According to a study conducted at San Jose State University, the release of heavy metals into the environment by retail photo processing labs declined by 73% between 1996 and 2006. This is an obvious result of the decline of film and the ascension of digital photography.
Over the past 4.5 years, my process has been digital up to the final step where I would outsource to a hybrid digital/silver pro lab. The prints were beautiful, but I've often wondered about the environmental impact of continuing to use a silver-based printing process. Though it's impossible to get precise information from the labs regarding their disposal procedures, it's clear that those toxins eventually end up somewhere in the environment, most likely in our rivers.
With that weighing on my mind over the years, I've finally decided to go to an in-house pigment-based printing workflow; in other words, I recently purchased a professional inkjet printer. My process is now 100% digital from start to finish, giving me full control over the waste products (at least until they go to the recycler).
So how do the new prints look? Amazing! Inkjet printing has fully matured over the past few years to a point where image quality and archival longevity surpass even the best darkroom prints. These new prints are a definite step up from my old silver prints. They show finer details, deeper blacks, and beautiful tonal transitions. The biggest advantage though, is in the wide selection of papers that are now available for archival pigment printing. Many of the manufacturers of the best fine art papers for watercolor painting and printmaking are now offering similar papers optimized for inkjet printers. Most notable is Canson, the venerable paper maker established in France in the 16th century. I'm particularly fond of their Baryta Photographique, a gorgeous paper that is reminiscent of the best fiber-based baryta darkroom papers. Prints on this paper are deep, rich, and highly detailed.
I'm still in the transition phase, but I'll eventually go through and re-print many of my favorite images using the new printer. It's hard to resist the temptation of seeing how the old images will look in this new medium.