Friday, March 12, 2010

Students Lecture Al Gore on Green Printing

A group of Portland State University graduate students is taking Al Gore to task because his book on sustainability uses paper and printing methods that are not particularly sustainable.
Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis

The former Vice President's book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, "is a great first step in introducing the importance of sustainable publishing to a nationwide audience," the Sustainable Publishing Initiative of the student-run Ooligan Press said in an open letter to Gore this week. "That being said, we do feel concerned that some of the choices made in the printing of Our Choice are not aligned with the book’s message."

Despite a section that "attests to the environmentally friendly methods of printing the book," SPI says, the methods fall short of being truly green:
  • For the front cover of the book, you use a custom fold, which is certainly an elegant—if more expensive—option. Unfortunately, these folds also yield books that are far more susceptible to damage. In the publishing business, any damage that occurs to a book instantly allows the bookstore to return it to the publisher, and with this type of flap, it will happen on a large scale. If the book is considered damaged beyond a certain point, it will be pulped rather than enjoyed by a reader.
  • A large percentage of the book is illustrated in full-bleed spreads, a design choice that leads to great waste. To achieve a full-bleed spread, the printer must print on larger paper and trim down to the book size edges. All the excess paper and ink goes to waste.
  • You note that the book uses recycled paper with 10% post-consumer waste content, but this percentage is negligible and does not set a high standard. Many educational institutions, cities, counties, states, and an increasing number of corporations have policies addressing paper efficiencies, recycling, recycled content, and cleaner production methods. Across the board, the minimum PCW content is between 30–50%. Some state agencies even require purchasing 100% PCW paper. 
  • The pages are oversaturated with ink, causing the book pages to become distorted and preventing the book from being recyclable. This book has a CMYK interior, which utilizes the most colors available and uses an excessive amount of ink. The first four pages of the book’s interior are “registration” black as opposed to the standard “key” black of CMYK, meaning the printers have fully flooded all four colors to achieve that saturated black. It takes at least four runs of ink to achieve registration black. The process to recycle pages increases with each run, as does the energy and chemical processing involved in the printing.
  • The size of the book is nonstandard. As in the case of full-bleed spreads, cutting to special sizes creates waste. 
These students in Portland State's Writing and Book Publishing have certainly done their homework. I've never seen anyone question the environmental friendliness, or recyclability, of heavy ink coverage and four-color ("registration") blacks. But I think some of the criticism is off base.

I question whether using PCW in book papers makes environmental sense or is a form of "up-cycling" that diverts the recycled pulp from more appropriate uses. (See I'm an environmental idiot! for more on the subject.) More relevant are the type of virgin pulp and the extent and type of bleaching used to make the paper.

I also wonder about the "nonstandard" size. The print run of Gore's book was probably large enough to justify use of a web press, which would have different standard sizes from those of sheetfed and digital presses that are used to print short-run books.

These students have raised some interesting points to be considered by those of us who are interested in green printing. Just one question: Is "green printing" an oxymoron? Green, after all requires at least two colors of ink, cyan and yellow. Should we speak instead of "key black" printing?


jt said...

I wonder if the people who require 100% pcw realize that is not sustainable?

Anonymous said...

on a web press, you cannot print on 100% recycled stock, the pulp fiber is too unstable.

For large runs, such as this book surely was, using a lower recycled content and sustainable virgin pulp to make up the difference, allows for more recycled content to be used by the more disposable processes, such as copier paper, invitations, notecards.
This book is not likely to be disposed of and has a MUCH longer shelf-life.

bh said...

Dang, we trim all of our books, even when they do not have full bleed images. I wish they taught me that in college.

Also, I doubt the pages in question are registration black, probably a rich black, which uses all four colors, but nat at 100%.

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