Most people will require the services of a commercial printer at some stage in their lives. (Perhaps you need business cards for your new green career!) What questions should you ask in order to make sure you are choosing the best option, not only for you but for the environment, as well?
Do they offer recycled paper? If so, what percentage of the final product is recycled? The quality of recycled paper is just as good for most purposes and has been proven to produce lower carbon emissions over its life cycle than paper from sustainably grown plantation forests. Waste & Resources Action Program, or WRAP, says there are 100% recycled papers suitable for every job, but 50% recycled content should be the minimum for printing paper and 70% for copier and office paper.
If the paper includes non-recycled (or virgin) fiber, is it FSC-certified? This means that it comes from sustainable sources and is not contributing to the destruction of old-growth forests.
Can you get away with printing on a slightly lighter paper stock? If you can print on a 90 gsm, rather than 100 gsm stock, you will use 10% less raw material to make your paper but the difference will not be noticeable. It’s the printing equivalent of turning down your thermostat a couple of degrees.
What sort of inks do they use? Conventional mineral-oil based inks emit harmful volatile organic compounds – nasty toxins, basically – as they dry, and use non-renewable petroleum-based oils. Ideally, you want a printer that uses either vegetable inks or water-based inks. If it’s the former, ask for 100% vegetable inks if possible as some printers will be using 60% vegetable ink mixed with conventional ink. This may mean avoiding fluorescent colors and metallic inks, which are not available as vegetable inks, while metallics usually contain heavy metals that are bad for the environment. The greenest options also reduce environmentally-damaging dry catalysts such as cobalt, but this does mean they dry more slowly than conventional inks.
How does it need to be finished? UV varnishes should be avoided, since they are mineral oil-based, the process is energy intensive and it also disrupts recycling. Aqueous (water-based) coatings can be used instead. Cellulose coatings are an eco-friendly alternative to laminates, which are an environmental no-no because they render the product unrecyclable.