Waste is a design flaw.
As a matter of trash — There are six potential destinies for your designs: perpetual litter, landfill, incineration, compost, recycling, or reuse. It is an unwelcome truth that your product will eventually end up as trash, but by acknowledging this you can steer it to being composted, recycled or reused; three sustainable destinies.
If it's broken, fix it — There's a global 'fix it' movement that's gaining ground: by fixing your electronics (e-waste) instead of throwing them out, you are doing yourself and the planet a favour. E-waste contain all kinds of chemicals and is therefore not just landfill material – to recycle electronics properly, they should be disassembled. Some bits can be recycled: the raw materials can be used to make new products. However because this is an expensive and labour-intensive process, many electronics are simply shipped to the third world. IFIXIT is a website that aims to collect free repair guides for all kinds of hardware (iPhones, appliances, cars, ...). It also produced the Repair Manifesto (inspired by Platform 21's Repair Manifesto).
Start at the end — The first step in this backward process is how you deal with this question: how are you going to produce your products so that they can be reused or recycled? And are there any recycled materials you could use or products you could repurpose? Think cradle-to-cradle instead of cradle-to-grave. When you start a project, consider the lifecycle of the end-product, in particular where it will end up after the user disposes of it. Increasing its lifecycle by envisioning extended use (for instance by serving multiple purposes) or by making it updatable. Product designers should design products so that they can be repaired.
Three R's — Think about how easily the materials you use can be repurposed, reused or recycled by the audience. For instance, not everyone will make the effort of taking apart window envelopes to separate the plastic from paper. It is important to envision and understand the end-user of your outcomes. Reduce the amount of materials you use: don't just produce a hundred page book because it looks nice and bulky. Reuse materials by considering your printer's leftover papers, inks and make-ready sheets as the basis of your designs and by reusing waste paper in the office. Have a general recycling attitude, at work and at home. Take a look at Recycle Now or the Recycling Guide for more information about the three R's: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
For students — Can your college projects have another life outside or after the course? Can you hand it out to fellow students as inspirational or informational pieces? Can you sell it online? There are a lot of websites where you can sell (hand-made) projects, for instance Etsy.
Efficiency is key — Designers almost never consider what happens when their printed designs leave the printer's: they are packaged, distributed and often stored. As a sustainable graphic designer it is important to consider efficient design, packaging and transport.
Packaging — Sustainable and efficient packaging designs minimise the amount of space and materials used, are stackable, lightweight, easily transported, recyclable, biodegradable (ephemeral packaging) or reusable (durable packaging). Remember the three R's.
Transportation and distribution — Think about how your products will reach their audience. Transport is one of the biggest contributors to our environmental problems, so use local manufacturers to minimise the distance travelled, and always try to group shipments.
For students — Pick up your prints (using green transport) instead of having them delivered, and bring your own A3 folder so your work does not have to be packaged or wrapped in plastic.
Choose a sustainable printer — Choosing a sustainable printer is one of the most important steps in this process. Do some research: make sure your printer holds one or more environmental accreditations such as EMAS, ISO 14001 or FSC. Smaller printers that cannot afford these systems should have a Greenmark or Green Dragon certification. An environmental management system checks records annually to ensure that the printers are maintaining high standards and are continually improving. Check whether they use 100% vegetable-based inks and renewable energy, have a general recycling attitude and measure their carbon footprint. Working with a local printer will also reduce the carbon footprint of your print job. For a list of printers in the UK along with their environmental accreditations and offered services, see Lovely as a Tree's Printfinder.
Get to know them — Build a good relationship with your printer. Being able to discuss projects, production methods and used materials in a friendly manner will speed up and facilitate the process.
Plan ahead — Planning in advance will become easier and it will minimise mistakes such as over orders or flaws in finishing. For instance, have a look at your printer's surplus papers and leftover inks and use them as the basis of some of your (self-initiated) projects, for example this poster by Spin or this booklet by thomas.matthews.
Suitable printing process — The printing process has a vital influence on the environmental impact of your project. The quantity of the print run indicates which process is the most cost-effective. Lithography or offset printing is excellent for large print jobs (1.000 to 50.000+), but it is not the most environmentally-friendly: it uses a lot of energy, the make-ready process produces paper and ink waste, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) pollute the air, toxic solvents are needed to clean the machines, ... Look for an offset printer that does waterless or low alcohol printing and that uses renewable energy. Digital printing is a great alternative for smaller print runs (1 to 1.000). It is fast, cheap and better for the environment: they eliminate make-ready paper and ink waste, clean-up solvent and expensive printing plates. A disadvantage of digital printing is that there are limitations: not all recycled papers can be used and the size of the print sheets is usually restricted to A3. Digital printing is also less tactile. There are many alternatives, such as letterpress, screen printing, risography or gocco printing. These hands-on techniques give projects a more tactile and unique feel.
