-polymer' has significantly less "rigidity" than solid metal, which means environmentally friendly letterpress printing typically has far less "depth" (or "bruising") than older "lead type" methods.

Foil Stamping: This process requires the production of a metal die which is reused and/or recycled, but while foil stamping provides dramatic and unique visual impact, foil is difficult to remove in the recycling process.

Embossing: This process is often used in combination with other graphic processes such as lithography and foil stamping (to give them a "raised, tactile appearance"). "Blind embossing" is the production of an image without any ink or foil. Caution: "blind embossed images" neither photocopy, scan nor fax, so designers must take that into account. Whether "blind" or combined with lithography or foil stamping, embossing requires a metal die which is reused and/or recycled.

Thermography: This process creates "raised, tactile print" by dusting "still wet " lithographed images with a thermoplastic resin powder which is heated to "cure and swell" images. 'Heat-set' resins are not easily recycled, and in "de-inking" are reported to contribute to the formation of toxic sludge. "Laser proof" thermography, a relatively new process designed to keep thermography from melting in desktop printers, uses UV (Ultra Violet Light) technology to "cure" the surface of its thermoplastic finish. UV cured thermography is generally considered "un-recyclable" (additional UV information below).

"Coatings & Finishing Processes" Applied to Various Type of Printing"

Coatings: This term applies to the application of a "varnish" (usually to lithography and digital printing) to add gloss, durability, scratch protection and/or extend the lifespan of a printed item. Because some press applied varnishes are solvent-based and thus emit VOC's (detrimental "out-gassing"), it's generally best to specify an aqueous (or water-based) varnish.

Aqueous Coating: This process uses a mixture of water and polymers which emit fewer VOC's and do not require the use of solvents to clean presses. Aqueous varnish can be recycled without emitting harmful by-products.

"UV" Coating: This process provides the most durable and glossy finish, but it "cures" by exposing printed papers to ultraviolet radiation (requiring more energy and strict safety measures). UV coated items cannot be de-inked by present methods, thus UV coated papers are non-recyclable and wind up in landfills.

Die-cutting: This process of cutting a specific shape into paper requires a metal die which is reused and/or recycled. Because it does not use inks or chemicals, it's generally considered an environmentally friendly process.

Bindings & Adhesives: Recyclable water-based glues which emit no VOC's are steadily replacing older "petroleum-based" adhesives which do emit VOC's and are difficult to recycle.