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The Green Printer

Apr 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Maryland “un-printer” walks the eco-friendly talk

Roger Telschow likes to point out that Ecoprint began as a low-overhead operation — literally. The Silver Spring, MD, printer's first facility was actually an old school bus bought at auction. Telschow removed the seats, bolted a Multilith to the floor and business took off from there — literally. “We parked the bus in the emergency exit lane outside of our apartment building, ran a big orange extension cord through the window of our apartment, and that was our ‘print shop,’” recounts the exec.

Telschow had no experience in printing prior to establishing Ecoprint. The former psych major was a political activist, primarily for environmental issues, in the 1960s and 1970s. He originally purchased the press to distribute flyers and generate funds for his cause. “We never were very good at raising money through foundation support for our environmental stuff, so we started taking in commercial jobs, as well as doing our own work,” he explains. Ecoprint was officially founded in 1984, and the company moved out of the bus and into a “ramshackle old house” near Capitol Hill in Washington.

From bus to boom

Now at $1.6 million in sales, 12 employees and an 8,000-sq.-ft. facility, Ecoprint serves mostly nonprofit organizations, as well some environmentally conscious businesses, with printed newsletters, publications, short- to medium-run direct mail, promotional items, and just recently, mailing services. This growth, however, has been conditional upon the printer's ability to stay true to its environmental focus. “We were trying to do what others said was impossible: Create a company that was viable in a business sense, but also be a model environmentally and ethically for the industry and beyond,” says Telschow.

It often took some trial and error, however, to hold true to this model. Every time the printer attempted a new job or process, it encountered a new recommended solvent, cleaning agent or ink. Material safety data sheets were not yet standard in the early 1980s, so Telschow would consult his brother, a chemist, on the pressroom chemicals' toxicity. For instance, after learning that the regularly used press wash contained chlorinated hydrocarbons — a suspected carcinogen — the exec asked his supplier for a replacement. The supplier provided one, but noted that the environmentally sound alternative did not dry on the blanket or clean up easily. Telschow tried it anyway.

“He was right: It didn't work too well,” concedes Telschow. “But we found ways around it, and changed habits at the early stage of our print shop to figure out how to make these things work.” Pretty soon, the printer was evaluating new consumables and equipment according to whether using them was the right thing to do environmentally.

At the beginning of the print process, Ecoprint designers are trained to design jobs that use a minimum of materials — for instance, eliminating the need for an envelope on a direct-mail piece or minimizing trim-out. “That also goes hand in hand with cost savings, because typically if you are saving in design, you're saving in cost of printing, the size of the piece, weight of the paper, etc.,” Telschow points out. “That's almost a win-win for the customers.” The printer outputs film from disk offsite, via outside vendors.

One important milestone for Ecoprint was the complete elimination of on-press volatile organic compounds (VOCs). After the Clean Air Act amendments were implemented in the early 1990s, many printers were forced to stop using isopropyl alcohol-based fountain solution. Soon alcohol substitutes became popular, but Telschow claims that, although these solutions eliminate alcohol, they aren't necessarily harmless. “They don't tend to evaporate into the air very much, but they contain some pretty nasty, active toxic compounds,” he says. So Ecoprint went one step further and found an entirely nontoxic mixture of food-grade gum arabic and citric acid that works on press. “It does the job beautifully and provides no disposal problems or toxicity for employees,” the exec notes. “We've eliminated on-press VOCs completely from our wetting agents and reduced our costs.”


The printer has also worked with its ink manufacturers, paper mills and other suppliers to develop low-impact consumables. Ecoprint assisted in creating its own line of eco-friendly printing inks as a way to eliminate what it perceived as an environmental threat. It approached the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and proposed reformulating the basic printing-ink pigments to get rid of the toxic metals — such as barium and copper — they commonly contain. “These metals are necessary to match PMS colors,” Telschow notes. “Unfortunately, they also end up in the de-inking sludge created after paper is recycled.”

The agency agreed to fund the venture with a small-business pollution-prevention grant. Ecoprint hired an ink company as a subcontractor, and after some research, they developed non-toxic pigments compatible with a 100 percent vegetable-oil base, which reproduced colors well on a conventional offset press. Metal concentration reportedly dropped from nearly 3,800 parts per million (ppm) to less than 50 ppm. They named the low-evaporative ink Eco-Ink; the printer now produces all of its jobs with it, which it offers in a low-VOC version for matching PMS colors, as well as the metal-free formula for other jobs. The Eco-Inks — and a different fountain solution — have also enabled Ecoprint to eliminate refrigeration on its 25 × 36-inch, two-color Roland and 19 x 25-inch, two-color Komori Sprint presses. The presses' refrigeration pumps have not been used for almost eight years.

