Sustainabile Printing: It’s All About PIE

Posted By Ashley Harding | 12.7.12


Sustainable printing is a complicated topic and there is a lot of conflicting information from organizations with an interest in convincing you which choices are good or bad for the environment. Businesses protect their profits, and non-profits and government agencies must make their case or lose funding. So both the environment, and the profits and salaries of the arguers are at stake in the argument—no wonder it gets complicated. It is so complicated that you are already waking up in the middle of the night bewildered, asking yourself ‘how will my decision over which percentage of post-consumer waste content to print on impact the world commodity price of recycled paper and so affect the economic viability of exporting recyclable paper to China and influence deforestation in South East Asia?’… you are asking yourself that, right?

That is a lot of weight on your shoulders, so I wanted to cut through the confusing complexity, and found the simplicity of PIE at the heart of the matter: Paper, Ink and Energy, the three environmental aspects to take into consideration when making choices about printing.


Yes, paper does grow on trees but you should choose recycled paper. Why? I think it’s time for some numbers.

Around 40% of commercial logging nationally and globally is for the purpose of paper production. Making new paper is very energy and water intensive; paper manufacturing is responsible for 11.5% of all American industrial energy usage. Using recycled paper reduces the amount of energy needed, and therefore greenhouse gasses emitted, by around a third![*]

Recycled paper products already contribute over 33% of the fiber material used in the production of new paper annually, and that is great. This will increase as buyers of paper products— you!—ask for paper that contains a high percentage of recycled material. At Ace Creative, all of the printers that we work with offer paper with recycled content.

Even if you choose not to go with recycled paper, you can help to protect the environment by choosing paper from forests that are managed sustainably—as signified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. Whilst paper certification is far from perfect, as Red Sun Press makes clear, sustainable forest management has contributed to keeping the amount of forested land in the US constant over the last century. All of our printers have FSC certification for their paper supply chains. But, again, I want to re-iterate that recycled paper is definitely greener than paper from newly cut trees.

The disposal of waste paper is also an important issue, because paper makes up around 30% of landfill trash by weight, more than any other material. Since print shops naturally produce a lot of waste paper, it is re-assuring to know that all of our printers recycle all of their paper waste. All of it! For UniGraphic in 2010, that meant over 1,000 tons of paper was recycled rather than dumped. If you don’t love landfill, you can play your part too—not by personally lifting all the paper out of landfill (because there are many hundred million smelly tons of it)—but by continuing to recycle paper. You have already contributed to over 60% of paper products in America being recycled in recent years! Give yourself a pat on the back, and keep recycling!


Traditional ink uses a petroleum base, a non-renewable resource that contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are harmful to the ozone and to human health—basically scary invisible poisons. The sustainable alternative to petroleum-oil based inks use vegetable or soy oils, which are renewable, biodegradable, have a much lower VOC content, and result in paper which is easier to recycle. Fortunately, all of our printers use soy-based ink by default, and Puritan Press uses it exclusively.


Putting stacks of paper in a room with some ink probably will not result in beautiful posters unless you use a printing press and some electricity. In Massachusetts around 60% of our energy is generated by natural gas, and another 20% by coal—both greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels. All of our printers are looking at ways of reducing their conventional energy use, from installing more efficient lighting at Red Sun Press to buying wind energy credits at The Print House.

So that is how the cookie crumbles, how the PIE slices, and how you can make greener choices. One dreamy day all these choices will be easily summarized by a universal internationally agreed carbon price, and we will all drive Audis powered by love. But until that halcyon day, hopefully this blog has helped you to consider not just cost and quality of your printed messages, but also the environmental PIE.

* [It also solves another of the serious challenges of our generation by freeing up chainsaws for use in ornamental hedge cutting.]