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How can magazines help save the planet?

The last few months have seen extensive flooding in England and devasting bushfires in Australia. With the nightly news full of alarming stories about the impact of climate change, it’s never been more important for all of us to do our bit for the environment, says Jo Beattie.

By Jo Beattie

How can magazines help save the planet?
“A paper wrap looks gorgeous when fully printed…”

Businesses are undertaking all sorts of initiatives: using specialist waste management to ensure they are zero-to-landfill zones, removing single use plastic from their catering, looking at how they heat their buildings, encouraging employees to cycle to work, and reducing single-use items around the office. But what can magazine publishers do specifically to make our industry cleaner and greener?

The manufacturing side of publishing is responsible for a significant percentage of magazines’ environmental impact. At Immediate Media, where I work, we have been looking into ways to try make our output more environmentally friendly, and I’d like to share some of these.

If we clearly tell our readers what to do with their magazine packaging, there is a much better chance of it ending up in the correct waste stream.


Paper is a crucial ingredient for print magazines, and, happily for publishers, is a renewable and recyclable resource. But responsible forestry and well-run paper mills will help to make a more sustainable product. There are two programmes which track some or all of these elements of the paper supply chain, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Specifying these should give you more confidence in your paper’s credentials. Immediate was a member of a WWF group for several years which gave us a great deal of useful advice. The group is now closed, but the website (see panel) has many helpful resources for paper purchasers. If it’s suitable for your magazine, of course, there are also recycled grades available, and some interesting developments around bulky but light papers, which make a pleasingly ‘fat’ magazine with less material.

When sourcing a new paper, you may also want to take its overall carbon footprint into account at the same time as checking out its opacity and gloss (and price!). This can be affected by elements such as how far it travels to get to your printers, and the energy used by the mill. There are various websites which allow you to compare the carbon footprints of different papers, and manufacturers should also be able to help. Naturally, publishing requirements remain pre-eminent, but this can be an interesting area to check out.

Once you have chosen the best possible paper for your magazine, the green publisher will want to give it the best shot at being recycled after it’s been read, so make sure you include a clear reminder to your readers to put their magazine in the recycling when they don’t need it any more. But be aware, not all magazines are as recyclable as they look – some inks and special finishes, such as laminates or glitter, make the de-inking and recycling process harder or impossible. To learn more, check industry guidelines on recyclability. Also consider trying to arrange a trip to an MRF (materials recycling facility) or paper recycling plant – it’s an eye-opening experience seeing how the process works – and, horrifyingly, just how much waste we all create every day.

It makes sense to try and keep print sites close to mailing or finishing houses.


Packaging is a hot topic right now, with single use plastic rightly on the public’s radar, and many retailers keen to reduce the amount of plastic on their shelves. This impacts publishers, as magazines have traditionally been wrapped or bagged when necessary in plastic film. However, there are now a variety of alternatives on offer. Not every material is suitable for every title, and you will also find that different environmental claims are made for different materials, so it can be something of a minefield. Immediate has signed up to the not-for-profit OPRL (On-Pack Recyclability Label) scheme for advice on recyclability and access to the artwork for universal and easily understood labelling for magazine packaging. We find that if we clearly tell our readers what to do with their magazine packaging, there is a much better chance of it ending up in the correct waste stream.

We have traditionally loved to see a shiny polypropylene bag enclosing a glossy magazine, but this plastic is deemed by the OPRL to be ‘not widely recycled’ in the UK. There has been a noticeable increase in the use of paper belly bands to secure magazines and supplements recently, and a move from polypropylene to polythene for newsstand bags.

Polythene, often used for wrapping subscriptions copies, is according to the OPRL, recycled widely enough through large supermarket collection points, to warrant a recyclable label (although, of course, this does rely on the end user being sufficiently keen to take it to the right place). At Immediate, we also try to lightweight any polythene we use, to reduce our usage while we continue to seek alternatives.

You can also source bio-plastic which is sourced from sugar cane but otherwise behaves exactly like normal polythene. This tends to have a lower carbon footprint, but there are questions over land use – a big uptake of this material could see large areas of land being diverted towards growing plants for packaging rather than food.

