Earth Day 2021: Why Print Should Embrace “Green”

How it can fight against the plastic industry



Colin McMahon


In the early 1990s, public opinion shifted (in part due to a well-executed marketing campaign from the sugar industry) to eat healthier. The solution: cut the fat. Fat-free became a craze and everyone, everywhere, knew that all you had to do to lose weight was not eat foods with high fat content. And then the Obesity Epidemic started—in part due, scientists today believe, to an increase in sugar consumption combined with a shift by many Americans to a less active lifestyle (the arrival of the Internet, modern gaming, etc.).


We bring this up not to announce that Keypoint Intelligence is moving into food industry coverage (we’re not), but to show the incredible impact of marketing and how pre-conceived notions can outlive even the best campaigns. There was research published back in the early 1990s that showed the value of fat in the diet (that it, among other things, helped signal to the brain that the stomach was full and to stop eating), but it was suppressed and largely ignored for years.


We bring this up because plastic pulled a similar trick. Tell consumers that paper is environmentally terrible—after all, one has to cut down trees—and to instead choose plastic. Plastic, after all, can be recycled…until it can’t. This misled assumption has helped spur on massive pollution, including islands of trash in the Pacific Ocean and an uncomfortable amount of microplastic within our very bodies.


But hey, it’s still better than paper…right? At least, that is the message that the plastic industry at large continues to allow to be spread.


Image Source: Team Concept Printing

 Why Paper Is Disposable

Looking back, it is insane that plastic was labeled as a material to use in disposables. After all, the material is not biodegradable. The very first plastic made on this planet is still kicking around somewhere. Only recently (and after considerable investment) have certain researchers developed ways to get rid of plastics. That’s a lot of hassle to go through for the default “disposable” product.


To combat this, plastic leaned hard into the concept of mass recycling—which, for the record, is a great concept. However, the public was kept in the dark on many of recycling’s failures. Most still don’t know, for instance, that the vast bulk of US recyclables are transported over to Asia on large ships (not very eco-friendly) and—even there—much of it ends up just being thrown away or burned. Again, mass recycling is a phenomenal idea, but its execution has left much to be desired.


Paper, by contrast, is innately biodegradable and natural. It is made from trees and plants instead of chemical combinations. This is not to say that all paper is a green dream, but (from a starting point) it is stronger in the sustainability department. At the very least, no one is worried about a giant paper island in the Pacific or any amount of micro-paper.


Point being, the print industry can—and should—position paper, not plastic, as the default disposal material. We have seen some of this lately, with the push to paper over plastic straws, but it could go much further.



Why Paper is Sustainable

One of the biggest hurdles facing the print industry’s image is deforestation, which is (in fairness) a major environmental problem facing the planet. When irresponsible logging practices are permitted, ecosystems are destroyed and animal species are wiped out—not to mention the displacement of certain indigenous populations.


This is why the print industry must become a champion of sustainable forestry. Every player in the print industry should replace their mascot with the Lorax and start speaking for the trees. If print can help promote and enforce the principles of sustainable forestry (and this includes boycotting wood suppliers who don’t follow such standards), then its image as a destructive industry can start to turn around.


A simple marketing message could be this: It is far easier to plant a tree than it is to safely dispose of an ounce of plastic.


Factors to Help Paper’s Eco-Friendly Image

As print starts to shift toward an attack on plastic, it cannot ignore its own waste problems. There are elements of the printing industry that are toxic—especially when it comes to traditional petroleum-based inks. Luckily, aqueous and UV-based ink usage is on the rise, reducing this toxicity.


Digital printing has also given power to printing on demand, meaning printers can create vast quantities of product as needed without having warehouses full of unused materials. Using recycled materials, such as recycled paper, can also reduce carbon emissions—while lowering that oh-so-unfortunate demand on the forests. To go even further, print companies should look to clean energy (including wind and solar) to power their factories. Anything that can be done, should be done.


Print is facing an uphill battle when it comes to creating a sustainable image, but it has never been more important to be eco-friendly. The impact of climate change is already being felt across the world and those effects will only continue to grow more severe in the coming years. Consumers want to do their part, and they want to know that companies are pitching in, too.


By going on the offensive and leaning hard into eco-friendliness, print can hit back at plastic—removing it as a go-to material for so many products and services. Happy Earth Day!



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