Is digital printing of books better for the environment than offset? HP says so, but Laurel Brunner says it is a more complex equation
HP has recently published the results of its Life Cycle Assessment of different paperback book printing options. The comparative study, ‘The Environmental Case for Digitally Printed Books’, focuses on the US market but its reasoning is relevant for book markets around the world.
The basic conclusion, as you might expect from the title, is that digital printing is less damaging to the environment than the conventional sort. However the story isn’t quite that simple and book publishers should look closely at this report as part of their future publishing strategies. Publishers can use printing technology synergies to balance higher profitability with the need to reduce their environmental impact.
In the US 25 per cent of printed books are returned, either to be resold or thrown away. The numbers for waste are pretty similar in other developed markets according to a number of sources cited in this study. The cost of managing so much waste, as well as the negative impact it has on the environment, is an important driver for waste reduction and an argument for hybrid print media production. For instance the report says, “analysis showed that combining digital inkjet technology with offset resulted in the need to print 22 per cent fewer books to sell the same amount” of best sellers. Indeed in all of the scenarios where digital printing supplemented or was substituted for offset book printing, the total carbon footprint was reduced.
HP & Quantis
HP worked with Quantis, a sustainability consulting group, to investigate various systems for printing and delivering paperback books. They compared conventional offset printing and digital printing, using different demand profiles and fulfilment models. The presses studied were a Timson T48a, HP T200 and T300 inkjet web presses, and an R85 inkjet printer used for instore on-demand book printing. Covers were printed on an Indigo 7000 and an unnamed HP small laser press.
The report notes that “it is difficult to assume a priori that the four presses are fully substitutable and that at a given point in time, a given book can be printed on either one.” However everything possible appears to have been done in this work to make a fair comparison. The point isn’t so much the technology choice as it is the business model: “while return rates are variable and depend on contexts and publishers’ strategies, in general digital printing allows a reduction of return rate in comparison to offset printing”.
The report studies two different types of book: a blockbuster that sells 500,000 copies over two years and a general title that sells 5,000 copies over five years.
For both scenarios the offset press printing at a central location, with a return rate of 25 per cent has the most negative environmental impact. For all four presses, “paper production is the largest source of potential environmental impacts, representing 40 to 80 per cent of the total impacts”. This work makes eminently clear that reductions in the number of returned books reduce the industry’s overall environmental impact.
Defining the System
The report defines a system as having the function “to print, bind, distribute and sell paperback books to retail store customers in the USA and to dispose of them.” The study evaluated four fulfilment models: centralised, regional and local distribution, plus in-store printing. The goal was to establish the environmental profile of each system and to consider possible synergies between the technologies, using Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).
There are two fundamental differences between offset and digital printing, apart from the ability of the latter to provide variable data output. Book presses can either print to stock or print on demand. Printing to stock makes assumptions about how many copies of a book need to be printed in order to reach the sales target. For the purposes of this study HP/Quantis assumed 5,000 to 20,000 is the typical run length for an offset book press, 2,000 to 5,000 as typical for the T300 and 500 to 3,000 for the T200. The run length for the R85 is typically one.
Printing on demand assumes that only the books specifically requested by a customer are printed. There are strengths and weaknesses to both models and the HP study does an admirable job of presenting the various scenarios that book publishers might consider.
The study chose paperback books because they represented: “59 per cent of books sold in the USA in 2009” and because “paperbacks can be printed by all of the presses studied in the two categories, analogue and digital”. The study also strives to determine “the least environmentally impactful means of production and distributing a paperback book”.
The report acknowledges one of the biggest problems for studies of this kind: “Lack of data (and a high variability of situations in reality) for data management, lack of strong references for the return rate for digital presses, low quality of ecoinvent LCI.” HP’s figures are therefore conservative but digital printing can contribute to reduced environmental impacts for both blockbuster and general interest titles.
In each fulfilment model the number of returns varies with each printing system. For instance, the bestseller printed on the Timson press required a run of 625,000 in order to sell 500,000 copies, distributed a distance of 2000 kilometres, because of the high return rate of 125,000 (25 percent). For sales of 59,000 with 61 runs of 1,000 copies on the HP T200 digital press, and distributed a distance of 500 kilometres the returns are 2,000, which at 4.1 per cent is considerably less. It isn’t easy to compare like with like in this study, but the arguments supporting digital printing close to the point of use appear compelling.
HP & Publishing
This study aligns HP’s interest with that of the wider industry. It demonstrates how different print and distribution scenarios support different market expectations, and how different technology blends support different business models. For instance, by looking at digital presses with varying levels of productivity in the context of alternative distribution models, a book publisher can get a better understanding of how the printing and distribution scenarios can be used to reduce environmental impacts.
It is clear from this report that publishers need to combine the ideal run length and distribution models to optimise supply so that it more closely matches demand for a given title. This argues for regional print and local distribution rather than centralised print and national distribution, the model conventional offset offers.
On-demand printing, of course, has the least negative environmental impact, but this may not be the best business model because it doesn’t necessarily generate the best sales for a title. There are no unwanted books in this model, but there is also an inbuilt limit on the potential sales: only people who know they want a title will buy it. It excludes those who might be tempted from looking at the cover and skimming the pages of a printed copy.
This is an important concern: how do you know how many copies to print in order to sell one? For publishers who can answer this question, the Timson obviously offers economies of scale that can ensure profitability. But for those who cannot, which is most publishers, the HP study concludes that a combination of long and short run digital printing may be a better option.
According to the study, reducing returns is a major contributor to improved footprint reduction. But it also points out that the combination of print run length, transportation distances and data management influence reductions. The extent of their influence depends on the different demand profiles, however it is clear that unsold books are the primary driver for higher potential impacts from offset printing.
Perhaps the most important conclusion HP/Quantis reach in this work is that there is a synergy between the two technology classes and between the print to stock and print on demand business models. Combining digital and conventional offset leverages technology capabilities and to meet market needs with the lowest environmental impact.
A combination offers the economic scale of volume production of an offset press, with the nuanced model of short run and on-demand production close to the point of use. Falling run lengths are a reality in book printing as well as elsewhere in print. So at some stage, the economic and impact arguments will probably swing in favour of digital printing for all publication types.