There has been an increasing trend for using compostable films made partly from vegetable starch. These might be appropriate for readers with access to home or council-run composting facilities (although the latest government feedback about increased use of these materials has been lukewarm at best), but they can have a relatively high carbon footprint, and definitely can’t be recycled.

Paper wrap for subscriptions copies is becoming popular and, from a very niche beginning, is also becoming more readily available. Paper is easy to recycle in this country, so end of life options are straightforward for the reader. Immediate has recently committed to paper wrap for all our monthly subscriptions copies, and internal and consumer response has been extremely positive. It’s worth noting that although the paper wrap in retrospect seems an obvious choice, this decision was made after extensive research into other alternatives and work with our suppliers to put the infrastructure in place. Paper has different limitations to polythene at design, wrapping and mailing stages, so be sure to seek expert advice if you make this move. A paper wrap looks gorgeous when fully printed so maybe we’ll see more of these on the newsstand in the future?

New materials are being invented all the time. I recently saw a news article about plastic made from fish waste. So, who knows what the future will hold – but what is certain is that the demand for plastic-free packaging is not going to go away.

You probably wouldn’t want to rely entirely upon offsetting, but it may be a useful weapon in your green arsenal.

Transport and printing

Transport within your supply chain is likely another significant cause of emissions. It also takes up valuable time in the schedule, and costs money, so we find it makes sense to try and keep print sites close to mailing or finishing houses. John Lewis has committed to phasing out the use of diesel-powered HGVs in favour of vehicles which run on biomethane; perhaps they will start a trend.

Try to ensure your print suppliers are following best practice environmentally. You could ask questions about the use of vegetable inks, and responsible water usage. Efficient collection and recycling or re-use of manufacturing waste will make a difference too. Where factories can do so, it’s great to see them reduce their overall energy requirements by clever use of insulation, natural light, light sensors and renewable energy. If you have time, a visit will often yield interesting insights. This is how we discovered that one of our suppliers turns non-standard pallets into smoke-free briquettes for the use of the local community…

You may wish to think about offsetting your emissions – if it’s good enough for Harry and Meghan on their controversial private flights, surely, it’s worthwhile for magazines? Some offsetting schemes are based around forestry projects, and this is feel-good, especially for companies who use a lot of paper. You probably wouldn’t want to rely entirely upon offsetting, but it may be a useful weapon in your green arsenal. Make sure you find out as much as you can about the scheme you sign up to and that you’re not overstating its benefits.

The greenest option is often not the one you expect!

Dos & don’ts

You can look at any element of your production process and think of ways to make it more environmentally sustainable and I hope I’ve given you some ideas of places to start. I’ve also learned the hard way some dos and don’ts:

  • Always check (and then double check) for ‘greenwash’. The perils of making ethical and environmental claims which you can’t back up are grave in this age of social media.
  • Find an expert. There’s a lot of information out there and if you’re not a specialist, it’s difficult to distinguish the true from the false from the just not very useful. A consultant who knows their stuff is worth their weight in (non-conflict) gold. They may also be able to help you with producing an accurate carbon footprint analysis for processes or products. The greenest option is often not the one you expect!
  • Decide what your priorities are. If you’re looking at packaging, for example, do you want to remove single use plastic from your supply chain, or reduce your overall emissions, or maybe both?
  • Think about joining an industry group. It’s good to talk with your peers and share knowledge and solutions to the issues which confront us. And with the power of a group behind you, it can be easier to lobby for changes to help us all.
  • Make sure your leadership team is on board. It’s much easier to gain traction for the changes you need to make if you have support at a senior level.
  • Try to view change as an opportunity. It’s not always easy with deadlines looming and budgets shrinking, but the current climate crisis is giving us a chance to rethink how we have “always” done things, and who knows what unexpected benefits we’ll find along the way?

It’s much easier to gain traction for the changes you need to make if you have support at a senior level.

Some useful websites

On-Pack Recycling Label:

Recycle Now:

Forest Stewardship Council:

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification:

PPA Carbon Calculator:


This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.