How sustainable is digital printing really?

Digital printing offers many opportunities for sustainable production and a circular economy. This growth market has great potential for holistic eco-strategies.

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Recyclable papers, energy-saving printing processes, personalised products in short runs, environmentally friendly inks - these are just a few of the many measures that are already making digital printing more sustainable. Now all players, from the paper industry to printing press manufacturers and digital print shops, need to develop credible strategies.

Market for digital printing on the upswing

According to its report, The Future of Digital Printing to 2032, market researchers from Smithers give the digital printing industry a good report card for the next ten years and attest to its healthy condition. In 2022, its global volume was estimated at around 136.7 billion US dollars. Even taking into account the war in Ukraine, the associated inflation and the increased prices for paper and energy, this figure is expected to rise to 230.5 billion by 2032, which corresponds to almost a quarter of the entire printing business in terms of value.

Personalised print runs protect the environment

Digital printing now scores highly for small and medium print runs as a more eco-friendly printing process compared to offset. The printing plate exposure and associated chemical consumption common in the offset printing process are no longer necessary and set-up times are reduced to a minimum. The waste known from offset printing is almost completely eliminated and water is not consumed during the printing process.

Personalisation is fundamental to the sustainability of digitally printed advertising material. In contrast to mass-produced printed matter, which is distributed using the scattergun principle and therefore only achieves response rates in the lower single-digit range, individualised products avoid unnecessary wastage and print runs. This saves costs and reduces the impact on the environment. The modern motto is: quality instead of quantity! Because with personalised digital print products, double-digit response rates can be achieved despite smaller print runs.

Ecological is a selling point

Print customers have a growing eco-friendly awareness. They are increasingly asking for printed matter made from recycled paper before placing an order. In 2022, the Europe-wide recycling rate was already 71 per cent - and rising.

Recycled papers and organic substrates

The paper industry is continuously expanding its range of environmental papers, especially for the digital printing segment. In general, more and more common offset papers can be printed directly and digitally without the usual pre-treatment. There are already signs in many areas that inkjet print products are also well on the way to achieving qualified eco-certification. In addition, many natural materials such as hemp, cotton fibres, bamboo and even coffee residues are being incorporated in high proportions into ecological speciality papers. The demand for organic substrates is growing, particularly in the label printing sector - however, depending on the origin of the materials, it should be checked whether they are actually sustainable substrates.

Inks, toners & more

The composition of inks is also evolving towards eco-friendly inks and sustainability. Solvent-based inks are being replaced by more degradable aqueous solutions, while dye-based inks are gradually disappearing and pigment-based formulas are dominating. An important aspect for the level of sustainability of a print product is deinkability, that is to say the removal of ink or toner from the paper. This is of great importance so that the corresponding papers can be easily returned to the recycling cycle. Various digital web printing systems have now been officially certified by the International Research Association for Deinking Technology (INGEDE) - following a test using the well-known INGEDE Method 11 and in accordance with the European Recovered Paper Council's "Deinkability Scorecard". The outputs of various digital printing systems achieved 90 to 100 out of 100 points and were certified or accredited by INGEDE.

Certified printing process

In addition to responsibly produced materials, many customers are looking for a print shop that can produce sustainably and offer high-quality product or company certifications. Ideally, they will recognise design errors in the pre-press stage and correct them in the direction of environmentally aware, resource-conserving, carbon footprint reducing, production. Printed matter that is produced by environmental print shops can be labelled with certificates: The responsibility documented on printed matter in this way is a real added value for customers. It strengthens the positioning of their brands and products and conveys trust and security to recipients of the printed products. The additional costs for such certified printed matter are between five and 12 per cent. Certifications such as the EU Ecolabel as well as national certificates and standards are available.

Eco-friendly printing companies are characterised by the following features, for example:
  • The print shop may label print products directly, for example with the Blue Angel for printed products (DE-ZU 195) and/or the EU Ecolabel.
  • The company is self-certified, for example according to national and international environmental and energy management systems. 
  • The printing materials and papers are predominantly made from recycled materials, which would have by far the most sustainable effect on the environment. Labels for responsible forest management such as FSC, Cradle to Cradle or the Blue Angel for recycled paper document the company's commitment to the circular economy.
  • The technical equipment is sustainable, for example through energy-efficient printing machines, heat recovery systems, in-house power generation through photovoltaic systems or energy-saving lighting concepts.  
  • The company is socially committed by joining and committing to international codes, such as the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • In addition, certified compensation and renaturalisation measures can credibly underpin the sustainability promise.

Falling energy consumption

Specifically, the energy consumption of a digital press has fallen continuously in recent years. More than 60 per cent of this energy is used for fixing the toner to the paper. With the polymerised Simitri® V toner, Konica Minolta has been able to reduce the fusing temperature by around 15°C, for example. In combination with a new fixing device, this contributes to a significant reduction in the TEC value (typical weekly energy consumption). The reduction in power consumption has resulted in modern printing systems generating up to 25 per cent less CO2 emissions during operation compared to their predecessor models.

Strategic and sustainable management secures the future

There is no way around digital printing in the future. Just as little as the topic of sustainability. The technical possibilities are available and are constantly evolving. However, it is not enough to simply point out that the paper is recycled or that a printing system is energy-efficient. As a company in the print industry, it is now important to develop a holistic sustainability strategy that achieves defined targets for climate protection. Otherwise, companies will quickly come under suspicion of greenwashing.

Digital printers that act strategically and responsibly should communicate this simply and clearly to their customers. Print shops must prove and credibly communicate that environmental and climate protection are firmly anchored in their corporate values. They can then also charge higher prices for sustainable print products. However, digital print shops often still have a less recognisable corporate philosophy in the public eye. When it comes to environmentally aware digital printing, companies are operating at very different levels, depending on the target group.

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