Pressing the button on a print revolution

15th August 2011


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IEMA

the environmentalist finds out how Oxford company Seacourt is leading the way on sustainability in the printing industry

For such a small business, Seacourt has accrued an impressive array of environmental awards. Employing just 19 people in Oxford, the family-run print and design company has so far won numerous accolades, including the 2004 South East England Development Agency sustainable business award, the waste reduction category in the Environmental Pioneer Awards 2010 and the 2008 award for the European Eco-management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). The company also carried off the sustainable development trophy at the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in both 2007 and 2011. All these awards are open to all companies across all industries.

Unsurprisingly, Seacourt has the environmental framework and credentials to warrant such a high degree of external recognition. One of its key principles is to maintain an environmental management system that continually aims to reduce waste, effluent emissions and the use of scarce resources.

Seacourt has been IS0 14001-certified since 1998 and EMAS-accredited since 1999. The company has been independently verified as carbon-neutral, using 100% renewable green energy, is Forest Stewardship Council certified and does not have a single waste bin on-site.

Given that Seacourt uses a huge amount of resources for its printing activities, including 273 tonnes of paper annually, achieving zero waste to landfill is quite a feat.

“Over the past 15 years we have taken our company from being a standard dirty printer to become the first closed-loop, zero-waste company in our industry,” says Seacourt chair Jim Dinnage. “We are now known for our radical approach to the environment and have been recognised by a global printing association as being at least 10 years ahead of any other environmental printer, including the Japanese!”

Waking up to environmental impacts

Seacourt’s fundamental shift in its thinking about the environment happened almost by accident. In the early 1990s the company needed a new printing press and, because it fitted the required specification rather than any environmental goals, it settled on a waterless offset printer.

As a result of this purchase, Seacourt joined the industry’s Waterless Print Association, a worldwide, non-profit trade association dedicated to waterless printing. Part of its mission is to promote the environmental advantages of the process and, in 1996, Dinnage and Seacourt’s managing director attended one of the association’s international conferences where they heard all about the environmentally damaging impacts of traditional printing processes.

For Dinnage, it was almost an epiphany: “I could not initially accept that offset lithography was so damaging to the environment but learned pretty quickly from a credible source that this type of printing fell into the same environmental risk category as mining, oil exploration and nuclear in terms of its impact.”

The reason why printing is so harmful to the environment is not because of the large amounts of paper used, particularly if recycled paper is used. It is because printing with offset lithography demands the use of huge amounts of water and hazardous chemicals called VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which have significant chemical reactions that can affect the environment and human health.

Because VOCs evaporate very quickly, massive amounts are needed as part of the process; according to Dinnage, the amount of water Seacourt used for printing before switching to waterless offset would have been equivalent to around eight hosepipes trickling water 14 hours a day. “When I started researching the process it was a huge shock to realise the extent of the impact our operations were having on the environment,” Dinnage adds.

From that point onwards, he was determined to reverse that impact, even if it meant taking a significant business risk by investing in new machinery and transforming the company’s day-to-day operations.

The journey to sustainability

Dinnage estimates that, of about 12,000 printers in the UK, fewer than 10 use mainstream waterless offset, so Seacourt really is one of the pioneering few. He says that waterless offset is not more expensive to operate once up and running, and the quality of the end product is better.

So why don’t more printing companies make the change? “It’s a huge business adjustment and there is the initial expense of either buying new machines or converting existing ones,” Dinnage explains. “There is also the big issue of retraining staff and developing a whole new skill set, while trying to ensure that clients are happy with the quality at the same time as the business is undergoing that change process – and the profit margin is tight enough as it is.”

Within the first year of the senior management team’s environmental wake-up call, Seacourt had switched entirely to waterless printing, and there followed a two-year transition period – as the business climbed the learning curve of the new process – that was challenging for everyone employed by the company.

There were also the inevitable hiccups with clients as the company struggled to perfect the new printing process. But the senior management team was spurred on by its vision of becoming a cleaner printer, and the end result means that the company has reduced its VOC emissions by 98%.

Buying its first direct imaging press and converting other machines to waterless offset represented the biggest shake-up to Seacourt’s operations following its adoption of more environmentally sound business practices, and it is these large-scale operational changes that have had the greatest power to reduce its environmental impact.

But the company started making a wealth of other changes as part of its new sustainability agenda. For instance, it introduced recycled paper exclusively and switched to vegetable-oil-based inks. It also bought and installed a water recirculation system to a pre-press machine, saving enormous amounts of water. Although the company was no longer using water as part of the printing process, Dinnage says it was using a lot in making its own litho plates for the new waterless system – roughly 135,000 litres a year. But buying and installing a machine that recycles the water has resulted in a 99.5% saving in water use for plate-making.

