Sustainable Practices

By Jack Kenny | October 7, 2009

Altering our surroundings in business and manufacturing is a major step to creating a greener workplace � and to saving money.

The basic definition of sustainability is the capacity to endure. Today we – many of us – have awakened to the responsibility that we have to our surroundings, our fellow humans and other life forms. This responsibility, to more than just to our immediate families and businesses, asks that we perform and behave without disrupting the present and the future. Today's definition of sustainability, then, might be this: Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute has launched Project LIFE, the Label Initiative For the Environment, which encourages its converter and supplier members to engage in environmental best practices throughout their companies with the goal of certification. Armed with the LIFE designation, the companies then can let their customers know that they are practitioners of corporate environmental responsibility in a measured way.

Not everyone in the industry belongs to TLMI, however, but the goal of establishing sustainable practices is still accessible to all. Many converters have implemented such practices completely on their own, guided by leaders for whom environmental awareness is second nature, and who understand the values, both social and economic, of instituting such programs.

Besides the idea work and planning performed by management, an equally critical aspect of a sustainability program is to engage all of the members of the workforce in the project. "The engaged workforce will find more opportunities to get lean and identify more opportunities to innovate and create products and services that lower customers' environmental impacts. All of this work will improve the top and bottom lines," writes sustainable business expert Andrew Winston in his recent book, Green Recovery. One tested and proven method of doing this is to create a Green Team, people from all levels of the company who have an interest in making a difference. Presented with challenges, their brainstorming will turn up useful ideas once they get into the work.

At Greenbiz.com, environmental expert Tim Mohin wrote this about Green Teams: "Typically, the members of these groups have little or no involvement in the official corporate environmental or sustainability efforts. They are environmentally minded individuals who are driven to green their lives at home and work.

"More than a common interest club (think chess club), these teams want to change the way their company functions. Usually, it starts with the most visible items – e.g., cafeteria waste, lighting, commuting, landscape irrigation, etc. After some success with these items, these groups can transition into influencing corporate business practices from design to manufacturing to purchasing and more."

Starting out

If you're not sure how or where to begin, start with a basic office paper recycling program. Find out where you can take the paper, or have it picked up, and be sure to include whatever else is recyclable, such as paper and plastic waste from the lunch room.

Another subject for attention is an area that's already well known to those who pay the bills: energy consumption. Here are some basic practices that will cause a drop in your power use, at the same time easing the load on the grid.

- Turn off lights, computers and other equipment when they're not in use. A device left plugged into the wall continues to use power, and high energy costs often include paying for wasted power.

- Replace incandescent lights with energy saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) where appropriate. CFLs cost about 75 percent less to operate and last about 10 times longer.

- Install sensors in specific locations to turn off lights automatically when no one's in the room, and back on when people return. These are useful in rest rooms, conference rooms, storage closets, and other areas that are not always occupied.

- Use sunlight whenever possible. It's free. Sensors are available to measure the available light, and will dim or turn off electric lighting when sunlight is adequate.

The process is similar for water consumption. Fixing leaks will save wasted dollars. Water-saving faucets, shower heads and urinals are readily available. New water heaters can be far more efficient than they used to be. Water temperature should be set only as hot as needed, and probably lower.
Cutting back on lawn sprinkler use during wet weather also saves money.

Good ideas for overall building management include these practices:

- Block direct sunlight shining through windows in the summer.
- Let the sun in during the day in the winter, but cover the windows at night.
- Keep external doors closed.
- Use fans to help delay or reduce the need for air-conditioning in the summer.
- Use fans to pull warm air down from the ceiling in the winter.
- Improve the insulation in the climate-controlled portions of your facility.
- Plug leaks around windows, doors, outlets, etc., with weather-stripping or caulk.

Attacking energy waste

In Sussex, WI, USA, the Lauterbach Group has made a concerted effort to cut back on waste of energy and resources. The converting company recently moved into a new building that is LEED certified, which gave the team the opportunity to start afresh. (LEED, a program of the United States Green Building Council, stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design.)

"We capture heat from presses and air compressors and pump it back into the facility," says Heath Lauterbach, vice president of process improvement. "The whole facility has low voltage, high efficiency lighting. In the shop they are definitely bright enough. In the offices the electric lights shut off when there is enough ambient light." To make use of free light from the sun, the new office was constructed with more windows.

What's more, the HVAC system turns off the heat and the air conditioning in a room if nobody's in there. "We have solar cells in the bathroom sinks, so that when you stick your hand underneath they come on. These are charged by the electricity from the lights," he says.

All of Lauterbach's waste water, all inks, and anything used in the production area (except for UV inks and coatings) goes down the sink, where it is treated, and all pigments and foreign particles removed. "We have a large filtration system – it takes up a big room," says Lauterbach. The water is re-used and the waste is landfilled. We get tax credits based on that."


The production area of any converting plant is where most of the undesirable elements are produced, usually as by-products of the printing and converting processes. Chemicals are released into the air and into the water. Waste in various forms is produced, including the rather large and very measurable labelstock and matrix waste.

"In our production environment, it's the simple things that we're working on," says Lauterbach. "We are working with customers to re-use cores and pallets. We're bringing back release liners from our customers' plants and sending them out for recycling. We are currently working with UPM Raflatac to bring a baler here, so that we can bale our waste matrix and send it to them." UPM Raflatac manufactures a decking material called ProFi that is composed of waste pressure sensitive material and wood.

TLMI's Project LIFE expects participants to assess emissions of VOCs and other harmful chemicals to the air, to reduce them and to use best management practices to maintain good air quality. It is the same for materials released into the water system.

Material waste traditionally has gone to landfills, and many companies still send them there. But the pressure is on throughout the industry to make a change before legislation comes down to have the change made for you. Still, disposal is not easy. Some companies, like Dion Label Printing in Massachusetts, is located near a company that takes its matrix and setup waste and uses it for energy creation. Coast Label, located in Southern California, has its waste collected by a private company that ships it overseas, where it is either reused or recycled. Waste-to-energy plants are increasingly under construction, but a problem of access still exists because such a facility must be within reasonable distance from a label manufacturing plant to make shipping cost-effective.


Only recently has the label industry, printers and suppliers, become aware of the sustainability issue as it applies to label materials. One major introduction that occurred a few years ago was the introduction of EarthFirst, a corn-based film made of polylactic acid, marketed by Plastic Suppliers, which is compostable. The composting, however, is not the kind that occurs in the backyard bin, but rather under controlled conditions.

Adhesives have always been an obstacle to the recycling process. Conventional adhesives cannot be removed from paper materials, so when they go into the repulping process they literally gum up the works. Recent developments in the creation of recycling compatible adhesives (RCAs) has meant that the materials now can be recycled. In the process, the RCA can be strained from the paper because it forms larger masses than traditional adhesives.

The people

The number of label companies that have achieved LIFE certification, or that are in the process thereof, is growing monthly. All of these companies tell similar stories about the real power behind the sustainability quest: the workforce that has signed on to the project. Give a green team a month to come up with ideas, and the results will no doubt surprise management.

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