Ecoprint has also worked with its paper mills to create environmentally friendly stock, and even acted as a beta site for some manufacturers. The printer carries its own Ecoprint Offset stock, which is 100 percent post-consumer-waste (PCW) recycled fiber and process-chlorine-free. Telschow says that Ecoprint has increased the amount of jobs it prints on the stock from 15 percent to 45 percent in the last three years. “We had to make a huge commitment to buying it, so we have about $70,000 in paper inventory at any given month,” he notes. The exec concedes that some people are shocked that the printer has five percent of its sales on the floor in paper, but he counters that Ecoprint needs to order these mass quantities to satisfy the needs of its market, and have it available on a moment's notice in several different grades.

People matter

Ecoprint is also particular about its energy, preferring renewable sources. To this effect, the printer is now 100 hundred percent wind-powered. Telschow notes that residents of the State of Maryland can elect to receive from five percent to 100 percent of their electricity from wind power. The state utility purchases the number of kilowatt-hours requested from a wind farm in nearby Virginia or Pennsylvania, and then puts them into the electrical grid.

“It costs us two cents per kilowatt-hour more, which will cost about $2,000 a year more,” Telschow says. Ecoprint isn't, however, passing along that additional expense to its customers. “It's a step that is costing us something, but it's something we absolutely believe in,” the exec explains. “We've got to walk the talk, and we have to strive to do it with integrity.”

Clients can elect to receive an end-of-the-year summary of how they've helped the environment by choosing Ecoprint. Listed are savings in virgin wood, air emissions, energy and even greenhouse gases prevented. Telschow also highlights the printer's environmental successes and aspirations in a yearly newsletter, and distributes guidelines on how to design and print in an eco-friendly fashion.

A healthy environment isn't Ecoprint's only concern — it wants happy employees, too. Many of the printer's management principals are based on sustainability. Its no-layoff policy stipulates that in the event of an economic downturn, Telschow must take a 25 percent pay cut before he can lay off any employee. So far, the exec has never had to make either sacrifice, simply by ensuring that Ecoprint avoids taking on a lot of debt and by curbing his own expenses. “I want a return on investment like everyone else, but I'm not simply going to cut away at the lifeblood of our company without taking the same medicine myself,” he says.

To keep costs down, Ecoprint employees need to be flexible. “If you're going to be the ‘un-printer,’ you have to hire people who are flexible and willing to learn new things, excited about innovation and working for a company they believe in,” Telschow says. “If you have an ethic that emphasizes conserving and preventing waste, that not only applies to paper and pollutants, but also labor — can we use our time better?” Ecoprint customer service reps, for instance, also perform estimating, preflighting and maintaining files. The printer has no receptionist — rather, all employees are expected to answer the phone. Telschow says this conservation ethic helps Ecoprint remain a lower-cost supplier.

Generating sales is often a matter of word-of-mouth. Rather than employ a sales team, Ecoprint has an “outreach coordinator,” Dave Michaels, who “essentially loves to talk and write about environmental issues and printing,” notes Telschow. Michaels networks at various environmental events and puts his contacts on Ecoprint's mailing list, which inevitably produces leads.

Low-impact print

All of these achievements are certainly admirable, but may have some printers asking “why?” Printing is in a slump, and many companies are cutting their environmental budget — and staff — as an unaffordable luxury. In fact, many think being green actually threatens the bottom line.

“You better damn well have your eye on the bottom line, but if it's the only way you measure your progress, then you're really missing the boat,” Telschow says. He argues that progress can be providing employees with a safe work environment, and contributing to the community by not putting out VOCs. “Nothing can happen unless you remain, overall, profitable over the years, but I would argue that remaining profitable can also be enhanced by being a good corporate citizen.”

Like other printers, Ecoprint has had its rough times, and yet it's actually intensified its environmental efforts in the past few years. Telschow prefers to remain humble, however, about this stance. “No matter how much we claim we're saving the environment, the truth is, we're still a polluter,” he admits. “The best we can do is look at all of the pollution sources and try to minimize the impact as much as we can… We've certainly made mistakes and had a bumpy road getting to where we are, but we've learned one thing: It's fulfilling and we feel good at the end of the day.”

It's not easy being green

This past January, an Ohio man was indicted on two counts of conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act. The man was vice president of manufacturing at the Indiana facility of an Ohio-based printer; the suit alleges that the exec ordered and arranged for the construction and operation of a new gravure press at the printer's label division, without an air-pollution control device, even though he knew it was required.

