A company called SPRANQ is promoting a free ecofont that it says reduces the amount ink used for a given word by as much as 20 percent. The font, which saves ink by stamping holes in each letter, is not aesthetically pleasing, making it better suited for internal documents. Who needs a draft print-out to look polished, anyway? Perhaps the U.S. government could adopt this as the default font for certain memos and documents?
If adopted, it wouldn’t be the first time the government set a default rule for printing that saves ink. In 1994, Congress passed the Vegetable Ink Printing Act, requiring government printers (and private printers hired through federal contracts) to use vegetable-based inks, which are primarily soy-based these days. The fine print on how much vegetable ink to use in different kinds of printed products, and when exceptions can be made is in the U.S. Code. (For example, for “news ink,” the minimum requirement is 40 percent vegetable ink.)
One of the arguments for the change was that a gallon of vegetable ink was more efficient than a gallon of the old stuff. Coincidentally, documents published with it were said to use as much as 20 percent less ink than petroleum ink.
The initial cost of the vegetable ink is higher, (the premium is 33 percent; 60 cents/pound versus 80/pound according to this report), but proponents say there is an overall net savings because of the costs of clean-up, disposal, and amount of paper waste produced during a press run are lower with vegetable ink. Besides, the cost of ink is a minor bit compared to the costs of printing labor and equipment. Either way, the ink is much more environmentally friendly than petroleum ink.
The head of printing at the U.S. Geological Service put the benefit this way: “So ‘yes’, soy ink makes us compliant with the Vegetable Printing Act as well as (Environmental Protection Agency) and (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations. It’s also technically superior and more efficient, but the bottom line is that we produce a better map.”
Just how did this default rule come about? This being the work of Congress, the decision was imbued with political nudging. The American Soybean Association is happy to take credit, claiming in an annual report that it, along with state soybean organizations, “successfully lobb(ied) Congress” to pass the bill. If this 1994 hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations is any indication, it wasn’t tough sledding. The Government Printing Office had no objections, and pretty much everyone else on the witness list either represented soybean growers or represented a state with soybean growers. The oil-based ink folks were left out. Ultimately, the bill passed on a voice vote in the House and Senate.
What kind of an effect did a change in the default rule have?
In 1992, two years before the Act passed, the federal government’s consumption of vegetable ink, both in-house and via private printer, was less than 400,000 pounds, out of a total of about 2.4 million pounds of ink. At the time, for technological reasons, many government printing presses were unable to handle vegetable ink, the bulk of which was from flax oil, not soy beans, then.
In 1995, the year after the Act passed, 169,000 pounds of vegetable inks were used for in-house printing, while 2 million more pounds were used by private contractor printers. Assuming, that the amount of materials printed in both years was approximately the same, which is reasonable, that’s quite an achievement for such a simple switch.