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Can graphic designers adopt a sustainable approach?

Can graphic designers adopt a sustainable approach?
Though there’s a demand for digital designers, printing materials are unlikely to disappear.
Packaging, billboards, books, leaflets, there’s so much going on in the design world, and the waste is immense.

According to studies, every year, people receive about 105 billion pieces of junk mail in America alone. On top of that, Europeans and North Americans use more than 200 kg of paper per year.

So if we don’t start making collective changes, as professionals and individuals, the world we live in will disappear in a blink of an eye. And that’s not an exaggeration.

Since the first step to becoming more sustainable is to be informed, here’s what we will dive into in this post:

  • Factors that contribute to the increase of environmental issues
  • The life cycle of a product
  • Steps that graphic designers can take to become more sustainable

What is contributing to the increase of environmental problems?

We tend to think of factories and big tech companies as the source of environmental issues. Though it’s true they contribute immensely, it also starts with individual actions and purchase choices.

Graphic designers who are deeply involved in the consumerist world should evolve their practices and engage their companies/clients in doing the same. As consumers are more aware of sustainable and renewable alternatives, the industry also needs to meet the demand and develop options. However, to this day, we still see multiple problems that, if not stopped, will continue to cause damage to our planet.

Plastic wrapping
Hopefully, we all know the hazards of plastic by now. It shows up on shores across the globe, ends up in landfills, and even worse, floating in the ocean.

However, I’ve personally experienced ordering a product made of cardboard wrapped around 10 to 15 times in about 2 meters of a plastic wrapping sheet. That blew my mind, and I’ve wondered ever since if that is the pandemic getting to people or they just aren’t aware of the damage they’re doing.

Excessive packaging
Excessive package, even if made of recycled materials, should be a concern. What is the point of having a box where you could fit probably three times the size of your product? Not only are you wasting resources such as paper or cardboard but also, most of the time, filling the package with useless shredded paper, or worse, plastic pouches.

Low percentage of recycling paper
Not all paper can be easily treated and transformed. Coated paper and paper with special finished are some of the examples.
Receipts also tend to have lots of ink chemicals. They are another problem when it comes to recycling paper. It might not seem like a lot, but picture millions of consumers worldwide asking for more than one receipt daily.

Single-use alternatives
Box fillers that we’ve mentioned before as plastic pouches and shredded paper are the perfect example of single-use alternatives that should no longer exist. Most people don’t have the need and will not reuse those materials after receiving the product. So what’s the point in filling packages with them anyway? I’m sure there are better and more reusable alternatives to these options.

Non-local resources
Though not always possible, it’s best to source materials locally than importing them, even if they are better/recyclable.

Ideally, getting materials close to the production and distribution center will guarantee that there aren’t any additional carbon emissions from transports, reducing the footprint of the manufacturers.

The life cycle of a product

Also known as Cradle to Grave, the life cycle of any product or packaging is the entire responsibility of the company that produces it.

From cradle — the creation — to the grave — disposal of the product, there are several steps to waste management is done right.

Most products have to go throw 5 steps according to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, approved in 1976:

Generation
The company is responsible for documenting the waste that it produces besides handling all the procedures from the 5 steps. It’s a good practice to minimize the output by implementing recycling practices.

Transportation
Waste transportation is either done by the company or a provider. Regardless, the company needs to make sure the Department of Transportation requirements is being met.

Treatment
Some materials can be recycled effectively, but others might require further treatment to not pollute the soil, groundwater, and air resources.
Procedures such as solidification and stabilization are the most common methods used to prevent improper disposal and contamination.

Storage
Like in the treatment phase, companies must ensure that waste is stored effectively and doesn’t spill or contaminate the environment.

Disposal
It’s the last stage and the one we usually consider the most. Here enters recycling opportunities or, if not possible, appropriate landfill disposal or energy generation.

Being aware of a product’s life cycle is crucial before designing an idea and producing it. Other than regulation, considering alternatives, different materials, and the right partners is the way to move towards a more sustainable approach.

What efforts can designers make to be more sustainable?

There are several actions to adopt a sustainable approach as a graphic designer. However, implementing even just one can be a step in the right direction and inspire others to do the same. The gain is in doing whatever you can.

Start with your workspace.
Take a good look at your workspace and analyze which changes won’t compromise your work but impact the environment.

Do you leave your computer on for longer than necessary? Do you have everything plugin to the wall even when you’re not using it? What about paper? Do you reuse it? Is it recyclable?
Start small but start today.

Avoid greenwashing.
Some companies are pushing forward to green alternatives, but others are only claiming to do so. Be aware of that and, more importantly, refuse to be a part of the greenwashing wave.
Examples that come to my mind are recyclable white paper (it was bleached for sure) and paper carcasses (masking plastic containers on the inside).

Get to know the alternatives.
I’m by no means an expert on this matter, and this is my first step to educate myself. I suggest you do the same.
There are endless resources online about paper options, plant-based inks, and greener printing options like risograph. Also, if you can, look for specialized companies or sustainable designers willing to talk and share their knowledge.

Partner with local green suppliers.
When you feel confident searching and presenting alternatives to your client/company, make sure to ally with the right people, ideally close to you.
The right printer partners can teach you all about resources, components, and alternatives to each project. In return, you can prep everything in the best way avoiding extra work, money, and waste on their side. It’s a win-win situation.

Conclusion

Individually we can only go so far when it comes to adopting a sustainable approach. Collectively, however, we can learn and teach others to implement changes that will make a difference.

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Melted was born in 2017. I was facing some hard time regarding my profession, but I wanted to push forward and inspire others to do the same. So I put my fears aside, and several huge cups of coffee later, this project was born. It moved exclusively to Medium in 2021.

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Natacha Oliveira

Natacha Oliveira

Independent Designer. Pancake lover. Proud owner of two sassy cats and melted.design 🤓

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