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Jul 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Many in industry believe it is hard to balance profitability with being a friend to the environment. But not at Sleepeck Printing Company. The 93-year-old lithographic printer has successfully followed a path of environmental commitment and fiscal soundness for decades.

Simply, the full-service sheet-fed printer in Bellwood, IL does more with less, continually exploring efficient processes, cutting or even eliminating entire waste streams while improving service and retaining competitive pricing.

Sleepeck's consciousness of the environment is reflected in its in-house programs, as well as those of the suppliers it chooses to work with. Also, the web printer is a participant in Illinois' Great Printer Project (GPP), a voluntary, cooperative effort involving lithographic printers, government and environmental organizations, aimed at establishing pollution prevention as a standard business practice. Last year, upon completing GPP certification, Sleepeck became one of only 16 lithographic printers in Illinois to earn the "Great Printer" designation.

The good news is their winning technique for linking profitability and environmental stewardship can be readily emulated, regardless of company's size. "Most printing companies can use the same pollution prevention and recycling activities we've adopted," assures Bruce Brazas, Sleepeck's controller. "These initiatives are just good business. Most of them are common sense approaches with solid returns and relatively low financial outlays. All it takes is the desire to look for them and make them work."

While Sleepeck has traditionally embraced such approaches, it extended its use of them in 1991 when it decided to reduce further the environmental impact of every level of its operation. This led to becoming an alcohol-free shop in 1992. It also led to the decision in 1995 to apply for a Title V permit, even though it had brought volatile organiccompounds (VOC) emissions below Title V's 25-tpy threshold.

The company chose to remain with Title V pollution controls and reporting requirements rather than operate under the less demanding Federally Enforceable State Operating Permit program, because Title V compliance keeps it procedures and practices more focused. It was one of the first Illinois printers to meet Title V requirements and served as a compliance benchmark for other printers in the state.

"The success of our environmental program and ability to remain profitable depends on communication with and the support of our employees, suppliers and customers," Brazas says. "Our efforts to contain waste and pollution have been of special concern to our production, sales and finance groups. On the manufacturing side, we have an open, informal system that encourages ideas to reduce waste. This has generated many ways to reduce or eliminate waste, especially on the shop floor."

Many ideas focus on how to avoid reruns, which stands at the top of Sleepeck's environmental hit list. Communication errors within and among the areas involved in a job--production, prepress, pressroom, finishing and distribution--cause many of the reruns logged. Internal reporting procedures play an essential role in holding reruns, and the wastes they generate, to a minimum. Sometimes this simply involves adapting existing procedures. For example, documents from the company's cost accounting system, such as makeready summaries, productivity reports, information on how presses are running, and cost-performance analyses, have become communication vehicles that help control inefficiency and waste.

The company's capital acquisition program also supports its environmental goals. This program added specifications that emphasize manufacturing and material efficiencies to the financial and other criteria it had used in purchasing large and small items. A good example is its recently acquired Heidelberg press, which includes the best available technology to reduce paper and chemical waste, including closed-loop color and register, automatic blanket wash, and rapid plate and blanket changing systems.

Sleepeck's production modifications have greatly reduced waste and emissions. When Sleepeck initially altered its processes to curb VOCs, it asked its ink, coating and plate suppliers to bring ideas to the table. With their help, the company converted from petroleum-based to soy-based inks. Although this has meant tighter press tolerances and closer monitoring and maintenance, the change has been worthwhile: VOC generation dropped to 21 tons in 1996 from 85 tons in 1991, helping Sleepeck comply with Title V requirements. The firm also cut VOCs by using a modified glycol in its fountain solutions and by replacing acetone with low-VOC substituents in its wash-up solutions wherever possible.

"Our ultimate goal is zero waste generation," says Brazas. "While this may be a dream, we want to recycle or reclaim usable materials from the waste stream whenever possible and dispose of the rest with minimal impact to the environment. This cradle-to-grave approach has led us to sort and recycle aluminum cans, steel bands, paperboard, and office and scrap paper. The resulting drop in landfill costs has gone a long way toward justifying this effort. We now have our eye on many other waste streams."

Sleepeck also conserves energy to limit the consumption of non-renewable energy. For instance, it has been purchasing energy efficient motors for new equipment and retrofits, installing heating setbacks, adding switches to control lights and using low-wattage bulbs at many locations.

