CRISIS ON ENVIRONMENTAL EARTH

Published: Mon, 01-Jan-2007 at Comic Foundry

By Laura Hudson

THE PAPER PROBLEM
Maxeem Konrady loved comic books. He loved them so much, in fact, he decided to become an artist, and began pursuing Fine Arts in Comics degree at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. During his junior year, he took a class on sustainability called Graphic Design for the 21st Century: As If Life Matters. He found what he learned about comics, and the publishing industry generally, to be "devastating."

The problem is paper. Comic books, like all periodicals, are printed on it, and the papermaking process is an ecologically ugly one. An enormous consumer of energy and resources, the paper industry is the number one industrial process water user in the country , and according to the EPA’s 2004 Toxic Release Inventory, the third-worst contributor of air emissions among all industries, and the fourth worst in discharges to streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Its production of greenhouse gases, though, is perhaps the most disturbing. The paper industry is the fourth-largest producer of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming as it depletes the very trees that stave it off.

"The paper industry is one of the single most serious threats to our clean air, our habitat and our water because it's so stubbornly ingrained," Konrady said.

Although disheartened by the paper use of the publishing industry, Konrady remained committed to his dream of becoming a comic book artist. Later, when he decided to self-publish his first graphic novel, he knew he had to do things differently.

"I knew I could make a book that eliminat[ed] the waste and the dangerous chemical production that goes into a typical book. I decided that I wanted to see how hard it was."

The answer: Not that hard. He located a printer who offered more ecologically friendly alternatives, and produced a comic with vegetable-based inks on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, bleached with oxygen instead of chlorine. The impact of using alternative materials is significant: using recycled paper not only saves trees, it also conserves energy and natural resources, using only 60 percent as much energy, reducing water pollution by 35 percent, and air pollution by 74 percent . Not to mention keeping paper products out of landfills, where they account for almost 40 percent of all municipal solid waste .

"The sad, surprising thing is that anybody can do it," Konrady said. "I wanted to show [comic book publishers] that if a kid can do it right out of college, they can too… Once I had the money, it was as easy as printing any other book."

But ay, there's the rub.

Konrady's printing standards ended up costing him significantly more than typical printing methods, and although his small print run operated on a different scale than large publishers, he admits the biggest challenge is money. It's difficult to convince publishers to make any change that increases costs, particularly if the benefits are not obvious. For a business trying to stay afloat, the right thing to do is the most lucrative thing, especially when profit margins are tight. After all, if comic book companies can't stay profitable, they can't keep printing comics.

Still, Konrady believes comic book publishers can make the switch in a practical way, particularly if they find a way to market the change to consumers.

"If they can make people want to buy four foil editions of the same pamphlet, I'm sure they can figure out a way to show the value in this really important thing."

WHAT WOULD SWAMP THING DO?
There is the old and famous axiom from Amazing Fantasy #15: With great power comes great responsibility. It is the noblesse oblige of the superhero class--the ability to help means the duty to do so. Like a doctor with a scalpel or a policeman with a gun, every action or inaction can save people or cost them dearly; every choice has consequences.

It was a moral that weighed upon Adam Weissman of Wetlands Preserve, an environmental advocacy group, as he considered the paper use of comic book publishers. On one hand, he said, comic books advocate heroic ideals of sacrifice and responsibility, and on the other, "the comic book industry uses its financial power to subsidize environmental destruction."

Sure, expecting comic book publishers to live up to the heroic standards of their characters is unrealistic, but one can at least appreciate the irony of indicting Marvel with the words of Spider-Man. The publishers have an obligation first and foremost to survive, else there will be no one to print the comics. But so far as they have the power, perhaps it is not unfair to expect that they exercise it with as much accountability as they reasonably can. Weissman said he believes it is possible to balance the two concerns, and allow businesses to make both practical and ecologically responsible choices.

He is betting on the consciences of the other powerful people in the comic book industry: fans. The comic book community was one of the major reasons that Weissman and his organization originally turned their attention to the medium.

"Comic book fans are people that talk to each other, that have strong feelings about their comics books [and] intense interest in all aspects of the product."

Unlike catalogs, for example, which engender little lasting interest or attachment, comic books have a base of dedicated fans capable of applying pressure for issues that concern them.

So, are fans concerned? To find out, Weissman and other volunteers began surveying both fans and creators at comic book conventions in New York to gauge their interest in the issue. Overall, he says, he was pleased with what he learned.

"A very impressive percentage" of the 1000+ people he interviewed expressed concern over the ecological impact of their hobby. "No one is happy to have to pay more money, but the majority of comic book buyers would be willing to pay more." Although, he is quick to add, raising costs may not be necessary.

