How I Went Green
To me, some things are more important than making the absolute most amount of money I can make every day. Issues like producing high quality and protecting my employees from contaminants that cause health issues are higher priorities for me than squeezing out every penny.
When you walk into a lot of print shops, they’re sweat shops. That’s not my print shop. I don’t want to be that. If I think something’s going to be good for my employees, I’m ok with making less money.
Here are a few of the ways I have changed products and equipment to create a healthier environment for my staff.
As our shop has grown, we use more and more screens, which means using greater quantities of harsh chemicals. This concerned me because I do not want my employees breathing in these solvents. Having someone stand in a washout booth spraying chemicals for eight hours a day, even though they wear respirators and eye protection, is no fun.
Consequently about a year ago, I took the plunge and purchased an automatic screen cleaning machine. It turns out I was an early adopter, and I purchased the second Lotus Holland Evo in the United States.
The beauty of having an automatic machine is everything is self contained. No chemicals get released into the air. Another plus is it cleans screens faster so we get more done in less time. It used to take one person a full day to clean all of our screens. Now they are done before lunchtime. That employee can now spend the second half of the day doing something else so there is labor savings.
There are a lot of misconceptions about chemicals used in this machine, namely, whether it saves or costs you money. From the beginning, we used screen cleaning chemicals with no VOCs, which don’t evaporate like traditional solvents.
Not only are these safer for our employees to use, but because they don’t evaporate, they don’t have to be replaced as often. We are able to use the same chemicals in our machine for three to four months at a time. We just top them off occasionally.
So we’re spending a bit less on chemicals. But for me, it really wasn’t about cost or time savings as much as it was ethics. I just don’t want my employees breathing in those chemicals. If I can do anything to make my employees lives better that’s financially within reason, I’m going to do that.
We’ve been doing a lot with the automated screen cleaner. It’s ended up being a really great machine, and we’re really happy with it.
About a year ago, Printed Threads purchased an automatic screen cleaning machine. It’s a closed loop system that prevents chemicals from coming in contact with employees who might breathe them or get splashed.
Screen Cleaning Chemicals
As much as possible, we use chemicals without VOCs. There are some green chemicals that don’t work super well, but we just have to get used to the fact that it’s just not going to work perfectly yet. There are a lot of great scientists who are out there making better stuff every day.
We push on speed so much in this industry, everything has to be faster, faster, faster. But what about issues such as “This has to be high quality,” and “This has to be good for the industry?” At my shop, these are the higher priorities.
We’re not a crazy high production shop. We’re more of a boutique. We run four automatic presses, and we print a whole lot of shirts, but we’re not trying to pump out 1,000 shirts an hour on every press. I’d rather pump out 300 shirts per hour on every press and have better quality. And I’d rather have chemicals that don’t work as fast, but provide a better quality environment to my employees.
So what we have to ask ourselves is define what quality is. Is it chemicals that work faster because they are made with harsher solvents or is it my employees are going to survive longer?
Water Filtration System
The water from the screen cleaning machine is run through a water filtration system, which not only makes the outgoing water safer, it also prevents anything from clogging up the drain.
The filtration system has six stages. The first catches all the big particles. Then water is flushed through three sizes of reusable screens, 110, 156 and 200 mesh counts. It then travels to a holding tank where a pump pushes the water through a 70-micron and then finally a 20-micro filter. Any water that goes into the sewer at our shop gets filtered before it goes down the drain.
The water from the automatic screen cleaning machine used at Printed Threads is run through a water filtration system. It not only makes the outgoing water safer, it also prevents anything from clogging up the drain.
Cleaning Squeegees, Flood Bars, Etc.
To avoid using a spray bottle for cleaning squeegees and other tools that can’t be run through the screen cleaning machine, I had a recirculating sink installed. This allows us to simply pour cleaner over the implements, which keeps harmful fumes from getting into the air. The recirculation sink has a reservoir that holds used chemicals. We recycle it as long as we can.
We pump out all of the old chemicals and store those in a drum. Then, we let it sit, and the sediment settles to the bottom. On top is useable product. By using a hand sump pump, we siphon it off and reuse it.
Instead of spraying cleaning chemicals on squeegees, flood bars and similar ink-covered tools, Brett Bowden, owner, Printed Threads, purchased a recirculation system, which is connected to the drain in the washout sink. Chemicals are poured rather than sprayed over the tools keeping them from getting into the air. The excess chemicals are collected in a holding tank where they are recycled. This saves on overall chemical costs.
Instead of using screen opener that has to be sprayed on, we use a plunger can. You fill it with the chemical, and it has a plate on top. You place your cleaning rag on top of the plate and press down. It dispenses fluid onto the cloth while draining excess back down into the can. You can then use it to wipe down your screens.
Another way to keep harmful chemicals like screen opener from getting into the air and possibly be inhaled by an employee is to use a plunger can to dispense the liquid onto a cloth. The cloth can then be used to wipe down the screen.
One of the worst products in a screen print shop is aerosol pallet adhesive. While fast and easy to use, there’s no way to prevent overspray—which is full of harmful chemicals—from floating in the air. This means employees can breathe them and eventually these contaminants come to rest on everything else in the shop. Without continual cleanup, it builds up to create a sticky surface that is a magnet for dirt, dust and lint.
To avoid these problems, I switched to a water-based adhesive. It looks like the consistency of Elmer’s glue. We buy it in gallon jugs and pour it into ketchup bottles. You put just a little bit on the platen and use a card to spread it over the surface. Not only is it safer for employees, but it lasts much longer than the spray.
After we finish a run of shirts, we use a spray bottle to mist the platen with water and do a little scrubbing, and it reactivates the adhesive. Once we apply the adhesive in the morning, we do not have to reapply it again all day long. While the initial application takes longer than the spray can, you do not have to keep applying it nearly as often, which in the long run, makes it a more productive solution. We try to use a little of anything aerosol as possible.
I air condition my shop, which not only keeps my employees comfortable, but filters harmful vapors from the air. For me, it was another quality-of-life issue. I researched it and on a yearly basis, it seemed like a huge expense. But when I divided it by 36, it came to about $500 a month, and I felt like that was worth it to have a better employee environment.
In addition, we’re looking into some other options as far as getting more fresh air back into the shop.
Probably the harshest chemical that’s in any screen print shop is spot remover. We have stations with their own exhaust systems to suck the fumes out. We also have respirator masks and eye goggles at every location. But, even more importantly, I try to impress on staff that the goal is to not make a mistake and need to use the spot remover.
Discharge ink has formaldehyde in it and that gets in the air and exposes your staff to it. We offer discharge printing, but we have our dryers properly vented to get as many of the fumes out as possible. Our air conditioning also circulates in air from outside. Employees must use respirators when they are mixing the formaldehyde into the ink. Each staff member who needs one has his own mask.
The really unfortunate thing about our business is you end up with a lot of trash. Recycled paper makes a lot of sense, and we buy that. We also have a dumpster specifically for recycling cardboard. We have switched out light bulbs with LED ones where possible.
I’d like to encourage all screen printers to work toward making their shops safer places to work. There are more environmentally safer products available every day, and the R&D continues to make new breakthroughs.
Do not make every decision concerning supplies and equipment based on dollars and cents. Think about the value of ensuring better health and happiness for the people who work for you. Employees recognize these efforts, and this translates into a more productive, loyal worker.
President, Printed Threads