I remember the first time I set foot in a forest that had been clear-cut, in so-called Canada. We were walking through a quiet and moist forest, when suddenly the trees just ended. An entire mountainside had been killed; the green canopy was replaced by gray sky. Only stumps and stray branches were left. The dead trees were loaded onto barges and floated down the coast, probably to be processed into lumber.
We hear a lot of stuff about “save a tree — go paperless!” But the digital era is hardly green. The already-out-of-date design of modern devices creates rushes of toxic mining, soon followed by dumps of toxic waste, for the global South.
It’s true that commercial printing isn’t so green either. The push for profits and automation has led us towards destructive and short-sighted ways of putting pigment on paper. I want to live in a different kind of world, where we can create together and meet our needs in meaningful ways – without participating in forms of destruction sometimes marketed as ‘progress.’ Communicating with somebody shouldn’t mean gigabytes bouncing around silicon in a company’s data center, or forests being chopped far away. In order to get there, we need infrastructure to support ourselves outside the profits-over-life system.
That’s why last year I put a lot of energy into starting an independent printing space here at the Long Haul! It’s been operating on a pay-what-you-can basis, with me and others volunteering our time to print zines, posters, and flyers. I bought a used Risograph duplicator which had previously been used by a church. With some technical help – and a harrowing ride clutching the machine in the back of a box truck! – we set up shop in one of the Long Haul’s tiny little closets we call an office.
Risograph printing is kind of an old-school method of duplication. It involves making a stencil for each original, kind of like a silkscreen, which gets wrapped around a drum. Then, the stencil is flooded with ink and rolled over each page.
Unlike a digital copy machine, which can print every page with unique content, the Riso can only work with one original at a time. So if you have multiple pages in your document, you’ll get a stack of each which need to be put in order with a mechanical collator or by hand.
The reason is because digital copiers have a nasty secret, which is euphemistically called ‘toner.’ Toner is a bunch of pigmented microplastic particles in a tube. Essentially, the petroleum dust is electrostatically attracted onto a roller and transferred to the page. The plastic is then ‘fused’ to the paper under intense heat. There is no ink, just tiny pieces of plastic which get melted into the paper.
Working in the copy industry for years will expose you to the negative effects of toner. The plastic particles are so small they can cross biological membranes, and studies show prolonged exposure can cause lung problems. When the particles don’t properly fuse, or need to be rinsed off hands, clothes, or floors, they can enter the water supply. We should be composting many of our paper products, but if they’re printed with toner, I worry about the microplastics entering the soil.
Toner machines are energy-hungry, needing to constantly generate heat for the fusing process. And they are designed for short lifespans, often leased to the copy store bosses, constantly requiring replacements of cheaply made parts.
Unfortunately, this technology has been thoroughly greenwashed by the printing industry — mainly because it requires less water and generates less waste paper than certain types of offset printing. I work with these digital presses at one of my jobs. My co-workers are sometimes surprised to learn what that funky burning smell is. The technicians, many near retirement, grumble over the way these new machines burn through parts. Meanwhile, the bosses tell the customers our operation is as green as it gets.
Unlike digital copiers, Riso machines use real ink. The inks have three parts: oil, water, and pigment. The oil – made from rice bran – carries the pigment into the paper fibers, and the ink “dries” simply as the water evaporates from the page. Rather than using CMYK inks, you can pick from a series of brilliant ink colors – some of which are far brighter than those possible with color copiers.
You can probably create a radical print shop, if your neighborhood needs one. It takes some money to buy equipment and supplies. With creative sourcing, you might be able to pick up a free or cheap printing device locally — perhaps from a school or office that’s closing or upgrading. Purchase prices for a used machine tend to range from $500-5,000. Make sure the model is still supported by the company, so ink and other supplies will be readily available for years to come. You can get this information by contacting a local dealer as a prospective customer. If the Riso duplicators don’t meet your needs, maybe you’ll consider different printing technology, like an offset duplicator or inkjet.
The biggest hassle and expense by far is finding paper. Most of our printing paper now comes from re-use/junk stores, of which we have several in the Bay Area. We’ve also been lucky with getting many cases from a bankrupt print shop, government surplus auctions, and a truckload saved from the dump by clever scavenging. A recent visitor from the Unter/Druck print project in Germany says they have also had good success finding paper in bulk from defunct print shops.
Paper has become very expensive. In recent years, the paper industry has consolidated rapidly, much of it into the hands of an awful conglomerate called APP Sinar Mas, which is notorious for clear-cutting Indonesian land. Greenpeace recently revealed that Sinar Mas was secretly behind the purchase of Domtar, North America’s biggest paper manufacturer.
I wanted to check out a paper mill for this article, but all the mills that once made printing paper in the Bay Area have shut down. Of two defunct mills close by, one is now a police station and jail; the other is a parking lot for limousines.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer walks the polluted banks of the Mohawk River, which has been polluted by chemical waste — some of it from turning trees into paper.
Kimmerer writes, “A sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from mailbox to waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see in it the trees it once had been?”
The situation is pretty dire. Forests around the world are being depleted. It’s important to understand that old forests usually aren’t getting cut to make printing paper. Deforestation usually happens to get lumber for building, or to open the land to other uses like agriculture, mining, suburbs and cities. Once the forest is gone, that land — once biodiverse and wild with life — sometimes gets converted into paper tree plantations where only a few trees are grown: pine, fir, poplar, birch.
At the mill, logs are converted into fiber and bleached. Many pounds of chlorine, ammonia, lead, and other toxins are released each year to create consistent, smooth, and white sheets by the pallet load. That’s because making good paper from trees is challenging. In other papermaking traditions, paper is made from rice, cotton, flax, and all sorts of other plants.
If buying new paper, I would encourage you to look for paper certified under a scheme called Forest Sustainability Council (FSC). It’s far from perfect, but it’s better than paper which is untraceable or certified by the logging industry’s knock-off (SFI). Recycled paper remains elusive (and expensive) in the formats we use.
Our collective fight for survival depends on overturning capitalism and reversing de-forestation. Print is one of the most powerful tools we have to reach people and make the case for change and a new type of society, outside the endless grids of social media. Billionaires and their corporations control the infrastructure of content delivery. There’s no way to graffiti over a newsfeed or throw stickers up on a banking app. But in the real world, we still have the ability wheat-paste any underpass or lonely ATM. I’ve enjoyed making quick posters for actions, events, or to get information out to algorithm-saddled college students. I’m still hopeful we can overthrow this bullshit system in my lifetime. I hope others will find ways to educate and organize against systems of hierarchy and control.
Write to Reprographixxx Print Room c/o Long Haul, 3124 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley CA 94705 or firstname.lastname@example.org
SOURCES FOR CLAIMS ABOUT TONER:
“Oxidative stress and inflammatory response to printer toner particles in human epithelial A549 lung cells” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23201440/
“Capture and characterisation of microplastics printed on paper via laser printer’s toners” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34020184/
“Toner can cause critical contamination once it enters the soil. Therefore, this focus is directed towards that how to control and deal with such a large amount of potential discarded toner particles”
“Controlling measures of micro-plastic and nano pollutants: A short review of disposing waste toners” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29859943/
“Chronic upper airway and systemic inflammation from copier emitted particles in healthy operators at six Singaporean workplaces”pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35559961/