"Lots of options now exist," said Erin Johnson of the Green Press Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to increasing the use of recycled paper in publishing. Not only is the quality of recycled paper now on a par with virgin paper, but there is "some price parity also."

The small scale of comic book publishing may even afford more options than those available to larger book publishers, Weissman said.

"Where a larger paper user might be able to say they have trouble finding adequate supplies, with a smaller industry like comics, there are plenty of opportunities to find alternative paper sources."

And with the use of recycled fibers growing twice as fast as the use of virgin fiber at U.S. paper mills , those opportunities seem like they are only going to multiply.

RECYCLED PAPER: SECRET FILES & ORIGINS
While that may be the reality, opportunity is not always practice, and the perceptions within individual comic publishers are far from consistent. Five different comic publishers had five very perceptions of recycled paper, ranging from dismissive to laudatory.

Marvel declined to discuss the issue entirely, calling their paper use a "trade secret." But if paper is truly so classified in the comic book industry, Marvel appears to be the only one who feels that way.

DC Comics, in contrast, seemed happy to discuss their printing materials. Although they use only virgin paper (which they describe as "recyclable"), they have made the switch to soy-based inks on all domestic books, 90-95 percent of their line.

"Soy-based ink is more environmentally friendly," said Alison Gill, DC's Vice President of Manufacturing, "and as individual areas toughen up on laws, [our ink] meets and beats any guidelines that any state is passing."

Archie Comics was once the poster child for recycled paper in comics; they broke ground in the early ‘90s when they made a bold move 100 percent recycled paper and soy-based inks in all their comics. Although the switch was highly praised, even garnering an invitation to the White House to recognize their efforts, they reversed their paper policy in the late ‘90s after their printer shut down and they selected a new one that offered no such environmentally friendly options.

Today, Archie prints on virgin paper, as does Dark Horse (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Concrete series). Darlene Vogel, Director of Purchasing at Dark Horse, said that she believes recycled paper is simply too expensive. "I've never even considered recycled paper because of that."

But Jim Demonakos, former Marketing Coordinator at Image Comics, had a different story to tell. About a year ago, Image chose a new printer for their comics, and made a surprising discovery in the process. "We ended up switching to the printer because of their quality. But it just so happened that they [were] also pretty committed to using recycled paper, so it was a bit of a bonus," Demonakos said.

In the equivalent of a blind taste test, Image chose recycled paper entirely on its merits, and 85-90 percent of their paper

now contains at least 20-30 percent post-consumer content. It seems odd, then, that some people call recycled paper impractical and unrealistic, if a large comic book company can make the switch without even trying.There is still reason every to hope, though, that more companies will come around. Despite some initial resistance or ambivalence towards recycled materials, all of the companies (excepting Marvel, who would not discuss it) said they would still be willing to consider switching to recycled content, assuming the cost and quality were equivalent to their current paper.

PUTTING IN YOUR THREE CENTS
If there is still any question whether the quality, availability and pricing of recycled paper can be practical in the competitive publishing world, the fact remains that Archie did it, Image is doing it, and Random House just completely reset the bar for everyone in publishing.

The nation's largest book publisher, Random House shocked the industry earlier this year by announcing it would increase its use of recycled paper ten-fold over the next four years, accounting for 30 percent of all its paper by 2010.

Admittedly, Random House is a publishing behemoth, capable of absorbing the estimated three cents per book that the switch will cost them, but when weighed against the estimated 550,000 trees and 88 million pounds of carbon dioxide it will spare, three cents doesn't seem like very much.

Tyson Miller of the Green Press Initiative, which helped Random House to draft its new policy, cited a survey that echoed Weissmann's results, where 80 percent of readers indicated that they would be willing to pay more for books printed on recycled paper. "Publishers can do the right thing without it affecting their profits," Miller said.

Nobody expects the comic book companies to be heroes, to sacrifice or even to especially inconvenience themselves. Businesses have to weigh bottom lines against ideals, costs against benefits, and so do the consumers who may end up paying for it. In the end, we all need to decide what is important to us, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it.

Companies are always going to prioritize the bottom line over idealism, while idealists do the opposite, but if faced with the choice between minimal sacrifices versus clear-cut forests, polluted water, and global warming, perhaps we can expect them to at least consider doing what they can, especially when the cost of indifference seems so much higher than the cost of responsibility.More information, including resources and guides for high-volume purchasers, is available at http://greenpressinitiative.org, environmentalpaper.org, conservatree.org and fscus.org.


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