Zero waste to landfill

Seacourt has gradually been increasing its recycling streams since the start of its environmental journey; in the early days the company recycled straightforward waste such as aluminium-based litho plates, paper and cardboard. But it has now reached a point where absolutely everything is reused or recycled, including:

  • aerosols;
  • light bulbs;
  • waste ink;
  • polystyrene;
  • plastics;
  • CDs and CD cases;
  • photocopier parts;
  • rubber blankets; and
  • tea bags.

Some waste categories have proved a challenge to recycle or reuse in either their current or another form. As Kalpana Peigne, marketing manager, explains: “When we first started recycling, there weren’t the recycling routes available that there are now, and we had to work hard to find a ‘home’ for some of our waste products.”

Polystyrene is a case in point, but Seacourt has now found a way to deal with that item at the tail end of its life cycle: a recycling company collects it and turns it into an insulation material. Old CDs and CD cases are either given to customers or sent to Germany for recycling.

Seacourt’s waste ink is placed in cans and a company collects it and turns it into pellets for fuel, used in furnaces that make cement.

One of the last bastions to withstand the recycling drive was not waste produced by the printing operations but from people – tea bags. “We’re all big tea drinkers and the disposal of the used bags did pose a problem – but we found a solution,” says Dinnage. The answer was to establish a wormery for waste food and the ubiquitous tea bags. One wormery proved inadequate for the workforce’s char consumption and there are now four. The wormeries produce a very useful, rich compost which is bottled and given to friends and clients, including the environmentalist.

Dinnage says that 14 October 2009 was a momentous day for Seacourt – it was when it sent its last shipment to landfill. The company used to send at least six wheelie bins’ worth of rubbish to the same landfill site each week, so zero waste to landfill is regarded as a unique achievement, certainly within the print industry.

A return on investment?

What Seacourt’s environmental agenda costs, or benefits, the business is a fine balancing act. On the plus side of the financial equation, the company undoubtedly saves a significant amount by using so little water, and it also no longer buys the expensive, hazardous chemicals that printing lithography needs. Unlike the vast majority of other printing operations, virtually the only water Seacourt uses is for tea and toilets. On the negative side, the type of litho plates required for its waterless printing are much more expensive. And, remarks Dinnage, the company could save around £20,000 a year by using non-renewable energy. “But if we did opt for cost savings over environmental savings, where would we draw the line?” he says.

Overall, it costs the company to recycle most waste products as it has to pay external companies to do so. But some recycling streams attract a small income, most notably its used litho plates because the aluminium can be reclaimed. However, Seacourt donates a significant proportion of the proceeds from its recycling activity to a local wildlife charity.

The company’s environmental credentials and commitment are a prominent part of its corporate brand, featuring strongly on its website. When asked what its sustainability agenda means to its clients, Dinnage says that it has a loyal client base, with high customer retention rates. As he comments: “Our clients made this journey possible because their patience was needed as we made the transformation. But now they have a better-quality product and have been able to share in our success.”

From the outset, Seacourt has also been keen to engage employees in its sustainability agenda – a necessary step as changing its operations had a direct impact on the people operating the machinery. Most employees welcomed the opportunity to expand their skill set by switching to a waterless process, and all are actively involved in the company’s many recycling activities. The health advantages of not working with VOCs were also a strong selling point.

Where now?

When asked if there are any learning points from the work Seacourt has undertaken to turn its printing process around and become a cleaner printer, Dinnage has only one: he wishes the company had done it sooner. The one challenge that confronts the company is where to go from here. Ongoing certification under its environmental management systems demands proof of continuous improvement, and although Dinnage says the company hasn’t finished on its sustainability journey yet, it becomes harder and harder to make significant progress because so much is already being done.

Recognising itself as an exemplar in environmental practice, not only within its industry but on a UK and even European platform, for well over a decade now, Seacourt has been organising and hosting external seminars on sustainability issues. Several of these have taken place at the House of Commons, with high-profile speakers in the field and environmental organisations including MPs, WRAP and Biffa, the specialist waste management company.

“Apart from raising debate on environmental affairs, these events help Seacourt to demonstrate its commitment to, and act as an ambassador for, this agenda,” says Peigne. The firm uses the conferences as an opportunity to invite clients as delegates so that they too can share in the debate.

Back at his Oxford office, Dinnage ruminates about the possibility of waterless toilets – the company’s water supply would then be reduced solely to tea-making activities …

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