Green: The New Primary Color

Everywhere, from supermarkets to superstores, the move toward more environmentally friendly products is growing exponentially. What used to be offered only at stores like Whole Foods are now common at Target. Letterpress printers are joining this trend in an attempt to show their true color: green.

The renaissance of letterpress has been one huge reduce/reuse/recycle extravaganza. Proof presses considered obsolete twenty years ago are now selling in the thousands of dollars, with prices for small hobby presses rising similarly. Everything is snapped up, from orphaned wood type and single cuts to pied lead, with demand outpacing supply. As new printers join the fray, there are numerous possibilities for creating a greener shop that’s easier on the environment and makes for a safer workplace too.

Janet Maples is a Seattle-based graphic designer who recently purchased a small shop from a retiring hobby printer. She hopes to supplement her design business by offering printed invitations, and plans to rely primarily on photopolymer plates. Janet had taken a few classes, but starting a shop from scratch was daunting. Her first task was sorting through a lot of mysterious equipment and supplies. One huge jug of typewash was stored in an old glass wine jug and labeled in pencil. Based on the unknowns involved, Janet took the jug to the city’s hazardous recycling center. Any type she doesn’t need will be sorted to list on eBay or Briar Press, or taken to a local scrap metal dealer. She’s trying to use the existing rollers to practice before ordering new ones and plans to reuse the cores. Janet’s press also came with piles of paper including some very appealing vintage stocks and other offcuts that will be perfect for makeready. She recycles paper through the city’s curbside program, and hopes to offer clients the option of recycled papers for their invitations.

Teaching green

Teaching institutions are often leaders in experimenting with less toxic press practices, especially as younger teachers emerge from book arts and printmaking programs that have increased their awareness. Bonnie Thompson Norman teaches letterpress classes in her Seattle home studio, and heard about using vegetable oil for press cleaning from friend and printer Katherine Ng.

“It took me a couple years to actually getting around to trying it out because I was so skeptical. But go to the grocery store, buy the least expensive vegetable oil on the shelf, and pour liberally on a rag. It will clean your press thoroughly and quickly,” says Norman, who uses the oil to clean up both rubber and oil-based inks.

She also keeps a jar of oil handy on the imposing stone to soak ink knives. Norman notes that for quick color changes, she does follow up the cleaning with rubber rejuvenator to remove any oily residue and avoid problems when inking up again. For students that are pregnant or have chemical sensitivities, Norman always keeps a few organic vapor masks available.

“I was working full time in a letterpress shop when I was getting pregnant, carrying and nursing my son who is now 6 foot 3 inches and very smart and healthy. So I feel the masks do offer good protection,” notes Norman.

The School of Visual Concepts (SVC) offers several letterpress classes each semester in Seattle, but found they didn’t have enough volume to afford an industrial rag laundering service. Their solution was partnering with Day Moon Press, a large commercial letterpress shop, basically subletting rag services. Students at the school learn to fold and refold rags to use every clean surface possible. Partially soiled rags are stored in a fireproof safety can to be used again, eventually landing in another can designated for completely soiled rags. Shop manager Jenny Wilkson considered possible solvents and after hearing about Envirowash “bought that because it was less smelly” (see resources section below for more information on Envirowash).

Printers have the option of comparing solvents through Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which manufacturers are required to provide upon request. The MSDS gives detailed hazards identification and uses a numerical rating system to rank solvents in terms of Health, Flammability and Reactivity. This rating system allows for simplified comparison and can be used to label shop containers, especially when rebottled in squeeze bottles and plunger cans.

In terms of ink, SVC uses rubber based ink as the most cost-effective option. Supplied in one pound cans, it rarely dries up if students are taught to minimize the surface area disturbed while retrieving ink, as if frosting a cake. Instructor Amy Redmond encourages students to store mixed inks in foil packets, even providing a diagram for some foil origami that keeps ink for years. Students are encouraged to wander through a collection of color-coded orphan ink packets, often finding just the right mixture waiting.

Greener ink options

There are a few options coming available on the market for inks that don’t require any solvents. Caligo, a European company, makes Safe Wash Relief Ink that is oil-based but cleans up with soap and water. Joe Borges is a graphic designer and proprietor of Pomegranate Letterpress & Design in Ontario, Canada. He opted for Caligo’s safe wash to avoid odor in his basement shop, and make a lower impact on the environment.

