Environmentally Conscious Printing Pt. 3 of 3: Substrates

In the third part of our three part series on environmentally responsible printing we dive into one of the most wasteful sections of the industry, which is outdoor media. This article specifically looks at billboards and provides a few key things to look for to easily reduce your environmental footprint when advertising outdoors. Outdoor media is a highly effective and impactful way to get your brand message across to a wide audience in selected locations, its an industry that delivers returns, yet as the world requires more thoughtful practices in order to survive, it is an industry that must clean up its act.

When selecting substrates for outdoor media, we look at it from three angles:
1. SOURCE: where the material has come from
2. DESTINATION: where it is going after, and
3. MINIMISATION: how to reduce the use and how to reuse

SOURCE: WHERE HAS IT COME FROM?

Considering what your billboard banner is made out of and where that has come from is the first step towards more sustainable practices.

Unfortunately there are not yet genuine options available on the market for substrates that come from recycled or renewable materials. At the end of the day, whether it’s a frontlit billboard, backlit billboard, or self-adhesive billboard, all currently available substrates are made from single-use plastic, most of which is PVC (aka vinyl), a non-renewable product derived from petroleum which has environmentally hazardous attributes in all phases of its lifecycle.

The challenge for creating sustainable billboard materials lies in the fact that outdoor billboards need to be large, strong, and resistant to degradation from water and UV rays, and technology still has some way to go before we have a recycled substrate that is feasible to be used for outdoor billboards.

The best thing you can do at this stage is make a request to your printing supplier that you wish to choose recycled substrates and make it known that there is demand for such products. And keep an eye out for recycled substrates to emerge in the future.

One other step you can take towards a recycled solution is choosing polypropylene over PVC for your next billboard substrate. It is still a plastic made from non-renewable petroleum sources, however it is possible that partially recycled polypropylene billboard materials will emerge at some point in the foreseeable future. PVC banners on the other hand will likely never be produced from recycled materials.

DESTINATION: WHERE IS IT GOING?

Whilst it is not yet possible to find recycled substrates for billboards, you can choose substrates which are recyclable.

The traditional billboard substrate, PVC (aka vinyl), is not recyclable, so when it reaches the end of its useful life it typically goes to landfill. It also happens to be quite toxic, and once disposed it will leach dioxin, a highly carcinogenic chemical, into the surrounds. Despite the claims of several manufacturers, we are yet to be convinced that there is a truly biodegradable billboard banner material available on the market yet. However what we can be certain of is that avoiding PVC is a positive step forwards.

Newer billboard materials are available that are made of polypropylene (PP) which is recyclable. And whilst it isn’t currently being recycled into new billboard banners, it is going towards other plastic products that are useful to society. There are a number of subtle differences between polypropelene and vinyl. Polypropylene has a flat unwoven surface and allows for slightly higher resolution printing. Vinyl has a more natural woven look. But in general they both serve the same purpose and we suggest choosing polypropelene in order to make your billboard campaigns more environmentally friendly.

MINIMISATION: REDUCE THE USE

Finally we look at reusing and reducing.

Reusing is difficult for billboard ad campaigns since they are typically time-critical projects and it doesn’t make sense to reuse billboards from old campaigns in new locations. However if you can design a campaign that can allow the relocation of previously used billboard banners it would be a highly commendable step in the right direction.

Reducing is a simpler issue to tackle. What we advise here is to just always make sure you’re not using a substrate which is heavier and denser than it needs to be. Physically keeping the volume of the banner substrate to a minimum will reduce the environmental impact your ad campaigns are having. Choosing materials around recyclability is the first important decision, and following that, it’s a great idea to consult with your billboard printer about the minimum weight substrates that can be used for each one of your billboards.

SUMMARY

Polypropylene trumps vinyl in every aspect of sustainability, and whilst it’s far from a perfect solution, you are helping create positive change by avoiding PVC for your billboard substrates. Keep asking your billboard printer about new products and technology that will further enhance the sustainability credentials of your ad campaigns and show them the demand is there. And finally, do what you can to minimise your total consumption of banners, even if this simply means making sure no banners are made from denser materials than they need to be.

Here at Hugo we are happy to answer any queries you may have in order to put your best foot forward with a more environmentally responsible banner ad campaigns.

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