Finishing — Once your work is printed, the sheets are trimmed to size; this generates paper waste, so make sure you make optimal use of each sheet. You then need to consider finishing techniques; think about the resources required to make them and how they can be recycled. Even though they look nice and luxurious, it is best to avoid foil blocking, spot and UV varnishing, perfect binding (unless with water-based glue) and die-cutting. There are many great-looking alternatives that are far less damaging for the environment, such as folding, blind embossing or laser-cutting. Techniques with materials that can be taken out of the paper before it is recycled are also a good option: saddle-stitching, singer-stitching and wire spiral binding. Hand-sowing is also a great option, but is less of an obvious choice for large print runs. You can use different colours of threads to compliment your design and it is a great way to collect separate papers in different sizes or textures, for example this book by Amy Borell or this book by Toby Edwards. For an overview of binding techniques, have a look on Designer's Insights.
For students — Ask for a tour around your printer to get to know the machines and working methods. Learn about imposition, CMYK and spot colours, because they might not teach you the details at college. Being a bit tech savvy about printing will help your work and your resume. Experiment with screen printing, letterpress and darkroom at college. These facilities are usually available to you for free so use them to your full advantage! Take a bookbinding class at college to learn the basics. Sowing, saddle-stitching and stab-stitching are great finishing techniques for student projects since you usually only have to make one or two copies.
Specifying 'green' paper is one of the simplest things a green graphic designer can do. It only requires knowledge and the will to break from the status quo.
Recycled papers — The production of paper is responsible for 50 to 90% of the carbon footprint of a piece of print. Paper made out of recycled fibres however uses 40% less energy and 50% less water and produces over 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than paper made from non-recycled fibres. There are many different kinds of recycled papers available today, such as TCF (Totally Chlorine Free), FSC certified, post-consumer recycled or even tree-free. For a comprehensible glossary of paper terms, see Lovely as a Tree. There you can also find a comprehensive list of recycled papers, where they come from, what they contain, and who sells them. Good quality recycled paper ranges are Loop, Cairn, Mohawk, Corona and Cyclus. They are all 100% post-consumer recycled or FSC certified and come in a range of colours, textures and weights. London-based Paper Back and GF Smith sell a large range of beautiful and recycled papers.
Light paper — Choose to work with lighter papers. A 120 gsm paper requires almost twice the amount of fibres to be produced than 90gsm paper.
Tree-free paper — It is also possible, though not very common (yet), to use tree-free papers. There are two types: organic tree-free papers made from agricultural residues (e.g. straw), fibre crops and wild plants (e.g. bamboo, hemp), textile waste (e.g. cotton) or animal waste (e.g. elephant poo), and inorganic tree-free papers made from plastic polymers or minerals. Take a look at Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart – this book is printed on paper made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers; it is waterproof, durable and recyclable.
Forest Stewardship Council — The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting responsible forest management. About 10% of the world's forests are FSC certified. The FSC Chain of Custody tracks the timber from forests to the paper mill and then to the printer. There are three kinds of FSC certified papers: FSC Pure (all content comes from FSC certified forests), FSC Recycled (at least 85% of the fibres come from post-consumer sources and a maximum of 15% comes from post-industrial sources) and FSC Mixed (blend of FSC Pure, Recycled and/or Controlled fibre). Choosing paper with one of these certifications is a safe choice, but paper made out of 100% post-consumer recycled fibres is also very good – whether it is FSC certified or not.
Vegetable-based ink — Vegetable-based inks are a renewable and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional petroleum-based inks. The oil harvested from the vegetable products acts as a vehicle for the ink pigments. There are several types of vegetable-based inks, such as soy, linseed and safflower. Soy is popular because it is a stable material that carries solid pigments well. Most manufacturers use a blend of these types in order to take advantage of the characteristics of each oil. These inks have many advantages: they contain low levels of VOCs, ubiquitous organic chemicals causing air pollution. They generally produce more vivid colours than traditional ink. A disadvantage is that they need more time to dry since they lack evaporative solvents in the form of VOCs – this also makes them less suited for printing on coated papers.
Sustainable finishing — Use finishing methods that are easy to recycle or biodegradable. The safest choices are folding and blind embossing, since no extra material is added. Options where materials can be taken out of the paper before it is recycled are also sustainable; for instance saddle-stitching, singer-stitching or wire spiral binding.
Sustainability scorecard — A sustainability scorecard is a very useful tool when selecting materials for a print job. It lists the source, energy impact and destiny of various materials and ranks them from 'avoid' to 'prefer'. Inks and plastics are the most damaging materials, while 100% post-consumer recycled papers and papers made from agricultural waste fibres are ranked as most preferred. Celery Design Collaborative is a California-based design studio that have developed a sustainability scorecard that is available on their website, along with other eco tools. They have also published the succesful and very useful book about sustainable design and designing backwards (on which this project was initially based), called Green Graphic Design.
For students — Use recycled paper at college and reuse the sheets that you would otherwise throw away as scribble pads for making notes and lists.
