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Print Waste: Understand the social impact of printing

Printing is not an inherently sustainable practice. We’re a print management company, so we feel qualified in saying that. That’s why part of our mission, the way we see it, is to help businesses and organizations actually print less. Or at least print smarter. More thoughtfully.

We can’t make printing 100% sustainable yet, but we can make it more sustainable. And we think that’s something worth shooting for.

Environmental impact of paper waste

Let’s start by considering the carbon footprint of printing. Well, there’s a lot to factor into that equation. There’s the paper itself, the machines, the manufacturing process, the inks and toners, the cartridges, the e-waste, the energy needed to build and maintain, right through to the printer disposal. Printing is a complicated, carbon-intensive process.

In 2018, it was estimated that the print industry accounted for about 1% of all carbon emissions, but that wasn’t factoring in the entire lifecycle. Others have done some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and found that an A4 96-page, litho-printed colour brochure with a run of 20,000 copies creates a carbon footprint of about 20 tons (CO2e). That’s equivalent to flying four times around the world in economy. You can see how quickly this stuff can get out of hand.

In terms of paper waste, paper represents about 26% of total waste in landfills. 85 million tons of the stuff is generated every year. And from 2010 to 2060, despite many offices going paperless (or at least less-paper), the global consumption of pulp and paper is expected to double.

The cost of unsustainable printing

Unsustainable printing simply means printing more than you need to, and using materials and machines that are inefficient and overly expensive. And there’s a silver lining here, which is that organizations can save serious money by switching to more sustainable printing practices.

Double-sided (or duplex) printing alone reduces paper consumption by up to 50%. (Think about it.) Energy-efficient printers can save up to 30% on energy costs, compared to non-certified models. Refilling ink and toner cartridges, as opposed to buying new ones, can save another 50% on costs. It all adds up. And considering businesses spend, on average, about 1% to 3% of their annual revenue on printing, small margins here and there can make a big difference.

Digital transformation and reduced print waste

The easiest step towards reducing print waste? Don’t print so much! And this comes back to things like cloud collaboration tools, digital document storage, and good print management software. It’s something we call waste-control printing.

By implementing robust print management controls, you can actually see how much users are printing, and whether they’re printing efficiently. It’s the first step towards stuff like print tracking, print quotas, and print rules to minimize wastage. We also recommend implementing secure print release, to minimize the number of wasted jobs sitting in your printer tray.

Recycling and re-using print materials

If there isn’t a paper recycling bin next to every single printer and scanner in the office, then you’re doing it wrong.

As we’ve said above, the best sustainable print technique is to simply print less, but if you are going to generate paper waste, you may as well recycle it. Paper actually accounts for more than half of all recycled materials , which is great, but there’s still room for improvement.

Start by only buying and using recycled paper. Save your spent printer cartridges and take them to local recycling drop-off points. And when a printer reaches the end of its lifecycle, don’t just throw it in landfill: printers can usually be recycled through reputable e-waste initiatives.

Implementing print management software

As we mentioned above, print management is a great way to print more sustainably. By tracking your print environment and implementing sustainable protocols, you can dramatically shrink the carbon footprint of printing. So how does that work in practice? Well, we’ve written about this before , but here are the basics:

Measure your printing. Start by tracking how much paper you’re using, how much ink your chewing through, how many users are on the system, and how often they’re printing. Generate reports on this activity every month, so you can track your progress over time.

Add secure print release. Secure print release means documents can only be released at the printer by an authorized user actually standing there. This saves a huge number of documents from being printed, forgotten, lost and discarded.

Implement print rules. At the very minimum, you should use your print management software to enable some basic sustainable print rules. Maybe set duplex printing as the default, and disable color printing (except for authorized users, or special occasions).

Use print quotas. Print quotas are a great way to incentivize more sustainable printing habits. Basically, if people know they have a finite number of pages they can print, they’ll only print when absolutely necessary. This can all be configured through your print management software. If staff want to print excess documents, you could set up a small charge facility, and this money could be funneled back into new sustainability initiatives.

Promote a culture of print sustainability

Like anything in the corporate world, sustainable printing comes back to culture. Most people don’t print wastefully because they’re monsters; they simply don’t understand the carbon footprint of printing. So educate them! Have your IT team or sustainability team run some print workshops. Explain the benefits of digital collaboration tools and document storage. In short, promote a culture of responsibility, where all employees feel invested in the ESG policies of the company.

This has a secondary benefit: the stats show that businesses with better ESG standards reduce employee turnover by between 25% and 50%.

Impact of print waste on corporate social responsibility

Printer waste isn’t often factored into the overarching narrative of corporate social responsibility. But it should be. With offices going increasingly digital, people often forget about the environmental impact of commercial printing. But an organization can’t call itself sustainable if it’s printing unsustainably: the waste factor alone is enormous. The lesson here is that businesses need to start incorporating sustainable printing into their ESG strategies and Net Zero plans. For all our sakes.

Need help with sustainable printing? PaperCut can get help your organization shrink its print carbon footprint. Give our friendly team a call to find out more.

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