The company also works to remind its employees that protecting the environment is everyone's responsibility. It has, for instance, initiated employee awareness programs that track environmental performance and is in the process of developing internal newsletters that incorporate its environmental messages.

"We also look outside the company for help with our waste stream," says Brazas. "Our suppliers, for instance, have given us invaluable support. An excellent example of this is Printing Developments, Inc.'s (PDI's) chemistry recycling program. This closed-loop system provides printers with a recycling and use/reuse option for spent PDI plate processing chemistries."

Sleepeck's environmental approach also is aimed at giving its customers more choices. "They can opt to have printed materials produced using environmentally friendly products, such as recycled stocks, soy-based inks and water-soluble coatings," says Brazas. "Some customers are keen on this, while others choose more conventional printing methods and materials to retain a certain look or contain costs. In addition to meeting our corporate goals, our 'green' approach also has attracted new customers with similar values."

With an eye toward further improvement, Sleepeck is participating in the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Industrial Assessment Program, which helps companies become more efficient by surveying energy use, waste generation and overall productivity. The program sponsored a visit in November from a University of Wisconsin team that is helping Sleepeck expand recycling of such materials as waste lumber, ink buckets and solvent-laden rags, and is providing input on the benefits of new lighting and light fixtures, among other issues.

Environmental responsibility and making a profit can co-exist. All it takes is the will to do it. As Eva Aloia, director of environmental and safety services for the Printing Industry of Illinois/Indiana, says: "Sleepeck's progressive and sophisticated approach works because the company is dedicated to the process. It exemplifies what printers can do when they commit to steady improvement on environmental matters."

Sleepeck is a good example of the old adage, "Success breeds success." Its gains in the environmental arena have motivated it to search for further waste stream reductions. Among the many projects it has under way or under consideration are:

*Expanding non-break-bulk transportation. A Sleepeck study shows that shippers in this category handle product just twice (when it is loaded and delivered) compared to the eight times or more for most conventional shippers. Using non-break bulk carriers, while demanding more coordination, reduces waste from damaged goods and often speeds delivery.

*Broadening solid waste recycling by looking for those who can reuse such items as plastic ink buckets, press blankets, and fluorescent bulbs and ballasts.

*Extending its digital capabilities to computer-to-plate systems to reduce films and photoprocessing wastes from standard film-to-plate systems. *Working to improve energy efficiency and reduce its $350,000 annual energy bill. One possible method is through a continuous energy monitoring system that would control heating, ventilation and air-conditioning in its 85,000-sq.-ft., climate-controlled facility.

*Adding automatic setbacks for ventilation.

*Adding zone-lighting throughout its facilities.

*Centrifuging press rags before returning them to the supplier. The reclaimed solvent would be used to clean press areas that don't need fresh wash-up material. An alternative involves microwaving the rags and reusing the distilled solvent.

*Educating other printers on the viability of environmentally friendly products and technologies

Actual and potential liability from down-the-drain disposal of printing chemistries is a growing concern in light of local, state and federal laws. Sleepeck, along with more than 100 other printers across the U.S., has found relief from this compliance headache by using Printing Developments, Inc.'s (PDI's) Chemical Recycling Program.

Users of the program includes insert, publication, packaging, commercial and catalog printers, as well as metal decorators. PDI provides training, literature and videos and works with printers so all goes smoothly. The program complies with all municipal, state and federal regulations.

Printers store spent chemistries in their original drums for pickup. PDI provides completed manifest and labels. A licensed transporter picks up the pre-labeled drums of expended material at preset intervals of 90 days or less.

The transporter is permitted throughout the continental U.S., owns its own equipment and trains its drivers. It places great emphasis on safety. For instance, it uses trucks with secondary linings and only employs company drivers, not independent operators.

Once collected, the materials go to several sites for recycling and reuse. Non-hazardous PDI chemicals (expended negative developer and stencil remover) are distilled into fresh chemistries for reuse by printers. Spent Q-Etch goes to Phibro-Tech, the largest hydrometallurgical waste-recycler in North America, which uses it as a feedstock to produce various dry copper salts that are sold to catalyst manufacturers and the pressure-treated wood industry.