Paper Chains

medium_2015_Laurel B.jpgThe weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

We’re all familiar with the annual shindig the World Economic Forum (WEF) hosts at Davos in Switzerland. It combines spectacular scenery with spectacular visions for our collective economic future. But we are probably less aware of the regular white papers the WEF puts out. One of their latest efforts is part of Project Mainstream, a collaboration between the WEF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment. Project Mainstream’s objective is to remove bottlenecks in processes, so that we can all transition to a circular economy. The group’s recent white paper deals with paper.

The addition of ink to paper causes difficulties with current recycling models. It is unrealistic to expect people to sort papers according to how they are inked prior to recycling them. But the addition of chemicals to paper impedes its reuse, because removing them damages the fibre, which constrains its use in future applications. There are apparently over 6,000 chemical compounds used in printing inks, so this is a big problem. Its scale, plus trends in the graphic arts, suggest that recycling processes have to change. They must be able to handle a constantly varying combination of inks and chemicals, so that the fibre can be reused.

This is especially important for digital printing papers, inks and toners, which use often quite complex chemical formulations. In the sign and display market for example, some applications require extreme scratch resistance and durability. Desirable application characteristics may severe restrict the print’s recyclability, once it reaches end of life. What is needed is recycling processes that support the diversity of printing technologies, inks and substrates, including digital. Recycling in the graphics industry needs a new approach, one that supports the chemical and substrate diversity of modern print.

The WEF’s white paper suggests that print buyers and printing companies should be “Riding the Fibre”. This sounds like a slogan for health food, but it’s meant to convey the perspective of paper fibres. The WEF asks people to consider print investment decisions in a series of don’ts, such as “don’t attach that to me or I’ll be thrown away” and “don’t attach that to me - getting rid of it might consume a lot of energy”. The paper provides guidelines so that we can consider substrates, inks, coatings, primers and production methods, with an eye to how effectively paper based print media projects can be recycled.

The problem with all of this is that it assumes people will bother to learn about recycling processes and make decisions accordingly. It also assumes that recycling processes are the same in every region, and that companies and their customers have control. This is one of the important lessons we have learnt about sustainability: control of every stage in the process is impossible for most of us. Still, little by little we move forward.

– Laurel Brunner

The Verdigris project is an industry initiative intended to raise awareness of print’s positive environmental impact. It provides a weekly commentary to help printing companies keep up to date with environmental standards, and how environmentally friendly business management can help improve their bottom lines. Verdigris is supported by the following companies: Agfa Graphics, Digital Dots, EFI, Fespa, Heidelberg, HP, Kodak, Ricoh, Splash PR, Unity Publishing and Xeikon.

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