Design with the Earth in Mind

When environmentalism first heated up in the paper market back in the 1970s, life was simple for paper buyers who wanted to go green. You bought recycled paper—if your client wouldn’t have a cow over the cost. If you wanted to make a statement, maybe you stuck a bumper sticker (made of paper, alas) on your car saying something about saving old-growth forests.

Life has become a lot more complicated today. Now you can choose from a whole host of alternate eco-materials for your printing needs:
• Agricultural residue from food crops such as wheat, rice and sugarcane
• Industrial residue from manufacturing processe such as cotton ginning or clothing production
• Trees that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as having come from responsibly managed forests—no old-growth trees allowed
• Weird recycled materials such as old money or even older blue jeans
• Plant materials you’ve never heard of before, such as kenaf or arundo donax, that make toxic or exhausted soil into arable land
• Cotton bolls that come pre-colored so you don’t have to mess around with dyes
• Recycled paper that contains high percentages of postconsumer waste
• Pulp that’s manufactured without the use of chlorine bleach.

As the number of environmentally friendly papers has increased, so too have expectations risen for buyer awareness. It’s not enough anymore to just save old-growth forests; now we must also ask ourselves bigger-picture questions such as:
• How much pesticide is used to grow the plant fibers that are made into paper?
• How much energy is needed to grow the pulp and transport the finished paper?
• What waste products remain after manufacture?
• Are the plant fibers renewable?
• Is their growth sustainable?
• How much carbon burden is added to the planet’s atmosphere in the process?
• What will happen to the paper after it gets into consumers’ hands? Is it recyclable?

The FSC takes these steps even further and requires members to take account not just of environmental factors, but also of social factors such as indigenous people’s rights, workers’ rights and community relations.

Furthermore, the answers to all these questions can vary, depending on the individual plant fiber and even the country of origin. What might be all right in one region of the world might be environmentally harmful in another. What might be politically correct for one group of environmentalists might be problematic for another.

What’s a paper buyer to do?

Focus on the Source of the Pulp
It’s still important to focus on the content of paper pulp if you want to be environmentally conscious. Recycled papers are still politically correct, and their quality is better than ever. Recycled pulp falls into two categories: pulp that’s recycled right at the mill (this is called "broke" and has never been printed) and pulp that comes from printed paper that has been deinked before repulping (this is called postconsumer waste).

Recycled papers list the percent of repulped fiber they contain, and they usually (but not always) tell you if the waste is postconsumer or not. Postconsumer waste is greener than broke because it takes paper that has already been printed, delivered to consumers, collected through a recycling program, deinked and then remade into new paper, thereby saving the original paper from ending up in a landfill. Paper, by the way, is still the second-largest component of landfill waste, after construction debris.

Virgin papers can be green, too, but they don’t have the same environmental impact that recycled papers have, simply because they fill a much smaller niche in the overall paper market. The FSC has been pushing hard for about a decade for paper manufacturers and buyers to purchase papers that it certifies come from well-managed, sustainable forests or plantations. One of FSC’s goals is to save worldwide virgin forests from clearcutting. So a big part of FSC’s impact is in regions other than the U.S., in countries where rainforests and temperate old-growth forests still cover much of the landscape. You can buy FSC-certified papers in the U.S., but they tend to be specialty papers, not web papers. Among the mills that offer such papers are Domtar, Finch, Fox River, Mohawk, Monadnock, Neenah and Strathmore. (For more information on the FSC, visit

In addition to wood fibers, you can explore tree-free papers. Once again, these pulps tend to be more of a niche market, providing specialty papers for short-run designs or stationery needs. The main exceptions are pulps made from agricultural waste (ag-residue) and papers made from kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family. Depending on supply, these papers can sometimes be found for web presses or sheet-fed commercial presses. As a practical matter, if you want to buy these papers, check availability well ahead of your print date—supply can be unpredictable.

In terms of greenness, be prepared to do your homework. To be environmentally conscious means that you must pay attention to the entire growth and use cycle. Finding answers to questions such as how much pesticide has been used to grow a given nontree fiber compared to how much has been used to grow a tree can take a lot more time and effort than you may be able to afford. Answers are not always easy to find, nor are they always clear.

For example, take rice as agricultural waste. If you buy this ag-residue paper, you’re obviously saving trees. On the other hand, you may be encouraging the cultivation of plants that require more water than is sustainable in a given region. You might be causing farmers to sell off their residue instead of plowing it under for fertilizer or keeping it standing for erosion prevention. You might be supporting the destruction of native habitat that sustains songbirds.

As a master birder, I know that the native habitat along the Rio Grande in Texas supports the largest diversity of songbirds in North America. But the rice farms adjoining this narrow strip of threatened habitat might as well be a desert when it comes to songbirds. Now, rice-growers are going to grow rice in southern Texas regardless of whether they have a market for their residue because rice is primarily a food crop. But by giving farmers a new market for residue, how much are you encouraging them to cultivate a crop that has been good for humans but bad for birds? I can’t answer that question, and perhaps no one can. It’s murky.

