The Retail Graphic Recycling Crisis

Did you know that the retail graphics displayed in store windows and interiors in malls across America contribute over a billion square foot of toxic materials into landfill?

I know marketing and retail graphics do not come first to mind when thinking about the overwhelming sustainability challenges facing the world, but someone needs to take notice.

I have been in advertising and retail print production for over 20 years, and am currently working for a purpose-led company who believes in doing the right thing. While I love making the retail world “pretty,” I have been inspired for the last 6 years to do what I can to reduce landfill waste when developing our brands’ marketing and visual graphics, both in 2D and 3D executions.

The crisis really starts with the lack of indepth recycling programs at the mall level. I believe they are recycling paper and cardboard and items in the food court, but that’s about it. Retailers need to come together to demand recycling of additional materials such as “good” recyclable plastics and fabric, which is the fastest growing graphic substrate in the graphics industry.

As a rule, Visual Designers, Production Managers and Marketing Procurement teams should follow these principles:

  1. Sustainability is a mindset. Start incorporating sustainable materials as a design criteria to solve into. It will lead to more unique  and innovative designs when you live up to this feel-good challenge.
  2. Use printers that are SGP-certified. The Sustainable Green Printing Partnership is the only third party certification for print facilities, ensuring that the printing of  your graphics will be done with minimal impact. SGP printers focus on waste reduction (via efficiencies and recycling), energy reduction, and excluding toxic materials during the manufacturing process, among other things. If your favorite printers aren’t certifed, ask them to get certified.  Find out more at
  3. Use FSC-certified paper only. The Forest Stewardship Council ensures that the trees used to make those paper products come from sustainable forests. Sustainable forests are carefully monitored so that trees used for paper or other wood items (such as furniture), are quickly offset by the planting of 3 to 4 other trees. If the paper you use is not certified, it’s likely destroying a forest somewhere and the trees will never get replaced.
  4. Despite what you may think, you can make cool, elevated retail graphics out of corrugate. If printed and designed well, it can literally look like the real thing you are trying to emulate. Corrugate is inexpensive, it contains recycled content, and can be recycled at the mall level. Over 90% of corrugate is being recycled in the U.S.!
  5. Fabric graphics are a great non-toxic alternative to vinyl, and it looks very elevated in windows. Options range from using cotton (expensive) to using fabrics made from polyester. Although polyester fabric is a form of plastic, it can be recycled even after printing, if you are able to get a ship-back program in place or if we can get the malls to start recycling this widely popular material.
  6. Use only recyclable plastics for window clings, such as polypropolene. Question printers and manufacturers about the recyclability claims on their products. Private labeling by suppliers makes it even harder to validate, and honestly, if it can’t be recycled at the mall level, it’s going into the landfill anyways. If your product uses a plasticizer, try to get one that is plant-based.
  7. Avoid using any products that contain PVC (polyvinyl chloride) commonly known as vinyl.  While there are apparently some vinyls that are recyclable, it’s not done widely. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a non-profit organization based in New York, calls polyvinyl chloride “one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created” [source: CHEJ]. The manufacturing of PVC is hazardous (explosive), the usability is dangerous (toxic, carcinogenic) and the end of life story is terrifying (can’t be destroyed in any safe way) despite what the plastic industry may say.
  8. There are variety of other widely popular sustainable substrates coming to market. Find a distributor or a trusted printer to recommend the latest and greatest substrates.
  9. Make sure your printers only use soy-based inks or UV inks that have no negative effects on the waste stream.
  10. Design your visual props so that they can be re-used for multiple storesets. For example, you can breath new life into pedestals by covering them with slipcovers made of cardstock. Or consider printing on the back of a 2D graphic and turn it around for the next storeset. Designing visual graphics with more longevity will kill two birds – it will save money and prevent additional waste!

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