The indictment further claims that the man made false statements to Indiana's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conceal that the press was being operated without the proper permits or air-pollution control devices. The printer reportedly ran the press for months or years sooner than it would have been able to under the Clean Air Act. A former employee has also been charged for allegedly being aware of the deception and not reporting it to the proper authorities. The printer, which, during a management change, uncovered and immediately disclosed these violations to the state EPA, has not been charged. If convicted of both counts, the former manufacturing exec faces a maximum prison term of seven years and can be fined up to $500,000.

Common mistakes

“That's pretty extreme and rare,” says Gary Jones, manager of environmental, health and safety affairs at GATF (Sewickley, PA). He notes, however, that many printers unwittingly lose track of their permitting requirements. Employees who were in charge of managing a company's permits are laid off or resign; the printer then discovers that its permits have expired after it's been visited — and cited — by environmental regulators. This is becoming more commonplace as permits are now issued for five-year intervals.

Another common pitfall concerns air pollution. According to Jones, many smaller printers assume that volatile-organic-compound regulations only apply to larger printers. In addition, growing air-pollution problems have forced states with non-attainment areas (those regions with chronic air pollution) to drop their permit thresholds dramatically, in order to identify more sources to regulate and reduce emissions. “They haven't done a good job of letting people know they've done this — so printers will inevitably trip over a threshold that they didn't know existed and didn't realize applied to them,” Jones explains.

A recent Supreme Court case has also affirmed the U.S. EPA's right to enact a new, stricter ozone standard. Under the old standard, the 196 non-attainment areas were reduced to about 50 major metropolitan areas. The new standard introduces about 350 new non-attainment areas. “Printers may be subject to new regulations in areas where we thought the air was clean, but now it's considered dirty,” Jones explains. This means a whole new round of permitting and control requirements.

Jones says the U.S. EPA is also proposing strict control standards for space heaters and boilers — many of which are currently exempt from state regulations. In addition, the EPA has imposed new reporting requirements for persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals. For PBT chemicals, the EPA had dropped thresholds on lead, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hyrdocarbons. “If you burn fuel oil or use as little as 100 lbs. of lead, you can be subject to this new reporting requirement. The thresholds are very low, and I don't think people are aware of it,” Jones cautions.

Printer proactivity

All of these issues reinforce the fact that printers need to stay informed and be proactive about environmental regulations (see “Environmental resources,” p. 50). Small printers, in particular, often assume they don't have a voice. Jones disagrees: “No. 1, they vote. No. 2, they have representatives; and No. 3, they are one of the most coveted special interest groups: small-business owners.” He notes that whenever GATF/PIA or the local PIA affiliate approaches the EPA or their respective agency with a concern, it prefers to bring printers along: “It makes an impact. It's not simply the association people stirring up trouble, it's the business owners.” He adds that printers can also consult with their local PIA affiliate, many of which have liaisons within the EPA.

Ecoprint's impact

Total 2002 savings from using Ecoprint's papers:

  • 638,890 lbs. of virgin wood (about 1,112 trees)
  • 100,169 lbs. of solid waste
  • 939,490 gallons of effluent
  • 143,757 kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to 15.4 years of electricity used by the average American home
  • 182,092 lbs. of greenhouse gases, equivalent to 147,443 miles driven by the average American car
  • 783 lbs. of hazardous air pollutants, volatile organic compounds and absorbable organohalogens, combined
  • 276 cubic yards of landfill space

Source: Ecoprint

Environmental resources

The Printers' National Environmental Assistance Center (PNEAC), a collaboration between graphic-arts industry, academic, and state and federal environmental organizations, provides printers with a resource for environmental concerns and regulations. At, visitors can find listservs on environmental compliance and regulations affecting printers; fact sheets on recycling and reducing waste, as well as printers' environmental success stories; state and federal compliance information; and an “Ask PNEAC” feature, where visitors can submit queries via an e-mail form for compliance- and printing-related questions.

The PNEAC site also has links to state, regional and national environmental agencies, as well as graphic-arts associations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Enviro$en$e site ( contains a search engine to access pollution-prevention, compliance-assurance and enforcement information and databases.

Printers in Minnesota, Missouri and New Hampshire can participate in the EPA's PrintSTEP, a pilot program that reportedly simplifies the process of implementing environmental standards. This includes “plain-language” tools to assist printers in determining their emissions and regulatory requirements, and a streamlined permitting process. See for details.

The annual National Environmental Health & Safety Conference, hosted by GATF/PIA, National Assn. of Printing Ink Manufacturers, Gravure Assn. of America, Flexographic Technical Assn. and Screenprinting & Graphic Imaging Assn., provides discussion on environmental and safety issues in the graphic-communication industries. Seminar topics include hazardous-waste management, common OSHA violations, energy efficiency, ergonomics, calculating emissions and environmental management systems. The 2003 conference was held March 23-25 in Louisville, KY; visit for presentations from past events, and stay tuned for details on the 2004 meeting.