…or rather, how to print in a way that is less damaging to the environment.

Printing consumes resources – power, water, wood fibre, pigments, solvents. I spent a few hours with David Pealing of Severnprint in Gloucester, one of the UK’s leading environmental printers, finding out how we can print things so that they have the lowest possible impact on our planet.

In the small but airy meeting room adjoining Severnprint’s entrance foyer there are various framed examples of their work, just like in there are in every other printers. What’s different about Severnprint is that alongside the promotional magazines and greetings cards and what-not on the walls there is a certificate from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust confirming the company’s Platinum Corporate Membership for this year, and on the other side of the room a winning trophy for Environmental Excellence from the British Printing Industries Federation. There’s even a suggestions box where customers can recommend ways in which the printer can improve its ethics.

I first came to Severnprint 10 years ago as a newbie freelancer touting my wares. I was impressed then with the company’s environmental awareness and could tell that this really wasn’t some corporate sales gimmick – the company walks its talk – so when I rebranded as a designer and illustrator specialising in ethical practices they were the obvious people to go to expand my knowledge about doing my job in the best possible way. A huge thank you to David and everyone I met yesterday!

Many printers will claim environmental credentials; in David’s opinion there are fewer than a dozen in the UK who are as green as Severnprint and almost all of them have EMAS accreditation (The European Council’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme). So look for this mark and beware the greenwash!

David says that there are several things that designers and their clients should consider if they want their publications be low-impact. They are:


There was a rumour started years ago by mills producing paper from trees that recycling paper uses more energy than paper made from virgin pulp. This is simply not true. Our recycling systems are so efficient that your first choice should always be recycled paper, and the second choice paper from virgin pulp. Always make sure the latter is from 100% FSC certified pulp, otherwise you have no idea what kind of forest was decimated to produce your fancy promotional brochure.

Also if you go for paper from virgin pulp, check whether the fibres have been chlorine bleached. This is a bad thing.

Different kinds of recycled

“Mill broke” is paper created from off-cuts at paper mills. This is the kind of paper that we are not talking about when we mention post consumer waste. Mills have always created paper from mill broke and labelling it as recycled could be viewed as a bit of a cynical ploy by people who are prone to that sort of cynicism (me).

There are big paper recycling bins in many big offices in places like the City of London. The paper from these bins has so little ink on it that it goes into making new paper, usually for office stationery (letterheads and what-not) and requires very little processing.

Then there is the kind of paper that you put in to your box or green bag for household recycling every week. This goes to make paper like Cyclus, which David reckons is one of the greenest papers available. It has a lovely unbleached organic feel and I would use it in every single job if my clients let me.

If you want to be überspecialextragreenylovely then you should consider buying your paper from Paperback who are just the nicest people (and you can get Cyclus from them too!). They are a workers’ co-operative and their range of 100% recycled paper and card is muchos sexy.

Paper weight

It’s important to consider the weight of the paper you really require. The lighter the paper the less resources are used to create it, though paper that is too light will be difficult to print and may cause wastage. Talk to your printer about an appropriate weight of stock for the job. Your brochure may feel wonderful at 130gsm but would 90gsm be better? Recycled papers tend to be fluffier and bulkier than their counterparts created from virgin pulp, so show-through, where you can see the ink on the other side of the page, is less of an issue. Also, thinner paper will save you money on postage.


David says that a lot of designers focus on ink when ink is just such a tiny part of the whole process that paper ought to be considered first.

Litho printing ink is oil-based – about 35% oil. It used to be mineral-oil based (ie, that black stuff that comes out of the ground that George W Bush likes so much) but now it’s mostly vegetable-oil based – even Pantone (special) inks. American inks tend to be based on soy bean oil because of soy industry lobbying over there; in Europe it makes more environmental sense for us to use linseed-oil inks because linseed is grown locally.

Consider carefully before deciding to use a Pantone special colour. Anything other than/more than CMYK process inks requires a wash-down of the printing presses which inevitably costs water and ink.

Most ink these days is created from organic dyes rather than the old heavy-metal pigments like cadmium and what-not. This is obviously a good thing.

Avoid metallic and fluorescent inks. Fluorescent inks are always mineral-oil based and metallic inks contain heavy metal pigments.


Avoid laminates, which are plastic coatings added at the end of printing to give a matt or gloss effect – this makes recycling difficult. The same goes for spot varnishes – varnishes added to give a shiny appearance to only some of the printed area. Severnprint discourage their use, even though they have a range of laminates that is made from cellulose which is more sustainable and also biodegradable.

Foil-blocking effects don’t present this problem.