“It really does clean up as easily as it sounds. I use a small damp foam paint brush, I start by applying some dish soap (no name, phosphate-free) to the platen and you actually see the soap line cut right through the ink. Just a little rubbing and the platen is all foamed up. Then I take a disposable shop rag and wipe it down. The rollers take more elbow action with the rag to get it completely clean…” says Joe.

He also notes that the Caligo ink can be a challenge for achieving large areas of coverage, as it tends to be more transparent even after adding opaque white. “The upside to it is I am able to play with transparency and layering almost like silk-screen printing.”

San Jose Printers’ Guild member Dave Robinson saw an opportunity several years ago when a member brought several five pound cans of ink to a meeting to share with other printers. Ink in Tubes was born, as Dave started what he calls a “hobby operation” by finding tubes, filling them and hand-printing labels and boxes.

“I’ve always disliked how much ink must be discarded when skinning a can (especially a five pound can) of oil-based ink, particularly when so many of us are actually using relatively little ink doing short runs on small presses,” says Robinson.

He stocks nearly 40 different inks in quarter pound tubes, which contain about 5 ounces and offer ease of use, no skinning and small quantities. Most of the ink Robinson uses is oil based, but he has some specialty inks such as soy based and “vintage” letterpress inks plus fluorescents, metallics, and varnish too. Most tubes cost $7.50 with higher pricing for the specialty inks.

Robinson says, “Almost all the ink I put in tubes is from cans that were surplus to someone’s needs and may otherwise have been trashed. Trying to keep usable ink out of landfills and getting it to those who can use it is a big part of Ink in Tubes. Also as long as the supply lasts, I’m using surplus new-old stock aluminum tubes that were manufactured and printed (but never used) decades ago…”

Going green through paper

Sarah Hart Shimamoto of Blush Paper and Press couches her recycled handmade paper.

Another home-grown solution for recycling is in practice at Blush Paper and Press, a San Francisco area studio which makes their own paper utilizing junk mail, offcuts from printing jobs and cardboard boxes. Owner Sarah Hart Shimamoto says, “For our recycled papers, we combine organic raw cotton with uncoated paper scraps from previous print jobs and sometimes even junk mail delivered to our studio to create a nice speckled paper. We also combine cotton with fibers such as hemp, sisal and sabai to create a unique blended paper for our letterpress needs. We’re also experimenting with natural dyes to give our paper a hue of green tea, coffee, or lemon from our garden.”

The resulting paper is either tree-free, 100% cotton or recycled and clients can choose from soy or rubber-based inks for the printing. Unlike some commercially recycled papers, Blush does not use bleach or chemicals for deinking in their papers and the water can be reused: first for soaking fibers, second for processing pulps, then eventually strained for watering the garden. Blush plans to offer their papers for sale to other printers beginning this summer on a small scale.

Shimamoto estimates 90% of customers choose Blush based on their green approach: “It seems there are so many people who are interested in making a difference where possible, and we think the idea of having a business that practices and produces environmentally and socially responsible products is a great option to have.”

For those shops without the expertise or facilities to make paper, commercial papermakers are offering a greater array of recycled options. Not far from Manhattan, Vivian Leung offers custom letterpress printing and a wholesale line of cards at 9SpotMonk Design. After several years in the business she wanted to move beyond the obvious: “Let’s recycle paper… I feel like it’s much more than that.”

Leung started by partnering with Mohawk Paper, specifically choosing brands that are carbon neutral (where the mill offsets both the electricity and thermal energy used to make the paper) and FSC-certified, a designation that wood and wood products are responsibly harvested and processed. Leung was also motivated to make some changes after discovering both her children had food allergies, prompting her to shop at Whole Foods Market. Inspired by their commitment as a corporation to go carbon neutral, she started researching the option of purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) for 9SpotMonk. Leung found the process to be fairly simple, and actually affordable. Based on her studio usage, Leung pays about $100 a month to buy wind power credits, essentially guaranteeing the electricity she consumes is replaced with a renewable source. She has seen that investment pay off: “About 20% of our clients ask for green and that number is growing.”

The green commercial printing landscape

The commitment towards a greener shop at both 9SpotMonk and Blush Paper is an integral aspect of their business models—both companies spend a lot of web space letting potential customers know their priorities. How does a consumer separate all the claims made by a growing number of studios offering green products from mere greenwashing? Having data (for instance, using environmental calculators to chart resource savings) and certification by a trusted environmental label to support environmental claims may reassure consumers.

