Sustainability Is Here To Stay
Sustainability as a concept has been with the printing industry for quite some time, with the initial focus occurring in the mid-1990s with print customers asking the question: “Are you a ‘green’ printer?” Since the 1990s, we continue to see ebbs and flows in both the interest on the part of the print industry in sustainability, as well as the simultaneous evolution surrounding the topic. Over the past several years, a renewed intensity in sustainability has emerged with new focuses on microplastics; ocean plastics; circular economy; environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scoring; and extended producer responsibility.
Depending upon the market you are in, becoming a sustainable operation is rapidly evolving from “nice to do” to a “must do” to help maintain your customer base and support their sustainability efforts. For example, Apple just announced that 110 of their global supply chain partners will be moving to 100% renewable energy for their Apple production as part of their commitment to be carbon neutral across its entire business, manufacturing supply chain, and product life cycle by 2030.
Part of what is driving the transition is legality, the other is pressure from the general public on companies to take complete responsibility for the products and services they provide. President Biden has made it clear that climate action is a priority for his administration. He has moved quickly to deliver on his campaign promises by issuing executive orders that cancel the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and return the U.S. to the Paris (Climate) Agreement.
The Biden Administration is committed to issuing new regulations for cars, power plants, and other large sources of greenhouse gasses. Biden established a National Climate Task Force comprised of the heads of federal departments and agencies. The mission of the Task Force is to identify actions that can be taken to reduce climate pollution and increase resistance to climate-change impacts.
When China and other countries in Southeast Asia stopped the importation of printed paper, plastic including plastic packaging, scrap metal, and other wastes for recycling, the discussion shifted to focus on a circular economy and away from a linear economy as it relates to the use and disposal of products. With overseas recycling markets no longer available, the economics of recycling turned upside-down, causing markets to crash. The refusal of wastes brought attention to the prevalence of plastics being found that were improperly managed and leaked into the ocean and other environments.
This created a public outcry causing legislation to be passed at the state and local level banning the use of “single use plastics.” In addition, legislation is being considered at the state and federal level to force companies to take responsibility for their waste. This legislation is known as Extended Producer Responsibility, and it is designed to make the producer responsible for the fate of their packaging. It is a tax on printed paper and plastics that helps pay for recovery and recycling activities.
End of Life Becomes More Important
The action by China and other countries in Southeast Asia has brought forth a discussion on what happens to a product when it has fulfilled its primary purpose. Is it to be simply discarded, or can it be recycled or repurposed into a different product? The latter is propelling the discussion, giving rise to an entirely new concept embodied by the term circularity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to just simply view landfilling as an acceptable end point for a product, and producers are being pushed hard to change the status quo.
The emergence and growing support for Extended Producer Responsibility legislation has sent a clear signal to those who produce products that they need to be responsible for their product throughout its entire life cycle — including the packaging. This pressure is forcing many companies to reconsider how they produce and package their products.
The responses vary but fit into some common actions, including incorporating recycled content, changing substrates completely to materials that are much easier to recycle, and redesigning products so they can be readily repurposed or recycled. While this trend started as a trickle, it is now starting to pick up momentum and has become more of a steady stream. The stream is still small, but it is anticipated to continue to get larger over the next several years.
Chemicals Come into Focus
Another area garnering attention concerns chemicals contained in products. The two main pressure points are regulatory and customer specifications. Increased awareness on the part of state legislatures regarding the potential toxicity of certain chemicals has spurred development of specific lists of chemicals that are to be banned from products.
Gary A. Jones is the director of environmental, health and safety (EHS) affairs at PRINTING United Alliance in Fairfax, VA. His primary responsibility is to monitor and analyze EHS regulatory activities at all domestic and some international government levels. He provides representation on behalf of the printing and specialty graphic imaging industry. In doing so, Mr. Jones works closely with the federal and state-level Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other agencies. He also provides membership assistance on EHS compliance and sustainability programs through a variety of approaches including responding to inquiries, presentations, writing, and consulting services.
Mr. Jones is also supporting PRINTING United Alliance’s efforts for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP). SGP is dedicated to assisting printing operations respond to the customer demand for sustainable printing.
He holds a BS in biology from LaRoche College and an MS in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh.