The UK is the world’s fifth largest manufacturer of printed products, and while there aren’t any statistics to indicate the level of overall material consumption in the industry, it is probably safe to assume that it’s a significant amount. As such, it’s responsible for a correspondingly high volume of waste – and it’s only in recent times, over the last decade or so, that the majority of it has been recycled.
The variety of waste produced by the print industry is vast, and paper – the material most closely associated with the sector – is by far the easiest to deal with. It’s taken to a recycling facility, washed, pulped and remade into new paper in a range of qualities. Where once card and paper grades had to be carefully sorted and separated to ensure optimal recyclability, there now exists technology that makes it feasible for recycling mills to use a mix of paper types, which has made waste management easier for all concerned – although some grades, such as best white, remain a high value material, so many waste management companies will deal with this separately.
Dealing with wooden pallets is equally simple. After shredding, they are either remanufactured into chip and fibreboard or find a new purpose as animal bedding, footpath material or as biomass – a source of renewable energy. Aluminium plate recycling is similarly straightforward, and particularly vital, as it’s a material that can be recycled continuously without losing its useful properties. After cleansing, it’s put through a melting process and turned into blocks (ingots), which are ready to be repurposed, often by the motor industry or by other plate manufacturers.
Even materials that were once notoriously tricky to dispose of safely, never mind sustainably, are becoming easier to manage and thus evading landfill. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), for example, gained prominence during the noughties thanks to a number of EU directives, and while its treatment can vary enormously, depending on its category, waste management companies have devised a variety of operations to efficiently dissemble equipment, to send individual components through their appropriate recycling channels. At the very least, they will move it through a third party that can. Print waste management company J&G Environmental estimates that it collects as much as 40 tonnes of WEEE a week.
Inks and solvents that were once the bane of waste managers’ lives are also finding a useful purpose, thanks in part to keen markets overseas. The best case scenario involves an ink recovery process of filtering and reconditioning that results in high- quality black inks, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, a solidification treatment using lime or fly ash turns the liquid into ‘cakes’ that can then be used in energy-from-waste facilities. Some solvents can also undergo a biological treatment where biodigestion turns them into an inert sludge, which can be safely returned to water courses.
The recyclability of previously challenging waste streams does present some issues, though, namely in volume. “One of the biggest problems I’ve come across is printers doing runs so small that it’s not economically feasible to collect the waste,” says Darren Fairlie, recycling manager at J&G Environmental. “Especially smaller printers. They might only have a cage a month of material. Some waste management companies, like us, can pick up mixed loads, but others can’t, and if the printer doesn’t have enough space in the yard to build up a decent amount of each material, it just gets binned, which is a waste of resources.”
This, Fairlie says, only affirms the “throw-everything-in-one-skip” attitude that is still prevalent among some printers.
“It was not that long ago that you could take everything out of the said skip, bale it all together and send it off to the Far East for sorting – it was a valuable commodity
– so getting them out of this mindset can be a challenge.”
Despite the relatively straightforward management of many waste streams, there are several that continue to present significant problems, for example plastics. While some kinds of plastics can be recycled for use in injection moulding or manufactured into building materials, printers generally deal with laminated plastics, which according to Mike Jackson, managing director at Prismm Environmental, “just kills its recycling potential, because it’s so hard to deal with. Mixed polymer plastics will also end up in landfill, or very occasionally, at an energy-from-waste facility, because there’s no technology that can separate the polymers cost-effectively.”
Label waste is also a problem, with around 120,000 tonnes of it ending up in landfill every year. “The label sector has performed pretty poorly in recent years,” says Jackson. “Because there’s such a mix of papers and polymers involved, it’s a huge challenge disposing of it sustainably.”
However, Prismm runs an initiative, in partnership with the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF), to eliminate this difficult waste stream. The company’s Zero Labels 2 Landfill scheme has successfully diverted more than 42,000 tonnes of waste away from landfill since its launch in 2015. Crucially, there are no challenges with volume because as little as 600kg of material can be collected at a time.
But Jackson concedes that even with new options available, some printers are dragging their heels when it comes to recycling. “I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about the industry – many of them are doing a lot better when it comes to proactively segregating waste – but quite often they can be offered a recovery solution that’s on a par with landfilling, price-wise, and they say no because it requires a bit more effort,” he adds.
However, the introduction of legislation in China banning import waste means that many printers will have to “sharpen their pencils”, according to Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association. “Companies can no longer rely on simply shipping material to China,” he says.
“So they will have to look at alternatives.” Doing so can only be beneficial. Kingsley Print, for example, took steps to more efficiently segregate its waste streams and in doing so reduced its waste output by 75% while lowering its waste removal costs by 89%. One newspaper printing site, meanwhile, re-examined its waste strategy and managed to get its recycling rate up to 95%.
“There’s still money to be made in these materials,” says Fairlie, whose company J&G Environmental has helped Kingsley and numerous other printers to revise their waste management policies. “One of our customers does big runs for a well-known optician and they’re recovering around 40 tonnes a week of waste material for this client alone – prices can range from £20 and tonne up to £300 a tonne.”
But while there’s an onus on printers to take a proactive attitude towards their waste, a lot of the associated benefits are dependent on their waste management company. “Bigger printers will always be looked after really well, because they’ve got the best and most lucrative material,” says Jackson at Prismm. “Small and medium-sized companies can sometimes get the raw end of the deal, because they have smaller volumes, and they don’t have the budget to have a dedicated waste expert monitoring contracts and markets.”
However, with the issue of waste and recycling increasingly taking centre stage for all industries, it’s important for printers to have the right help and support.
“Review your waste contracts and material prices regularly,” advises Jackson. “The right waste management company will be happy to help maximise your recovery rates and material revenue with a tailor-made service that works for your business.”
Boxout: Achieving zero to landfill
There are mixed attitudes towards zero waste to landfill within the print industry. While the idea is largely met with enthusiasm from all corners, actually achieving zero waste status can be a challenge. Hazardous wastes, mixed polymers and labels continue to present problems – overcoming them will require a step change in thinking for many printers. But it’s not impossible, nor is it a particularly new concept. Anglia Print has been a zero-waste-to-landfill business since 2005, whereas Oxfordshire-based Seacourt has been zero-waste since 2009.
Achieving zero waste means having fewer waste management outgoings, achieving a competitive advantage over other printers (as more clients actively seek environmental credentials to bookend their Corporate Social Responsibility reports), positive PR opportunities and straightforward compliance with new and existing legislation – zero-waste companies are already ahead of the environmental regulations that might catch out others when implemented.
“Print is an industry that lends itself to zero waste,” says Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association. “Most of the materials produced are recyclable, and where they’re not, there are other options, such as repurposing or incineration for energy-from-waste.”
“Companies should start by looking at their waste arisings, measuring volumes and identifying difficult material streams. Choosing the right recycling provider is key. If they’re offering a tailor-made recovery service, they’ll be well-positioned to help companies reduce their waste further.”