Spring 1991

Reasons to recycle

Tools: Paper

Does environmentally aware design have to mean lower standards of graphics and print? Report by Julia Thrift

It is an uncomfortable fact, but most of what graphic designers help to create ends up in the bin – and sooner rather than later. Annual reports, posters, stationery, magazines, leaflets and packaging rarely have a useful life of more than a couple of months, after which the majority of them are buried in landfill rubbish dumps.

Designers can no longer afford to ignore the fact that whether or not they care much about the environment, the time has come to think more carefully about the materials they use. Getting rid of our rubbish is going to become more expensive, and recycling more common, owing to the shortage of potential new landfill sites. New legislation only seems likely to add to the problem: the EC’s Landfill Directive proposes to make landfill “the most expensive and least attractive method of disposal of waste” and to “encourage waste prevention and recycling”.

Such changes are going to affect graphic designers’ work in two ways: first, all designers are going to have to learn about and work with recycled papers; second, they will have to learn how to design so that the product they create can be recycled after use.

There are two common misconceptions about recycled paper which show how complex a subject it is, and why designers whose clients are concerned about the environment must do more than just specify a recycled paper and worry about the print quality.

The first of these misconceptions is that all papers labelled “recycled” are made out of the ort of things that we commonly throw away: old letters, magazines, packaging and so on. In fact, a lot of paper which is “recycled” does not even leave the paper mill, but consists of the off-cuts and trimmings (known as “millbroke”) which remain after the paper-making process.

The term “post-consumer waste” is sometimes used to refer to other sorts of waste paper, but this is not always clear: are the unprinted off-cuts from books and magazines post-consumer or not? The reason why precise definitions matter is that book off-cuts and millbroke have always been recycled and, because they are clean and not mixed with other rubbish it is cheap and easy to do. While it is obviously a good idea to use these scraps, it is clearly not the same as finding, sorting, cleaning and de-inking heavily used papers, and with the current demand for recycled paper, some mills might be tempted to imply that this is what they have done in order to call their paper “recycled”.

Another misconception is that the major environmental concern about paper-making has to do with the number of trees being cut down. As Anne Chick points out in her report The Green Paper Chase, “…whilst the recycling of paper does make a contribution to preserving natural resources, saving trees is not the main issue”. New trees can always be grown, although often natural woodland with a variety of trees supporting a mixture of flora and fauna is replaced by a single, cloned species.

What worries environmentalists even more is pollution, particularly pollution caused by the pulping and bleaching processes. All pulping methods currently employed result in a considerable amount of pollution, therefore the more we recycle paper, the less virgin pulp we will need and the less pollution we will create.

As for bleaching the pulp, the most common method, using chlorine gas, is a process which can produce long-lasting toxic effluents. Designers whose clients want recycled paper for environmental reasons should check that the recycled pulp has not been re-bleached with chlorine: if it must be bleached, hydrogen peroxide is considered a much better alternative.

Although modern papermakers use highly complex, expensive machinery, it is fundamentally the same messy process which has been going on for centuries: a porridge-like mixture of pulp (usually wood pulp), water, and opaque substances such as clay (called “fillers”) is spread on to a mesh and dried. If the paper is to be used for high-quality printing, it is coated with size or clay for a smoother, less absorbent surface.

Recycled paper is made in the same way, but a proportion of the fibres used come from paper which has been broken down into a pulp and cleaned. The colour and quality of the new paper will depend on how much of its fibre content is recycled, how heavily it is reprinted, and how much (if any) ink has been removed.

One of the cleaner-looking British recycled papers is Sylvancoat, made at the Silverton Mill in Devon. Despite its appearance, it contains a mixture of a minimum 40 per cent printed waste, 40 per cent unprinted waste and approximately 10 per cent virgin pulp; the remainder is made up of fillers. It looks “clean” because the mill has a de-inking cell which removes most of the ink, rather than just dispersing it among the fibres – this is what gives many recycled papers their greying tinge.

The printed waste is bought already sorted and graded – an essential step if the resulting recycled paper is going to be of a consistent quality. First it is liquefied into a sludge in a hydro-pulper and washed to get rid of the fillers. It then goes to the de-inking cell, where the steam and soap are added to loosen the ink from fibres. Air is blown into it from the bottom of the tub and, as the bubbles float to the surface, they take the ink particles with them so that the ink can then be sucked off the surface of the mixture.

Perhaps surprisingly, unwanted debris like staples and rubber bands is removed relatively easily, using vibrating selves and centrifugal force; the problem impurities are ultraviolet inks and varnishes and metal-foil printing. As Silverton’s Mark Yeoman explains, if these sorts of impurities get into the mixture, the paper comes out with large blotches on it. Therefore, any material with UV ink or foil on it is rejected, and is, in effect, unrecyclable, as far as the mill is concerned. Other problem materials are fax paper, self-adhesive envelopes, and paper which has been coated with a thin layer of plastic, such as milk or fruit-juice cartons.

The sludge is mixed until it breaks down into a smooth, greyish liquid which then goes through a refiner that breaks the fibres to the required length. Fibre length is one of the factors that determine the properties of the resulting paper: in general, shorter fibres make weaker paper. Inevitably, the more times the fibres go through the paper-making process, the more they are likely to break – as a consequence, recycled papers have shorter fibres. To counter-act this, many recycled papers include a percentage of virgin pulp for increased strength.

Another consequence of the shorter, re-used fibres is that recycled papers tend to absorb ink more easily. The advantage of this is that recycled papers tend to dry more quickly after printing – the disadvantage is that great absorbency can lead to increased dot gain and reduce the sharpness of the image.

Once this is taken into account, creamy-coloured, smooth-surfaced recycled papers present few problems for designers. As Tony Green, who, as part of the design consultancy ideology, designs Greenpeace’s British mail-order catalogue, puts it: “Having found the cleanest , whitest paper which met the very strict Greenpeace criteria … we just design as usual.”

Nevertheless, in common with others who design with recycled paper, he says that a sympathetic printer is essential. According to Hedda Bird of Conservation Papers, an organisation which advises people using recycled paper, many printers feel that being asked to work is not as bright or sharp as with virgin stock. Many printers – and some designers – do not realise that from the aesthetic viewpoint the results can be equally good, just different.

The more recycled a paper looks, the more designers and printers need to work with it, rather than attempting things that are just not possible. It is a waste of time trying to print a very fine, low-resolution photograph on to a highly textured paper and then being disappointed with the results.

There are, however, tricks which can be used to improve the paper’s performance. As Elise Valmorbida, a designer at Newell and Sorrell who worked on the Body Shop’s catalogue explains, their printers, Anderson Fraser, discovered that by removing the black film from a colour separation, a better effect could be achieved when printing colour pictures on grey-tinged recycled paper.

Discoveries like this take time and, while printers are still learning to work with recycled paper, the more time designers can give them for a project, the better.

While many designers are spending time and energy trying to achieve with recycled paper the same results that they get with virgin stock (and almost succeeding), others are asking more fundamental questions about our expectations of design. Once you become aware of the damage that can be caused by chlorine bleaching, white paper no longer looks so squeaky-clean. Increased environmental awareness has changed our perception of what constitutes good design.

A number of designers have already proved that the idiosyncrasies of recycled papers can be used to great aesthetic advantage, and there is no reason why environmentally sensitive design should be inferior or dull. The criteria against which good design is measured are changing, and it may not be long before the overly-lavish corporate publication reflects as badly on a company as a factory chimney belching smoke.

First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991

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