To read part one, please click here. Above: photographer Steven Gross taking a shot for our Opposites book.
We knew going into this process to create Squishy Press, our green baby books, that we needed to do our homework on paper, inks, and glues. As designers, we knew a lot about the production performance of the materials we use, but we needed to know more about any chemical toxicity and sustainability issues. On further investigation, we found that information on the chemicals in these products is extremely hard to find. What concerned us most was that we could find no assurance that any of the chemical components of the various print materials we would need to use had been tested for toxicity.
Because so few chemicals in use have been reliably tested for adverse health effects, we decided to employ the precautionary principle with our books. We would examine every element in the books manufacturing process and treat each as potentially hazardous unless explicitly proven otherwise.
Picking the paper
We wanted to print our books on the highest post-consumer recycled content paper we could find, and we also wanted to be sure that both our paper mill and printer were FSC-certified and practiced responsible sourcing of paper, so that our books would not contribute to deforestation. Using a paper made entirely of post-consumer waste avoids deforestation by eliminating the need for newly harvested wood pulp entirely.
Since we were making a paper product that would most likely enter a baby’s mouth, we hoped to avoid coatings, thus avoiding exposure to anything potentially harmful. When we contacted Mohawk Paper Company about the project, it was generous enough to offer its new Mohawk Loop paper for the project, which was an uncoated sheet made from renewable energy and post-consumer fiber.
Avoiding toxic materials: easier said than done
If our own Mr. Squishy (our son’s in utero nickname, and our publishing company’s namesake) is anything like most children — and most of our parent customers have assured us he is — we knew that anything printed on the page would very likely end up in our little readers’ mouths. So we wanted to avoid anything that might potentially be problematic for a small child to ingest, including metallic foils (which include heavy metals), UV laminates, and varnishes.
We avoided using solid pigment inks for the same reason: we could find no ready information on the toxicity of the hundreds of chemicals used to create those thousands of colors we designers enjoy using. According to Bryan Dougherty’s Green Graphic Design, “The most toxic ‘CAMALS’ substances (cadmium, arsenic, mercury, antimony, lead, selenium) have been phased out of conventional printing inks in North America. As far as we know, the remaining metals are not harmful to people in the concentrations normally used on printed materials. However, those metals can concentrate in the ash from incinerators or sludge from de-inking facilities (creating hazardous waste issues) and can potentially leach from landfills into water supplies.” Furthermore, Re-nourish found no examples of testing done in the special use case of children placing printed matter into their mouths.
Finally, we looked at petroleum ink products and coatings. Petroleum-based inks tend to produce more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when they set, and VOCs are well-known to be carcinogenic (source: US EPA). To our shock we discovered that the minimum amount of soy or vegetable ink needed to call ink “soy-“ and/or “vegetable-based” was only 20%. That would mean 80% of that ink could be petroleum-derived! To us, that was not nearly good enough. But what were our alternatives?
The true value of a printer partnership
We found an excellent printing partner in Lake County Press. A printer widely-respected in the Chicago design community for their quality high-end print work and attention to detail, LCP had been quietly transforming themselves into a greener printer as well. The company had added a VOC exhaust capture system, obtained various third-party certifications including those from FSC and the Rainforest Alliance in order to support responsible forestry, and they had joined the Green-e program to offset their carbon footprint.
LCP immediately stepped up with a production plan to digitally print prototypes in time for our first trade show, and worked closely with their suppliers to come up with a production plan. Initially, the plan was to use a UV-cured ink, which requires less on-press drying time. The idea was to save energy and reduce make-ready paper and ink waste. Without an LCA analysis on specific UV inks, it’s impossible to determine whether these inks actually save energy by reducing drying time, as they may also require higher heat to cure.
While in conversation with TOYO, the ink manufacturer supplying LCP, we discovered that the UV ink, although mostly vegetable-based, contained some petroleum products in order to work with the UV printing process. Another of Toyo’s conventional soy-based offset ink, Hyplus 100, contained no petroleum products, though the colors were not as vibrant as petroleum-based conventional or UV inks.
We called our representative at LCP and shared our concern with him, relaying our priorities for the books. First and foremost the books needed to be child-safe and as non-toxic as possible. Next, they had to be green, and third, the print quality needed to be superior.
Based on our concerns, LCP held a meeting with the ink and glue manufacturers and reviewed the materials to be used in detail to ensure we were meeting our priorities in the proper order. Ink brightness would have to take a backseat. More important to us was using a truly petroleum-free ink. In the end, the unanimous decision was to print using the Hyplus 100 ink sealed with an FDA-approved nontoxic aqueous coating to protect against messy hands.
It was very heartening to see that many people in industry “get it” and want to change the way things are made, but finding the best path to get to more sustainable production takes a lot of communication and collaboration. My takeaway from this process was that when creating greener products, clearly outline your performance goals to guide you when it’s time to make tough decisions, and share them with your vendors. It also never hurts to ask questions of your vendors — in fact, it’s the best way to make sure expectations are met, and everyone is working toward the same goal.
Stay tuned for part three of “Making of a Green Baby Book.” Read part one here.