That line from Randy Newman’s song probably resonates for most graphics businesses, as well as their supply chains. Money is vital to keep businesses going, but it is also coming to the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change. We have long argued that environmental impact mitigation and sustainability will only move up the agenda if there is a financial interest in such moves, so the UN’s Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance is good news. For the majority of firms in the graphics business this will basically be a very big yawn. But as consolidation continues apace in the printing and publishing industries, especially as the pandemic bites deeper, large companies looking for large investments, would should take heed.
We’ve known for a while that PVC is a seriously uncool material to print on, but there is still an awful lot of it about. Despite the environmental nastiness of PVC, which cannot be recycled, it works extremely well in many print applications mainly because it is cheap. Banners particularly are often printed on PVC for indoor and outdoor use. They are strong, durable, lightweight and weather resistant, so they are still widely used and plenty of printers are available to produce them. But not for long.
A few years ago there was a bit of a buzz around intelligent packaging. The excitement was based on the fact that with the addition of printed electronics and an online connection, packaging and food processing would be revolutionised. Smart packaging would use near-field communications to be more efficient and more engaging. The package would warn you if the food was going off, or it would tell the retailer the rate of sales, or the most popular time of day for sales. There was even an argument that claimed such packaging was more environmentally friendly, because it could cut food waste. In fact it might discourage shoppers to know that according to an electronic sensor a piece of beef was on the turn, rather than being well hung.
The environmental impact of textile production is starting to get more attention. Manufacturers and developers within the graphics industry want to sell digital printing systems for direct-to-garment (DtG) and general textile printing, so they are especially keen. How they frame their messages is tricky though. There is an inherent conflict between the on demand, have-it-now-and-toss-it mentality, and the model that encourages resource conservation. A throw-away culture is bad for the environment, but it suits digital printing and sells more print. But digital printing involves much shorter supply chains and so much lower emissions. Reconciling the two in the textiles sector is a major challenge for our industry.
Digital printing of textiles gets a lot of hype these days. Technology developers and service providers alike are searching for the next killer app for digital printing systems. The sustainability of these solutions is touted on the basis that they undermine and essentially subvert traditional printed textile production systems, which have a heavy environmental impact. But perhaps the more serious impact happens after production, when textiles are thrown away either for recycling via charity shops or just as waste. In the European Union (EU) alone 4.3 million tonnes of textile waste gets burnt up or landfilled every year. Even though hundreds of thousands of tonnes of new textiles come to market monthly, hardly any of it contributes to a circular economy.