Eco-Friendly Inks


This story courtesy of

I almost fell off my chair at a recent seminar when the speaker said the green movement in design might just be a West Coast fad. Say what?
Most designers I know are selecting environmental papers, printing on the backsides of their proofs, using fluorescents and the “energy save mode” for copiers, computers and thermostats — and always looking for ways to do more.
What’s Up with Ink?
One way they can design with green awareness is to make sure that the printing ink they use is just as earth-friendly as their paper. To do that, let’s consider the three main components of offset ink for sheetfed printing: pigment, a vehicle, and additives.
Pigments give the inks their colors and a vehicle is a moist substance, such as petroleum, water, soy or other vegetable oils, that eases the spread of pigments and provides more even color. Additives, such as waxes and distillates, help reduce set off and improve the ink’s performance on press.
The Problem with Petroleum
Petroleum-based inks gained popularity more than 50 years ago because they were fast drying and cost effective. The problem is that the drying process is damaging to the environment. Petroleum inks are not only made from a non-renewable resource, but they release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) as they dry, which is one of the causes of air pollution that contributes to global warming.
Vegetable- and Soy-Based Ink
Current regulations require that petroleum inks release no more than 30 percent VOC, and this is where the new vegetable-based inks can be an effective green alternative. Now formulated for 2 to 15 percent VOC, vegetable-based inks are made of a mixture of renewable resources, such as soy, flax, canola or safflower, with the oil from each plant giving the vehicle its own unique advantage.
Soy ink was developed after imported oil shortages threatened many industries that depended on petroleum-based products. Though soy has been marketed as the new green printing ink, soy-based inks are not purely made from soy. Soy oils are combined with linseed and chinawood oils for better drying times.
Dan Malley, sales manager at Sun Chemicals, one of the world’s foremost producers of inks, says that soy oil in itself would not be able to keep up with today’s deadlines. “To be called ‘soy ink,’ he says, “the ink only has to contain a minimum of 20 percent refined soy oil.”
Controlling the VOC
All inks, including vegetable and soy-based inks, still produce small quantities of VOC because they contain small amounts of petroleum to extend ink pigments. Without petroleum oil, more heat would be needed to dry the inks and more energy would be used in print shops.
In order to use the soy logo, The American Soybean Association established that ink solvent must contain a minimum amount of soybean oil depending on the type of printing. Therefore, depending on the printing process, a “soy ink” can still contain larger amounts of petroleum.
A Vibrant Ink Substitute
There was once concern that vegetable-based inks lacked vitality on press, but Dan Malley is enthusiastic about their performance. “Even though petroleum-based inks produce a sharper dot, vegetable-based inks have a much better ink holdout, less dry back, and as long as you allow for the slightly added dot gain in prepress, your results will be just as vibrant, if not better.”
Whether printing on coated or uncoated sheets, and particularly on synthetic papers, technologies have quickly resolved some of the quality problems once associated with vegetable-based inks.
Developing Greener Alternatives
When designers choose ink with low VOC, they are choosing another significant way to protect the environment with one of the most important tools of their profession. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, when the Los Angeles Times switched to soy-based ink, they reduced their VOC emissions by 200 tons per year and won an air quality award from South Coast Air Quality Management District.
There are always new and improved inks to look forward to, and Malley has a new brand on the market that is an exciting development. “It is a patent pending formulation,” he says. “Sun Chemical’s Liberty Ink is a vegetable-based ink that sets in under an hour and releases 0 percent VOCs.” If the quality of this new ink is competitive, it will help green designers become even greener.
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  • gaia says:

    Thanks so much! It’s not easy to find this info.

    San Luis Obispo, California

  • Anonymous says:

    Are soy base inks colorfast? Is there an eco-friendly coating ?

  • Anonymous says:

    thanks really helped with homework

  • Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know of any company that sells alternatives to petroleum inks. I mean ones on the market now and that work well and can be used in commerical office printers?

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  • ??????? ???? ??????? ??????? says:

    yellow!, i am a major lover of your article. the way you explain this is completely fascinating

  • Philip Bruno says:

    wanting an ink to apply to manhole covers etc in NYC to apply onto Tshirts. eco friendly is prefered .. any suggestions?

  • Roz says:

    Which printer takes a cartridge that is available in veg-based ink?

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