Greener Photographic Prints


The Issue:


    * How can we make photographic prints greener?

    * This topic addresses paper only in a digital photography setting; further discussion of inks/toners and printing equipment/methods is necessary to understand the complete printing process.


What you Need to Know


    * photographs can be printed via inkjet on cotton or fiber paper

    * photographs can be printed via traditional silver-based printing on RC paper

    * both major types of paper have pros and cons


Greener Photography's Recommendations:


    * Inkjet printing on a natural fiber paper is our best current option

    * Because of the high environmental cost of RC paper, we should minimize its use and educate our clients on its drawbacks


There are two popular ways of printing digital photographs. The first is inkjet and the second is a traditional silver-based process. There are other alternative printing methods, but we will stick to the two most popular for the purpose of this discussion.


Inkjet Printing:


There are a variety of paper options for inkjet printing. Some of these papers are much more eco-friendly than anything else available on the commercial market. That said, there is also a lot of misinformation about how sustainable these papers really are, and there are no standards regulating the paper manufacturers. On top of that, the ink that makes the image is another potential pollutant, and a whole other topic for another discussion. The good news is that there is one type of inkjet paper that we know of that is made of 100% recycled post-consumer content, and is FSC-approved, at least before they put the inkjet coating on it - Red River's Greenpix paper. Hurray!


Traditional Silver-Based Printing:


Traditional silver-based printing is used to create the photographs with which most of us are most familiar. This process is preferred among commercial labs, photographers and consumers because it is quick and cheap. Silver-based prints are most commonly printed by a chemical process called RA-4, which prints only onto Resin-Coated (RC) paper.


There are two problems with this process. The first is the chemicals used in the printing, and the second is the chemicals used in the paper. We are going to cover paper only for the purpose of this discussion.




The purpose of this article is to share a basic understanding of the paper issue and begin a discussion on this controversial topic.


Calling any of these papers sustainable is controversial, but some of these papers are clearly greener than others. We are going to provide all of the information we have, so that you have what you need to choose the paper that best suits your needs and conscience. In the future we hope to make a definitive recommendation when we have manufacturers documenting their sources and following environmental standards.


Cotton Rag:



• The cotton used in cotton rag is made from cotton-linters, a waste product of cotton production. Some argue that this makes it green, others still feel like they are supporting a very environmentally destructive industry.

• Cotton rag is believed to be as archival as tree-fiber-based paper, but has not been around 200+ years to test this assertion.

• Cotton is a renewable resource.



• Cotton production is a pesticide-heavy crop.

• Manufactures of Cotton Rag photo paper do not answer to any organization holding it to any environmental standards.

• Only available for Ink Jet printing.



• Clearly cotton rag is clearly greener then RC, C-Prints or any RA-4 processed paper. It is not a perfect answer, but it is likely our best option at this time.


Tree-Fiber Based Paper (most fiber papers):



• Tree-Fiber-based paper has been the standard in archiving images for hundreds of years.

• Tree-Fiber prints will last 200+ years in dark storage.

• Tree-Fiber based paper is made from wood pulp, a renewable resource.



• Trees are only a renewable resource if the forests are properly managed.

• The current standard in Forest Management is Forest Steward Certified (FSC) and currently no fiber photo paper is labeled FSC.



• Only a greener option when talking about inkjet printing. It is possible to make a silver halide fiber print, but the paper would have to be coated with chemicals as well as the chemical process of the printing would counter any environmental benefit of the paper.

• Tree-Fiber based paper printed with an inkjet printer is clearly greener then RC, C-Prints or any RA-4 processed paper. It is not a perfect answer but is likely our second best option at this time until we have confirmation that these papers are coming from FSC-certified sources.


Bamboo-Fiber Based Paper:



Bamboo grows incredibly quickly, is renewable, and doesn't require pesticides.



• Bamboo is an invasive plant in the United States. It is nearly impossible to eliminate, spreads uncontrollably, and displaces native plants.

• There is no regulation or certification around the cultivation of bamboo. Just because it doesn't require pesticides doesn't mean bamboo is organically grown.

• Since it is an invasive species, controlled production is very important to limit its invasion.

• Only available for inkjet printing.



• If bamboo production was regulated and certified, and manufactures properly labeled their bamboo products, bamboo could be a sustainable paper source. You can read more about why bamboo is not considered ecologically sound here.


Resin-Coated (RC) Paper:



• There is an opportunity for manufacturers to produce RA-4 papers made from recycled sources. No one is doing this, but it is a potential pro.

• This paper can be printed with either inkjet or a chemical process. Not much of a pro in regards to the environment, but the versatility is important to note.



• RC paper is made with petrochemicals.

• It is non-recyclable.

• The longevity of these papers varies greatly by brand. Professional luster paper by companies like Kodak or Fuji claim to last up to 200 years in dark storage. The problem is that when the does fade, the paper (made of plastics) will never decompose.



• RC paper is clearly the least environmental paper choice available.




We are photographers -- not scientists, professional printers, or paper experts of any kind. This review of photo papers has been made possible by the help of Dr. Zammit-Lucia of JZL Images and Jeffrey Lazo of ProDPI Photo Lab.


Dr. Zammit-Lucia has recently released a green review of inkjet photo paper and published an article in PhotoPro Magazine regarding inkjet photo paper. His opinions and expertise have been vital in Greener Photography understanding the complexity of this issue and coming to some conclusions. We highly recommend that everyone read both of his articles in addition to this one to come up with your own conclusions.


Jeffrey Lazo is COO of the professional photography laboratory, ProDPI, in San Luis Obispo California. Lazo is an expert in the field of silver halide printing and has been a very generous primary consultant regarding the chemical process in traditional silver-based printing.


We plan on updating this article as more information becomes available. Please share your knowledge on this topic with the greener community to help us all understand it better.


Simple Steps


Welcome to our compilation of simple but effective ways to make your photography greener! We would love to have your additions - just email us!


You might also like to read this article from American Photo - "Thirteen Ways to be a Greener Photographer."


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