Contemplating a world without printing

Danger. Fragile. Flammable. Poisonous. High voltage. Restricted Area.

Stop. Exit. No entry. Wrong Way.

Where would we be without warnings signs and traffic signs? How would we know when or where to exit a freeway or a parking lot? How could we know the speed limit? How would we know which gate to board at an airport? How do we tell which soft drink can to remove from a café refrigerator or shampoo to put into a supermarket trolley?

In short, how would we function without printing?

Steve Thobela, CEO of PrintingSA, the representative body for South Africa’s printing and packaging industry, says that he relies on printing and packaging every day. Without printing he would not have vital information where he needs to see it most, be able to make quick, informed decisions or communicate.

Thobela is not a Luddite (someone who does not like new technology and avoids using it). He enjoys reading on his tablet, relies on his smart phone and relaxes in front of the television when he has a night off. But he also knows that new age technology and print are closely linked and an integral part of everyday life.

In South Africa, this has spawned an industry that employs 45 000 people and contributes R55-billion to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Printing impacts the lives of almost all South Africans on a daily basis. At the same time, digital is the mainstay of a modern day economy. Without the internet and technology, businesses and even homes, could not function.

“It’s time to call a truce on the print versus digital war. People get very emotional when they begin discussing whether digital media will close down newspapers and magazines and whether libraries and bookshops will disappear. But that is only a very small part of the picture. Printing goes far beyond textbooks and novels,” he points out.

In summary, print informs, educates and entertains. Without packaging, labelling and advertising, it would be impossible to tell different brands and products apart. It is these – and consumers’ responses to them – that gives brands the value that they covert and supports the extensive advertising and marketing sector.

Fashion is also all about print. It goes beyond glossy magazines and advertising. Without printing, there would be no trendy designs on T-shirts or printed fabrics, no printed sneakers or even a price ticket on a pair of jeans.

On a more serious note, without labels on food stuffs, consumers could not identify ingredients to which they could be allergic and there would be no way of finding out the dosages of over the counter medicines. Someone with an intense headache or nausea is unlikely to hit Google to find out.

On the business side, Thobela adds, the printed business card remains the mainstay of networking.

Even smart phones – which have been seen as the major rivals of print – come in an attractive printed box with – wait for it – a printed instruction leaflet.

“It is definitely time for people to take a more rounded view and to celebrate the strengths of each. Printing has been bad mouthed for damaging the environment. The paper industry has been criticized for using large amounts of electricity and killing trees. But trees are grown especially for paper and no indigenous trees are harmed. We do not accuse meat producers of threatening to make cattle extinct when we order a steak at a restaurant or of causing large emissions of greenhouse gases which lead to global warming,” he says.

While critics point to electricity consumption and emissions from printing and paper companies, they could also look to the massive amounts of electricity – ultimately generated by environmentally unfriendly coal fired power stations – consumed by computers and digital devices.

Unlike this equipment, paper can be safely recycled.

According to the eWaste Association of South Africa, toxic compounds including lead, mercury and cadmium can be dangerous if electronic equipment is dumped in landfills or not recycled properly.  A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight and up to thirty-six separate chemical elements are incorporated into e-waste items. These items are also very difficult and expensive to recycle due to their complexity as well as the fact that many contain flame retardants and other compounds which are extremely difficult to process.

And so the list goes on.

For Thobela, it’s time to stop the counter arguments and to focus on growing the print industry for the good of all.