Printing method

Check for alcohol-free printing

Most printers use alcohol in the litho printing process to prevent the beading of water (litho printing works on the premise that water and oil repel each other, but when water meets oil it beads, so to avoid this you need to add a solvent to the mix and that solvent is alcohol – more on how litho printing works here). The alcohol is a volatile organic compound (VOC) which evaporates forming low-level pollution. Bad. Severnprint worked for years to reduce the alcohol used in their process to just a few percent of what your average printer uses, and even then they were using five or six tonnes of alcohol a year. Now they use no alcohol at all in the water, relying on a much kinder solvent.

Separately, in 2007 they switched to processing the plates on the press instead of a separate processing machine which used a lot of water, cutting their water usage by 40% – 400,000 litres!

An alternative – waterless printing

There is another kind of printing that uses no water at all. Instead of water on the plates they use a silicon coating (like the really shiny slippery backing that you peel away from labels). The print image is etched away from the silicone and reproduced that way. The problem with this method is when the friction caused by the printing heats everything up, the ink bleeds across the image. Thus the machines must be kept to a certain temperature, and this uses energy-intensive localised cooling.

Digital printing

More and more people are using digital printing for short runs because the quality of the finished product is now very high and the set-up costs are lower. Digital printing uses powder inks that are applied directly to the surface of the paper. It’s basically posh colour photocopying. It’s an important consideration because a) there are far fewer consumables – no aluminium plates, no water, etc and b) you only print what you need, whether that’s 10 copies or 1,000.

The downside of digital printing is that the kinds of paper that can be used are annoyingly limited, and there are very few recycled stocks that printers will use. Heavier-weight papers are a problem – it’s unusual to find a digital printer that will print anything heavier than 300gsm in my experience.

Binding method

Do you need any binding? I’ve seen some stunning promotional materials from Triodos Bank that use their loose-leaf design as a feature.

If you do need a binding, saddles-stitching (staples to the lay person) is the best option because it uses no glues and it easy to recycle.

Perfect or PUR binding (both of which result in pages glued to a flat spine – if you look at a heavy magazine like Vogue or GQ you’ll see what I mean) makes items less easy to recycle. However, if the item you’re designing is to last a long time, then these types of binding are more durable and thus actually better for the environment.

Obviously, the kind of binding you choose will largely be dictated by the number of pages you’re to be printing.

Size of publication

To make sure that waste is kept to a minimum in the making of your glorious design, check what sizes your chosen paper comes in and ask your printer’s advice about what document dimensions will get the most use out of every page. Most papers come in SRA sizes – SRA1, SRA2, etc – and are designed to work with the standard European A sizes – A4, A3, etc.

If you design a document without bleed (so you have a nice white margin around every page of at least 5mm – any less makes for difficult printing) you’ll save paper – sometimes significant amounts. Ask your printer’s advice on this.

Display boards and banners

Foam board is made from PVC. This is a bad thing. It is not sustainable, difficult to recycle and doesn’t biodegrade very well. When it does degrade it makes chlorine and other nasties.

You can get foam board that is partly recycled, but if you can, you should consider using aluminium for outdoor signs, which is fully recycled and recyclable. It’s hard to believe that a metal is better for the environment than foam board but there you go.

For indoor displays, instead of foam board consider using Ultraboard which has a similar rigidity created by using a honeycombed cardboard inner. It’s available in huge sizes and lots of different thicknesses.

Banners are also usually made from nasty PVC. You can get banners printed on HDPE which, although it is still made from petrol, is easily and widely recycled.

Even better, it is possible to get gorgeous banners printed on jute with a latex base – completely sustainable. Hooray!


Consider the transportation cost. I know a lot of large businesses go abroad for cheap printing, often to China. This is crazy, IMHO. Print as locally as possible, assuming you have an environmentally-aware printer near you, and ask about their delivery vehicles and things like cycle-to-work schemes for employees.


After all this, you may consider that printing is utterly evil and that we should host everything on the internets. Not so. When you consider the power it takes to run and cool the huge servers where stuff is hosted on the web, and the fact that a lot of people print web-based things (like bills) off at home, you’ll realise it’s a finely-balanced thing. Consideration is needed for each particular job at hand.

See also

FYI there is more technical info here from David Shorto, print buyer for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Severnprint has a guide for businesses and designers here

NB I’ve tried to make this as comprehensive as possible, but if you have any further info or advice on this matter I’d love to hear it!

In conclusion

The more we designers ask for evidence of sustainable practice the more seriously printers will take this issue. This is one area where individual choices really can make a difference. When you consider how much is manufactured on designers’ say-so you realise what a powerful voice we have. Let’s use it.