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Which Cover Coating is the Most Environmentally Friendly?

When specifying cover coatings for such applications as perfect-bound book covers, which option do you choose for the least harmful effect on the environment? With UV coating, lamination, aqueous coating, and varnish as the choices, which is best?

First of all, varnish, like ink, usually has a petroleum base (varnish is basically the vehicle of an ink mixture without the pigment), and during the drying process, the petroleum enters the atmosphere as toxic VOCs (volatile organic compounds). If your printer can use soy-based products for your project, of course, such a varnish would be far less harmful to the environment. (That is, it would be less toxic to humans and wildlife, it would cause less air pollution, and it would be less prone to contaminate the soil and groundwater.)

Laminates, such as the liquid, lay-flat, or film laminates used to coat the covers of perfect-bound books, are essentially plastics applied to the paper stock. In general, this would be problematic, due to the petroleum base of most plastics.  However, less harmful options are becoming available, such as laminates made from soy polymers, which are manufactured from soybean proteins. (Keep in mind, however, that although soy polymers are biodegradable, they do require land and water for growing the crops from which they are made. In addition, carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, is released during their manufacture. Soy polymers are also expensive. So while they are better for the environment than petroleum based materials, they are not without their problems.)

UV coatings, prized for their high-luster sheen, unfortunately, are very unfriendly to the environment for two reasons. First, they contain carcinogens. Second, they don’t decompose in landfills.

Water-based coatings, on the other hand, called aqueous coatings, are a good option. They come in gloss, satin, and matte finishes, providing variety in paper surface coating. Unfortunately, they are not as shiny as their UV counterparts, so there is a bit of a sacrifice in choosing this option.

**ADDENDUM published July 29, 2008**

UV COATING -- NEW INFORMATION

In an earlier issue of PIE Quick Tips (Which Cover Coating Is the Most Environmentally Friendly?) I noted that UV coating is unfriendly to the environment because it contains carcinogens and it doesn’t decompose in landfills.

A couple of readers of this column brought to my attention that this statement is in error in relation to new UV technologies of which I was unaware, so I did a little more research.

I dug a little deeper and discussed UV coatings with another printer that focuses specifically on newer, environmentally friendly processes—perhaps a little more than your average print shop.

From this particular printer and some EPA materials, I learned the following about current UV technology:

1. The newer UV materials are not classified by the EPA as hazardous substances. Workers’ exposure to these materials therefore does not pose the health risks of some other technologies. Also, new UV technologies are not carcinogenic.

2. UV coatings can now be included in the “mixed waste” category of recycled stock.

UV coatings also have the following benefits:

1. They don’t release VOCs into the atmosphere, as solvent-based coatings do.

2. Because they don’t require the application of heat for the drying process and are cured through the application of UV light, less energy is used in their application.

3. They are less flammable than solvent-based materials.

What is FSC Certification?

Increasingly, corporations are showing their commitment to both their social responsibility and to the environment by specifying paper that inflicts the least possible damage on nature in its manufacture. Those who put their ecological concern into the printing paper they specify can do so by choosing FSC-certified paper stocks.

FSC-certified papers show a commitment to eliminating “habitat destruction, water pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples, and violence against people and wildlife that often accompanies logging” (Forest Stewardship Council).

It is important to note that FSC-certification of the paper you choose does not just support the environment (not only the forests, wildlife, and water eco-system) but also reflects a commitment to the people involved in the production of these paper products.

The FSC program is respected around the world for ensuring that responsible use of the earth’s resources informs every aspect of production, from logging through the entire papermaking process.

The best way to learn about FSC-certification, as well as the logo that figures prominently on such paper products, is to visit the Forest Stewardship Council website (www.fsc.org).

What is SFI Certification

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) program is based on the belief that you can treat the environment gently and still make a profit. Good business decisions are not incompatible with sustainable manufacturing practices.

SFI-certified members include printers and paper manufacturers, as well as loggers and foresters. Therefore, your choices of print vendors and printing materials can express your commitment to SFI values.

Like, FSC-certified vendors, SFI-certified vendors engage in business practices “based on a comprehensive system of principles, objectives, and performance measures developed by professional foresters, conservationists, and scientists, that combine the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the long-term protection of wildlife, plants, soil and water quality” (Sustainable Forestry Initiative). Principles of the SFI program ensure that more timber is grown than is harvested and it mandates that sustainable practices be used within all elements in the manufacturing chain, from planting the tree to making the paper.

Certified members also track the amount of SFI-certified materials, un-certified materials, and recycled materials they use, buy, or sell, and also provide training in sustainable manufacturing.

The best way to learn about SFI-certification, as well as the logo that figures prominently on such paper products, is to visit the Sustainable Forestry Initiative website (www.sfiprogram.org).

What Do FSC- and SFI-Certification Matter to You?

More and more companies are supporting the environment through these initiatives, and, increasingly, as a designer, print coordinator, or print vendor you will be expected to advise clients and colleagues on the printing materials least harmful to the environment. In addition, since companies want their clients and shareholders to be aware of their commitment to the environment, you will also be called upon to know how and when to add the FSC and SFI logos to your printed materials. (It’s a bit like knowing when to use the recycled or recyclable logos on your printed products.) Nothing ever stays the same. Whether we are ready or not, supporting and protecting our environment seems to be the direction now and in the future.

An item of note: The FSC and SFI programs are by no means the only participants in the movement toward sustainable paper manufacturing. Other groups include the Rainforest Alliance and Green-E.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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