Medium — Think carefully about the medium: are you producing a printed or digital item? Envision the purpose and audience of your end-product; they will play an important role in this decision. Print is an obvious contributor to the planet's issues, but digital work is not necessarily more environmentally-friendly: electronic devices use electricity.
Format and imposition — If you are printing, try to stick to standard paper formats such as A4 or A5. Try different folding techniques or finishes to make your design stand out. If you decide to go for less conventional formats, make optimal use of print sheets: efficient imposition saves a lot of wasted trimmed paper (and saves you money).
Plan ahead — Talk to your printer in advance about the process and materials you will use. Good communication reduces the risk of mistakes and allows you to use more complex techniques.
Proof carefully — Plan enough time to carefully proof your work; do it on-screen as much as possible but also make at least one actual-size printed copy. This reduces the risk of a reprint or a job being pulled off the press. Reduce ink coverage by avoiding large images or blocks of colour. Use light typefaces and think about the use of colour: using only one or two colours reduces its environmental impact and usually the cost. If you need to print full-colour images, you can insert a four-colour section in an otherwise one-colour document.
For students — Try to do the imposition of at least one project, just so you know how this works and so you can see how much paper is actually wasted from trimming the final piece.
New habits — All of the previously mentioned steps are a lot to implement at first: don't try to do everything at once, but gradually change things. Ideally these steps become a new habit that comes naturally, instead of something you have to forcefully think about.
Energy — Switch to a renewable energy contract, for instance Ecotricity, Good Energy or Green Energy UK. Most of these companies take care of the switch for you, but if you share a workspace it might not be possible to change providers. There are smaller things you can do as well: replace your light fixtures with energy-saving ones. Make optimal use of daylight in your studio by placing desks near windows. Promote a general 'switch off' policy!
Think before you print — Keep a digital archive and stick to digital communication. Send invoices over email instead of posting them. If you decide to print something, do it double-sided and on recycled or waste paper. Place a bin next to the printer or fax to collect waste paper that can be reprinted or used for making notes or lists. Spread the word and add a 'think before you print' footer to your emails – you can link to Think before printing.
Shopping behaviour — Buy multi–purpose, recycled, organic and/or fair–trade products (e.g. biological detergent, recycled toilet paper). Buy locally and try to avoid large commercial chains. Bring your own food to work (in a box, not a plastic wrapper), reuse your coffee cups and replace a water cooler by a filter tap. Or just drink tap water! Also buy some plants to perk up the office; they absorb indoor pollution, improve humidity and are said to double creativity and brain activity.
Repair, donate and recycle — Repair, donate or recycle your old hardware. Think about the Repair Manifesto and the free repair guides on IFIXIT. Or give it away on Freecycle, an organisation trying to keep usable items out of landfill by matching people that want to get rid of something to people that can still use it. Go to Recycle Now to check recycling facilities in your council, for instance where to bring old batteries, glass or hardware.
Green transport — Walk or cycle to work. It's not only environmentally-friendly but also healthy and cheap! If you're wary of the London traffic or your work is too far, take public transport or think about car-pooling. If you absolutely need to own your own car, think about sharing it with your friends and/or neighbours: this reduces costs and the quantity of cars on the road.
Commit — Make an environmental policy for the office. This summarises all of your good intentions and makes them real. There are many websites that can help you with this, for instance A Greener Office. For an example, see the policy London-based studio beam posted on their website.
Stay updated — Sustainable graphic design is a rapidly evolving field. Stay on top of the game by checking up on the latest developments and innovations (such as new materials or techniques), looking at other sustainable designers and studios, and attending seminars or conferences (e.g. Greengaged) about the subject.
Be an agent of positive change — There are different levels to being a sustainable graphic designer. In the words of Brian Dougherty, author of Green Graphic Design:
Your range of possibilities as a green designer is directly related to how you define your role as a designer. If you think of yourself as a manipulator of stuff, then you can specify recycled paper and green printing. If you think of yourself as a message maker, then you can actively help influence the ideas and brands you work with. If you think of yourself as an agent of change, then you just might be able to change the actions of your audience, your clients, and your peers.
Whatever you do, your main goal should not be to just change old habits, but to mitigate your impact on the environment while being as creative and innovative as possible. Yes, sustainable design is a challenge, but we love challenges and solving problems; that makes our field interesting and worthwhile.
Changing the industry — Changing the industry is not going to happen overnight, but the seeds have already been planted: sustainable graphic design is slowly but surely becoming a booming business. There are many ways in which you can actively participate, for instance by choosing your clients carefully. Don't work with organizations that you don't believe in. Do pro bono work for social and environmental causes, and collaborate with other sustainable designers or organisations. Invest in self-initiated projects or collaborations that show off the beauty, functionality and potential of sustainable design. Influence the brands and concepts you work on, by showing your knowledge and passion for the subject. Motivate your peers. And take this sustainable attitude home as well.