My point is that you shouldn’t just assume that wood pulp is bad and nonwood fiber is good. Dig a little deeper and decide for yourself how green your paper purchase will be. (For an overview of environmentally friendly papers, visit

Focus on Manufacturing
When you can, pay attention to the manufacturing process of both the pulp fiber and your own printing processes. With regard to pulp manufacture, you may want to purchase wood-based pulp that hasn’t been bleached with chlorine, which is very harmful to the environment. For nonwood pulps, you should be aware that silica can be a problem. Silica occurs in some ag-residue fibers such as wheat. It can gum up the mill machinery and require toxic chemicals for cleaning.

(For a discussion of these types of issues, visit This comprehensive study brings together industry experts from the tree and tree-free markets, explores environmental benefits and disadvantages of many different fibers, and identifies areas where more research is needed.)

It may not always be possible, due to cost constraints and the capabilities of your printer, but you might explore the possibility of using soya-based inks as opposed to petroleum-based inks. Soya inks don’t emit the volatile organic compounds that petroleum-based inks do when cured, and they’re made from renewable soybeans, not oil.

In addition, consider avoiding UV coatings, which make recycling more difficult. Currently, UV-coated papers cannot be recycled into new printing papers; they can only be used for tissue paper, some packaging (corrugated) and some construction materials. (For a good discussion of coatings, visit Anderson Litho’s website,, and download the PDF titled UV Coating: Safety & Environmental Issues.)

Focus on Creating a Demand
One of the problems that nontraditional papers have always faced is that the U.S. mass market is set up for wood pulp, so economies of scale apply mainly to paper made from trees. When recycled papers began to enter the market years ago, they were more expensive. If you wanted to use them, you had to convince your client that recycled paper was worth the extra expense. Over the years, the popularity of recycled paper caught on, and the recycled market now benefits from the same cost efficiencies that virgin tree fibers have long enjoyed. The same cannot be said of tree-free papers. They still occupy a niche market. In order for them to benefit from economies of scale, demand must increase. That means you must convince your clients that these papers are worth the extra expense and, sometimes, the extra difficulty in ensuring that they’re available in the quantity and at the time you need them.

Some people argue that this is a chicken-and-egg problem, but I don’t agree. We live in a supply-and-demand economy. Demand must be there in order for suppliers to invest in the growth and processing of environmentally friendly papers, no matter what kind we’re talking about. Paper buyers can increase demand only if we tell the market that we want these papers and are willing to pay for them.

This doesn’t necessarily have to cost you an arm and a leg. I remember years ago when I was remodeling the tiny bathroom in my office. I wanted to buy very expensive tile, but I couldn’t justify the high price. The tile I wanted was nearly twice as expensive as vinyl. The builder finally settled it by pointing out that since I was buying only 16 square feet, the overall difference in cost amounted to about 2% of the total remodeling cost. In the same way, you might be able to afford higher-priced paper for shorter-run jobs without breaking the bank—it’s a way to enter this paper market without too much added cost to your clients.

Focus on the End Use
You should also consider what happens to your designs after you send them out into the marketplace. Can they be recycled and kept out of landfills? Better yet, can you cut down on the end use entirely?

I’ve been a print buyer all my professional life. I love print—the smell of ink, the vibrations of web presses that you feel in your bones, the beauty and the mystery of the four-color process that mimics nature so well and yet is still its own art form. I make my livelihood from print, and I know that print is still one of the most efficient and beautiful ways to communicate with other people.

So I’m not advocating the abandonment of print. But we must recognize the environmental problems that print causes—the pressure on forests, the pollution, the destruction of native habitat, the unwelcome additions to landfills, the contributions to global warming. I think that we have a responsibility to make our footprint on the earth as small as we possibly can. Here are some suggestions for minimizing our impact:
• Clean up the mailing lists. After my dad died, I kept receiving direct mail addressed to him for more than three years, even though I dutifully marked "deceased" on the envelope and returned every piece to the sender. I still get an occasional direct-mail piece addressed to the former owners of my house, despite the fact that they’re both dead and I bought my house in 1984.
• Demand a higher rate of return on direct mail. I worked for a direct-mail company once that got ecstatic when a direct-mail piece garnered a 2.5% return. Maybe we should demand better from our lists—a 2.5% return means that 97.5% of the people threw our offer away. I get more than 40 pounds of catalogs every month, even though I’ve ordered goods from only two companies in the past 20 years. I recently started a new company, and literally within three days of getting my business license I began receiving solicitations for credit cards and other business services. They come in now at a rate of two per day. How many credit cards do they think I need?
• Think about making your designs smaller so they use less paper and require less postage to mail.
• Ask yourself if print is the best medium for your message.

Are these suggestions radical? Perhaps. But in a world where competition for natural resources is only going to get fiercer, and where pressure on the environment is only going to get higher, we need to get smarter.

HOW June 2007