Seven Cardinal Innovations for a Sustainable Planet

medium_Laurel_2012.jpegThe weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

The graphic arts industry often gets slammed for the waste and excess emissions it generates. Yet the printing industry is already implementing the Seven Cardinal Innovations as outlined by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research. This organisation is heavy on research and academics, but has a proactive engagement with industry and governments. From what we can tell, there isn’t much interaction with print, which is a pity because print and paper are proactive players for reduced environmental impacts. Of the seven innovations print and paper is already implementing two of them.

Innovation number four is for Systems-optimised industrial production. This means that industry should take a crade to cradle approach to all aspects of production. Print and paper have long been active in recycling and waste reduction, although this has been more about survival than for reasons of environmental friendliness. Reductions have occurred nonetheless. Printers have had to cut waste as part of their cost cutting efforts. They have invested in process automation in the interests of process efficiency and in technologies to reduce start-up waste on press. Digital printers have taken matters even further with systems optimised to produce only what is required to meet the purpose. This is innovation beyond systems optimisation because it takes the idea of waste completely out of the equation. How clever is that?

Could this concept also apply to textiles for instance? Will we someday have three dimensional digital printers that can produce clothes and fabrics on demand? Could they be configured to print on fabrics such as biocotton made from recycled cotton materials, or tee-shirts made from old plastic bottles? And will anyone realise that the model follows the digital print on demand model pioneered in the 20th century? Probably not.

The other area where print is forging ahead of other industrial sectors is in sustainable biomass management, number six on the Potsdam list. This innovation is about decarbonisation through planting and more effective land management. Planting more trees is something that the European and American pulp and paper industries are exceptionally good at. Again their efforts have not necessarily been made in the interests of the planet, but commercial interests can have powerful unintended consequences. For instance 540 million tonnes of CO2 are now stored in wood and paper products per year and the European paper industry generates 27% of its biomass energy. Supporting industries that are already actively engaged in sustainable biomass management should be the priority of every government because it is probably the fastest and best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Young trees are excellent at harvesting CO2 and storing water. The creation of new forests has considerable attractions for its amenity, social and wildlife benefit.

The pulp and paper industries are leading the way amongst industrial sectors, but we haven’t quite worked out why or how other industries might be inclined to follow. Let’s hope some of the brainpower at the Potsdam Institute is working on the answer to this question.

– Laurel Brunner

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