What's the true cost of your graphic & signage installations for the environment?

July 5, 2021

The word 'sustainable' has been used a lot lately, and for a good reason. In the last couple of years, the print and signage industry has shifted its focus to sustainability and understanding the effects of our graphics installations on the environment.

At first glance, it may seem like most of the industry's emissions come from the materials we use. But in fact, nearly every stage of the installation process contributes to our carbon footprint.

The stats are sobering. But thankfully, many large format print companies are taking steps towards creating more sustainable installations, and the rest of the industry seems to be catching up at breakneck speed.

One example is Imageco. The "green to the core" Leeds print agency has set themselves apart through their steadfast commitment to sustainability. Their green journey began nearly three years ago when co-owner Nathan Bullough became more aware of the industry's impact on the environment. Their challenge was understanding how their business contributed to this impact. However, once they had a clear picture, they set about finding alternative options for their signage and graphics, switching to clean energy and utilising minimal-emissions logistics providers. Since this transformation, Imageco has been recognised for their eco-friendly initiatives, which has raised their profile, saved them money and contributed to their increasing success.

Just like Imageco, making sustainable changes to your business starts with knowing the impact your current practices have on the environment. Here are a few factors that influence it.


Materials


At first glance, many of your material options seem similar. They may have a similar texture or create the same visual effect. However, though your material choice isn't responsible for all of your carbon emissions, it indeed makes up the most significant chunk, as a Carbon Quota study reveals (see the graphics below). For instance, PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is the most popular material of choice for wall graphics. But its widespread use adds a hefty weight to the industry's carbon footprint. Just one graphic of PVC will create 11.8g CO2e during its lifecycle. If you're making a large installation, these figures quickly add up. However, there are more environmentally friendly options of similar quality that are widely available. One great alternative, rPET, in comparison, only produces 4g CO2e in its lifetime. So by switching from PVC to rPET, you can expect an almost threefold reduction in your carbon footprint.


The study by Carbon Quota for ImageCo - carbon footprint by materials


Production


As Dominic Harris, co-founder of Carbon Quota, explains, product manufacturing forms "about a quarter" of your business's entire carbon footprint.


The energy used during graphics manufacturing is a big part of it. From air-conditioning to running the equipment and providing appropriate lighting, factories consume an enormous amount of energy around the clock.


Inks used for printing also have a large carbon footprint due to the chemicals released from the solvents. The estimated three millions tonnes of the inks and chemicals used in offset printing release about 500,000 tonnes of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere every year. When these inks are disposed of through landfills, they poison the soil and ecosystems around them.


The good news is that you can make your production more sustainable without jeopardising the quality. For example, LED lighting lasts longer and uses up to 75% less energy than the more common incandescent and fluorescent tube lights. Switching to solar energy requires some initial cost, but this clean solution pays for itself after a couple of years. Installing their solar panels has generated about £6,000 of renewable energy every year. Another great renewable energy option is a voltage optimiser. This technology regulates and lowers excess voltage, which can also save you thousands of pounds annually. Both alternatives, when used together, can save you hundreds of thousands of pounds only a few years after their installation, leaving you with a bill-free energy source.  

Solar payback period. Credit: EnergySage


Additionally, printing with latex, UV gel technology or eco-solvent inks has a much smaller carbon footprint than solvent inks. Another option is vegetable inks, which are a relatively new development and have been shown to reduce carbon emissions drastically.


Distribution


Distributing your signage is a massive undertaking that requires a great deal of planning and coordination. Once the products are manufactured, they are packaged and transported to the locations where they are meant to be installed. All these steps release carbon emissions, with the most significant being transportation. The average transportation van releases nearly 160 g CO2/km. Since many installation jobs require distribution to different locations, often hundreds of kilometres apart, this is undoubtedly a cause for concern. In addition, the signage is sometimes packed in boxes and sealed with tape, which is both produced using significant amounts of energy. Some famous adhesive tapes aren't recyclable either, and those that are, such as vinyl tape and polypropylene tape, are neither compostable nor biodegradable. This means the countless rolls that aren't recycled end up in landfills, where they continue to release harmful greenhouse gases.


Making your distribution process more environmentally friendly requires efficient planning and goal-setting. Did you know that switching to electric delivery vehicles can cut your transport emissions by more than half? Moreover, they eventually become carbon neutral after 50,000 miles.


Managing your project with graphics installation software will also eliminate any products and resources wasted due to administrative errors. Using recycled cardboard boxes and paper tape will also ensure that you minimise waste and pollution as much as possible.





End of Life


No matter the quality of your signage, it has to be disposed of eventually. Currently, much of the signage is produced with non-biodegradable products, which make their disposal a significant source of carbon emissions. In fact, about 550 tonnes of PVC banners are sent to the landfill every year when they are either burned, releasing toxins into the atmosphere, or left to decompose for 400 years.


When planning your installation, it is vital to think of the end of life for your product and how you can reduce its impact on the environment. PVC signage is reusable and can be donated at the end of its lifetime for recycling. Upcycled signage can be made into other products such as bags and waterproof cushions.

However, the best way to ensure your signage causes minimal environmental damage is by using eco-friendly, fully recyclable materials such as recycled acrylic and PVC products.


From modernising the manufacturing process to embracing the transformational power of graphics installation management software, the signage and large format printing industry have proven itself more capable of understanding and embracing change. With companies like Imageco blazing a trail with their minimal emissions commitment, there's no doubt that other businesses in our increasingly eco-conscious industry aren't far behind.