Is eco-friendly printing even possible?

Our cities see reams of printing every day, for everything in the modern economy. The one thing that makes printing most destructive to the environment is print waste. What can be done? Find out.

The phrase “environment-friendly printing” could be defined as an oxymoron, just like “genuine fake” or “happily married”. If you want to protect the environment, you should not be printing – plain and simple! Everything about printing is harmful to the environment – the toner or inks, the media or printing substrates and more than both of these put together, the waste generated through printing.

Paper waste

Print waste (Pic courtesy: Lalana Zaveri)

But print communication is a necessity in today’s market-based economy. By one estimate, the size of the digital print market in Bangalore itself is between Rs.80-100 crores per year. So let’s see how we can minimise environmental impact when printing.

Print waste is actually the one thing that makes printing most destructive to the environment. There are many root causes for print waste, most of which occur even before a single print is fired. The responsibility of addressing these root causes and reducing waste lies as much with the designer and the marketer as with the printer, but definitely more so with the printer. More often than not, a printer will merely accept a print job, build in the cost of wastage into his final price to the customer. The printer may do nothing to educate the customer on how he/she can optimize the use of paper and ink and, therefore, drive down costs as well as wastage.

Yes, there are ways of saving money while saving the environment. In fact, most of the time, if you consciously try to save one, the other one automatically benefits.

Whether you are a city-based business person or government official or department head at a college or the head of a local NGO or an office-bearer at a residents association, you need to be aware of ways which can help the ecology and the economy. Then, when you work with designers and marketers for your own print materials, you can take informed decisions.

Using standard sizes

Walk into the finishing section of a regular printing press and you will find yourself walking over a carpet of waste paper in all shapes and sizes. You’ll find various printed material – invites, marketing collateral – being trimmed, cut, guillotined and die-punched to produce the final attractive product, meant to catch the receiver’s eye. At what cost? For every round, oval, heart-shaped, flower-shaped brochure you receive, anything from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the paper used has ended up on the printer’s floor – this is 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the price being paid for the printing.

Paper is usually manufactured in standard sizes and can be cut into other standard sizes with minimum wastage. In India, the “A” sizes – A3, A4, A5, A6 – are the standard sizes used and prints on these sizes are usually the most economical. However, you don’t have to be stuck with these sizes only. Just before starting your design, do ask your printer what the size of his biggest sheet is and you can then see how many multiples of your design you can fit into the paper to optimize its use. Do remember to leave enough “printer margin” all around the edge of the paper though!

Being colour blind

This is a highly controversial topic and is likely to face a lot of opposition. However, a well-guarded fact amongst printers, mainly because their most important customers do not want to hear it, is that it is almost impossible to match colours across various media. To get an exact colour match from computer screen to visiting card, to letterhead, to billboard, to ID card, to office sign is a thing of dreams and fantasies. Each of these uses a different printing method, with different inks in different colour gamuts and different media. Even if a pantone shade card is provided, most printers will not be able to match it on their various printers, even if they say they can.

And here’s the controversial part. It is blasphemous for a marketing person to say this, but I have become “acolourist”, that is, I do not believe in colour. Colour fanatics, like any other fanatics, do more harm than good, even for their brand. A logo, when seen in black and white or even in slightly different shades, should be just as recognisable as when appearing in its exact shade. Most well-known brands and logos do not lose their credibility with a slight change in shade.

I know this will be contested passionately by marketing gurus and printers alike because long hours and oodles of money are spent on deciding the colours of a logo and getting them right. Printers are able to demand huge premiums for their colour matching or “WYSIWYG” abilities when all they are doing is wasting prints until they get it right.

The better way to reach your customer, rather than through unusual shapes and colour-matching, is through his heart and ego. The tool that does this best is one-to-one personalised marketing, which has today become easy and possible thanks to short-run digital printing. Instead of sending the same brochure or flyer to everybody, personalise each brochure with information and data specific to the person receiving it.

With mail merging, variable data printing and image personalisation tools that are available today, you can use customer data wisely and artistically to make very attractive, non-throwable marketing collateral. Besides, you no longer need to print things in millions in order to ensure that part of it reaches your customer. The key to personalisation is to print exactly as much as the data you have – no more, no less – and this is possible through digital printing.

Back to wastage

Tips for ecofriendly printing:

  • Print on both sides of the paper as far as possible.
  • If printing a document with only text and no images, try to use a single colour, or two colours at the most.
  • Avoid non-standard sizes.
  • Avoid print runs only to do colour-matching till the colour is ‘right’.
  • Avoid unnecessary lamination or coating of prints.
  • Avoid using PVC or plastic-based substrates to print on.
  • Avoid one-to-many, mass printing. Personalise your printing (brochures, flyers, et cetera) using data about your customers and directly communicate with them one-to-one.
  • Use recyled paper when available.
  • But most of all, avoid printing altogether, unless absolutely necessary.

Besides non-standard sizes and colour-matching, there are other factors one needs to look out for, to cut down print waste.

A large portion of wastage control has to happen at the printer’s end. During “pre-press”, the printer must lay out the print matter in multiples in ways that the paper use is optimised. Before going through the entire print run, the printer must submit a proof to the customer to check spellings, grammar, formatting and layout. Sometimes, the biggest mistake a print-buyer can make is to trust his/her printer with spellings. Printers are rarely literature graduates and usually notoriously bad at spelling.

During the actual print run, the printer must, of course, ensure that there is enough ink and the printing equipment is in good working condition. And finally, during finishing – sometimes everything is perfect until the finishing stage and just as the prints are getting punched and bound, someone notices that the pages have been punched on the wrong side! This means an entire re-run of the printing and huge wastage.

Other than preventing wastage, there are some choices that companies and individuals can make in order to practice eco-friendly printing. A lot of big companies have chosen to use recycled paper for most of their office stationery. Recycled paper, right now, is a little more expensive than ordinary paper, but as awareness spreads and demand grows, the price could be driven down.


  1. Kishan Bhat says:

    Any facts on detailed composition of print inks (per type of ink)?
    For ex: the amount on toxic metals, VOC, etc per litre of ink consumed.
    I always have this feeling that any printed material thrown in the open will release these inks into surface or ground water, but no idea as to what would actually seep in…
    Will be interesting to know the stand from printing industry

  2. Lalana Zaveri says:

    Hello Kishan,

    Thank you for your interest in print waste. I shall try to answer your question to the best of my abilities.

    There are many different types of printing that are carried out today. The most toxic of inks used are usually, unfortunately, in the mass printing industry, such as offset printing, solvent (hoardings) printing and external packaging (plastic bags, plastic wrappers, etc.). The only consolation I can provide is that these inks are generally not soluble in water (which of course comes with its own set of environmental problems).

    In digital printing that uses dry or powder ink or toners, the environmental risk is considerably reduced. Unlike liquid ink technologies used in offset printing, with toners, there is no use of petroleum distillates. Petroleum distillates are combustible, produce oil waste that needs to be carefully managed, and potentially contribute to volatile organic compound emissions in the work environment. This is why vegetable-based inks or “soy inks” are being spoken about more these days for the offset industry. By substituting the soy oil for part of the petroleum oil, VOC emissions are reduced.

    Hope I have managed to answer your question.

    Best regards,

  3. Bruce de Almeida says:

    An eco-friendly solution to the lamination requirement is the latest technology of UV coating. Printers all over India are shifting to UV coating for both gloss and matte finishes. UV coating increases the life of the media, giving it a superior finish. At the same time, the cost of UV coating is almost half that of lamination. Priced at about 11 paise per 100 square inches.

    Hope this is useful!

    Bruce de Almeida

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