Sustainability in Print
How to Incorporate ‘Life Cycle Thinking’ into your Environmental Efforts
By Jodi Drew, Corporate Environmental Manager at ITU AbsorbTech
Achieving sustainability in the graphics industry is an important pursuit.
You can use Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) to gain a holistic perspective of your operation’s environmental footprint – from concept, purchasing, manufacturing and distribution- to end-of-life by your customers.
By revealing the big picture, a life cycle approach ensures that you aren’t improving in one area at the expense of another.
Let’s take a closer look at how to apply LCT to your facility.
Map out your Life Cycle
The key components of the print life cycle are raw material, transformation, distribution, and disposal.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
The first part of the lifecycle – raw materials, involves looking upstream.
Upstream refers to activities occurring before they get to your facility. In other words, your supply chain.
Take an inventory of all your inputs – ink, solvent, substrates (vinyl, rigid, fabric, mesh, paper, etc.), wipes, equipment, packaging, etc. You can also include indirect inputs such as restroom and office supplies.
With life cycle thinking, start to ask questions about the sourcing of each material. Where does the material come from? How is it sourced? Where? How is it delivered to your facility? Are there better alternatives? Who are their suppliers, and what are their sustainability practices?
For example, where does your ink come from? Is it petroleum or vegetable based? Are there any additives? Does your supplier offer eco-friendly alternatives? Is the ink is sourced locally, thereby reducing the energy required to ship?
You may also choose to source your materials based on suppliers’ business practices as a whole. For example, do your suppliers use renewable energy, ship with a fleet of hybrid vehicles, encourage employees to telecommute, etc.
People can also be factored into the raw material equation. For example, needing more people to do the job requires more resources – energy, water, transportation, etc. Well trained employees will lower the overall impact by following established practices.
Transformation refers to the on-site processes that transform your raw material to the finished product.
Beyond just the raw material, you’ll want to consider all the inputs that keep your facility running- lighting, power, electricity, and water, to name a few. Look for new efficiencies to reduce wasted material, wasted energy, and wasted time.
Here are some examples of new efficiencies:
- Use motion sensors and more efficient lighting sources, such as LED
- Reduce water usage by taking non-contact cooling water and reusing it for floor mopping
- Use programmable thermostats
- Use pumps or squeeze bottles to dampen towels instead of soaking or dunking them in solvent
- Switch to reusable programs for solvent wipes, uniforms, oil absorbents, and mops
With life cycle thinking, consider how a process change impacts the raw materials upstream and finished product downstream. For example, how will a process change impact the types of ink used/purchased, and how will it affect the useful life of the finished product?
Distribution includes packaging and delivery to your customers’ sites.
With the life cycle approach, consider the raw material used for packaging (are there sourcing alternatives?) and how it will be handled downstream. For example, will your customer discard plastic wrapping in landfill? Will they reuse the cardboard boxes?
Distribution should be approached with the same mindset. How do you source your fleet vehicles? Is the dealership sustainable in its sourcing and maintenance activities? What about their supply chain? Are the vehicles fuel efficient? What about your fuel? Are their opportunities to reroute and save on fuel? Are you maximizing vehicle real estate and mileage during delivery?
Finally, let’s look downstream. Downstream refers to activities occurring after the finished product is complete (product use and disposal).
Disposal affects both your by-product and end-product waste.
For your by-product waste, set goals to reuse or recycle all packaging and finishing material, such as chipboard, paper trim, polyethylene, polypropylene, vinyl, brass and copper. Can scrap material be donated for use as mulch or bedding? Can it be sold on the secondary recycling market? Can it be reused for other projects?
For the end-product, consider whether the end user will likely landfill, recycle, or reuse the product. Can you create a more sustainable product that is easier to recycle or reuse?
Here’s how LCT comes into play.
Knowing how a product will be used downstream can impact sustainable choices made during the transformation and sourcing stage. For example, if a banner is going to be used outdoors for a long length of time, you’ll want to invest in a durable ink and substrate that will last, instead of something that will break down in a few months and need to be reprinted. And, conversely, a product that will be used short term could be produced on a more sustainable substrate that can easily be recycled after use.
While you may not have control over what the customer does with the final product, you can strive to produce a product that is easier to recycle, and you can also educate your customers on how to recycle or discard responsibly.
LCT can provide an excellent framework for your sustainability endeavors on a macro level. Once you start to frame your efforts in a ‘Life Cycle’ way of thinking, you’ll find yourself drawing new insights and asking deeper questions about how one decision impacts the full life cycle of your operation.
LCT can even be measured by international standards using the ISO 14040:2006 standard, which described the principles and framework for a life cycle assessment.
For questions on this article or ideas on how to apply LCT to your operation, please contact Jodi Drew at jdrew@ituabsorbtech.
Jodi Drew is the Corporate Environmental Manager for ITU AbsorbTech. She is also the Corporate ISO Coordinator for ITU AbsorbTech’s ISO 14000 and 9000 Management Systems. She holds a US Patent in her field and is a requested speaker on a variety of environmental topics.