Commercial letterpress printers spend a lot of time and energy creating ephemeral work, by its nature disposable. Some extraordinary wedding invitations may merit a final resting place in the scrapbook or behind a magnet on the fridge, but plenty wind up possibly recycled but probably trashed. In fact, to have the greenest wedding possible, eco-wedding expert Emily Anderson suggests going digital with invitations, skipping printing entirely. There are some printers who use handset, lino or monotype for their work, but typically metal and plastic backed photopolymer plates are generated for many commercial jobs. Some plates are used and reused for thousands of impressions, often lasting longer than lead type could hold up if printers simply store plates in a humidity-controlled environment. Fancier than it sounds, a ZipLoc bag does the trick. Other plates with time-sensitive information have a much shorter life expectancy and hopefully there will be a way to recycle the plastic in the future. In the meantime, printers can try to create goods with the lowest environmental footprint possible.

Olden Badger operating the press at Barefoot Press, a print shop that’s been green for the past 20 years.

Barefoot Press has made such a commitment since opening in 1987, when “few paper companies sold recycled paper and few clients wanted to use it. At that time, no one knew what ‘green printing’ meant,” according to Barefoot’s website.

“I’d have to say selling green printing has been an uphill battle for the past 21 years, with most folks just wanting to go the cheapest route rather than supporting recycled papers. This year, happily, we can’t seem to keep up with all the interest!” says owner Rich Kilby.

Over the past two decades, the North Carolina shop has grown and now offers everything from marketing and design to letterpress and digital printing. Each aspect of their operation is green in focus: soy-based inks, low-VOC solvents, and responsible waste disposal. Barefoot had an opportunity to expand their eco-friendly practices on an even larger scale when buying a 1950’s era industrial building. Bamboo floors were installed along with energy efficient appliances, windows and lighting throughout.

In a recent partnership with Whole Foods Markets, Barefoot has implemented a vinyl banner recycling program to keep outdated signage out of landfills. They also encourage customers to consider alternatives like heavy paper banners or natural canvas when possible. As part of an effort to guide clients through potentially confusing eco-friendly printing options, Barefoot has recently implemented their own Green Rhino seal indicating the “the most eco-friendly paper choice available for its grade (usually 100% post consumer recycled fiber, processed chlorine free), using soy inks and low VOC, water-miscible solvents. We use those inks and solvents on all the offset presses as well as the letterpress,” says Kilby.

From full-service commercial shops to in-home hobby printers, the choice to get greener is an obvious one. On even the smallest scale—perhaps as small as a five ounce tube of ink—saved resources equal a healthier pocketbook, planet, and printer. In his book Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World, Gary Hirshberg argues by example after example that environmental business decisions are also smart economic decisions. “Business is the most powerful force on the planet; it got us into this mess and is the only force strong enough to get us out.”


Ink in Tubes, mostly oil-based, are available via email from Dave Robinson

Arch Paper sells 100% post consumer fiber made from shredded cotton clothing, sorted by color and ready for the beater. They also sell 100% post consumer white cotton rag paper in various weights, as well as a wide variety of recycled buttons.

Mr. Ellie Pooh is handmade paper that is 100% recycled, with 75% Sri Lankan elephant poo. There are 15 colors available in text, cover, and matt board (“heavy doody”) weights.

Envirowash is manufactured by Anchor Lithkemko and sold through Xpedx. Their parent company is Day International, which lists MSDS in pdf formats on their site. They also make Varn California Wash, another solvent with a low
effect-on-health rating which is available through NA Graphics.

Greenfield Paper sells a variety of handmade and recycled papers including plantable seed, hemp, garlic, and junk mail.

Consumer Reports hosts Greener Choices, a web site that helps decipher eco labels.

SoySolv is a non-toxic, biodegradable solvent suitable for press cleaning and is sold through Daniel Smith.

Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks are sold through Graphic Chemical and will be featured at the Southern Graphics Conference Product Fair this year.

Recycled paper calculators: see how many trees you save, and how much pollution you prevent, by using recycled or wind-generated paper. Environmental Defense has a great calculator, as does Mohawk Paper.

Become wind powered through Renewable Energy Credits with Native Energy or Community Energy.

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