Every time I visit my local print shop, I am overwhelmed by the smell of chemicals

Every time I visit my local print shop, I am overwhelmed by the smell of chemicals, and wonder if the health of the workers there is affected. Is exposure to such chemicals known to cause human health problems, and what can be done to clean up the printing process?

—Bill W., Norwalk, OH<

That smell in your printer’s production facility no doubt comes from the cocktail of hazardous chemicals typically used in the printing process: inks, cleaning solvents, waste water and sludge that “off-gas” volatile organic compounds associated with eye and lung irritation, dizziness, headaches and even cancer.

But just because your printer uses such chemicals does not mean that all do. According to the Printer’s National Environmental Assistance Center, printers can take several steps to clean up their acts, such as avoiding alcohol-based solvents, abandoning mineral oil based inks in favor of vegetable-based inks and substituting chlorinated glues with water-based alternatives. Along with using fewer chemicals and more eco-friendly products, printers can go even greener by using recycled materials and renewable energy.

Despite a printer’s good intentions, though, it can be a daunting task to become more environmentally friendly. Most print shops are small businesses and may not be able to afford to upgrade their equipment or pay a premium for cleaner alternatives to some of the chemicals and supplies they have been using for years. Also, navigating the labyrinth of air, hazardous waste and industrial wastewater treatment regulations may be more work than a small company struggling to make payroll can undertake.

A few programs have arisen to address these issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s PrintSTEP (Printers” Simplified Total Environmental Partnership) program, in pilot phase in Missouri and New Hampshire, aims to make environmental and worker health and safety regulations clearer and simpler. The program is designed to help individual states streamline the regulatory process so that printers can spend time greening their operations instead of wading through thousands of pages of arcane regulatory gibberish just to see if their current practices meet the letter of the law.

Another pilot program, the Great Printer Environmental Initiative, is underway in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. This joint initiative of Environmental Defense’s Pollution Prevention Alliance, the Printing Industries of America and the Council of Great Lakes Governors encourages printers to minimize their impact on human health and the environment beyond what is required by government regulatory agencies in environmental, health and safety compliance. And in doing so, they can use their membership as a marketing tool to attract customers interested in cleaner, greener printing.

Print buyers can do their part by choosing firms that have implemented environmentally friendly practices. Ask your printer about their health and safety programs that go beyond the minimum requirements. And work with your printer to develop your printed materials in ways that minimize environmental impact, such as by using recycled paper and soy-based inks. If you are located in one of the pilot states for the Great Printer Environmental Initiative, be sure to choose a company that participates.

CONTACTS: Printer’s National Environmental Assistance Center; PrintSTEP.