Towards a Zero Waste Printing Industry

I recently needed to get some printing work done. Back in the day I wouldn’t have thought twice about eco credentials; I would have just ordered the cheapest or the nicest and that would have been as far as any decision making would have gone.

In fact I confess to having boxes of old business cards and stationery doted around the house; all defunct, with out of date telephone numbers or websites on them. I do use them for jotting things down on, but that’s not the point, is it?

Fortunately, things are changing – both in the printing sector and my own awareness!

Like most industries, the printing sector produces a lot of waste. But it is also a disrupting industry when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint and developing sustainable solutions.

Let’s first look at some of the most common types of waste in the printing industry. And how businesses and consumers can reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill.


recycled paper consumption


Common types of waste

  • Paper: Probably the first product that comes to mind when thinking about the printing industry. Luckily, paper recycling is readily available, and it is much easier to recycle than other materials. Europe recycled 74% of its paper consumption in 2020. Many printers already stock recycled paper and contribute to the circular economy.
  • Printer cartridges: Recycling is less straightforward, as some printer cartridges are considered hazardous waste and cannot be put into your recycling bin at home or work. However, most manufacturers already accept returns of empty cartridges.But if not, there are still some great recycling options which not only help the environment but local people too. Why not raise money for charity while also recycling your ink cartridges?
  • Labels: Traditionally, labels have been hard to recycle as they contain a mix of plastics and polymers. About 120,000 tonnes of label waste ends up in landfills every year. But new schemes are available for businesses to prevent labels from going straight to landfill.

recycle ink cartridges charity


The four R’s

 The goal of zero waste to landfill involves more than recycling. The printing industry follows the four R’s principle: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.

Not only does it promote recycling, but the industry also reduces its carbon footprint by producing green alternatives. Below are some examples of sustainable products which contribute to a circular economy based on the four R’s.

  • Ink: Traditionally, the printing industry has used finite inks made from black carbon and other petroleum-derived materials. However, the industry has heard the concerns of the public and driven the transition to renewables. Vegetable, plant-based and waterless-based inks are now used as standard, with other non-finite inks being developed all the time. Typical inks include soy-based derivatives, but even algae is being transformed into a sustainable ink.
  • Paper: As we probably all know, paper is the leading raw material in the printing industry. And it comes from trees. Or does it? Although still in the early stages of development, one of the most disruptive innovations in the industry involves finding alternative sources of cellulose fibre. This is what paper is made from. Sustainable fibres are being made from other natural materials such as grass or straw.
  • Wood pallets: These can be repurposed as well as recycled. Pallets can be remanufactured into chip and fibreboard, or even repurposed as animal bedding, footpath material or as renewable biomass energy.

When I think back over my last 15 years of campaigning, it’s amazing to see how many changes are taking place. Yes, it’s easy to focus on the things that still need shaking up, but its important to stop and celebrate the positive advances too.

The printing industry (like many other sectors) is making a concerted effort to become more sustainable. It is a key driver in minimising global carbon emissions and reducing waste to landfill. And where small steps start, larger ones can follow.

label waste printing industry

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Rachelle Strauss

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