Algae Ink Case Study

Working with Living Ink Technologies to Bring to Market the World's Most Sustainable Ink 

A Quick History of Ink    

Ink is everywhere. You can’t go far without handling an item with printer ink— packaging, magazines, keyboards, pens- the list goes on. But few of us really understand anything about what goes into commercial printer ink and its impact on people and the planet

Fifty years ago, petroleum-based ink—ink in which petrochemicals are the vehicle that carries the pigment to the printing surface—became the norm across all printing methods. These solvent-based inks are 100% VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which lead to substandard working conditions in print shops and poor community air quality. 

Incidentally, the oil crisis of the 1970s led to new investments in vegetable-based inks— inks in which soy, linseed, and tung oil replace traditional solvents. The 1990s saw the Amendment of the Clean Air Act, which set limits on VOCs. Thankfully, this amendment spurred another round of innovation in vegetable and soy-based inks, which emit less than 20% of the VOCs emitted by solvent inks and lead to happier, healthier employees.  

Advances were also made in water-based ink technology (which works well for flexographic printing). These aqueous inks use water as a primary vehicle ingredient and, depending on their formulation, could have very minimal, and even zero, VOCs. Additionally, radiation and UV or UB (electron beam) curable inks have also become more common. These inks cure by polymerization on exposure. They, therefore, have no solvents and emit no VOCs.

Today, the landscape of inks is diverse. Flexographic and offset printing printing utilizes solvent inks, water-based inks, vegetable or soy inks, as well as UV curable inks. Ink is chosen based on the substrate (layer) being printed on, the printing finish required and the printer’s commitment to eco-friendly principles. 

While the terms “soy-based” and “water-based” sound great, they are not chemical free. The pigments in these inks are almost always made with nonrenewable minerals and resources; such as carbon black, which makes up the vast majority of black pigment. Additionally, soy and water-based inks include additives to support drying, lubrication, and longevity of ink, of which typically include some petroleum-based chemicals. 

So, while inks have come a long way since the 1960’s, commercially available printing inks are still not as sustainable as we’d like them to be (and not as sustainable as commercial advertisers would like you to think they are). And to be fair, it’s easy to believe an ink is completely sustainable when you see the verbiage “water-based” and “soy-based.” 

Choosing ink for eco-friendly printed packaging    

When we first introduced printed boxes and mailers, we wanted to: (1) ensure low to minimal VOCs, (2) minimize the amount of petroleum based substances in the ink and (3) and achieve a high level of recyclability—meaning that the print does not greatly interfere with the recyclability of the packaging.  

From our research, it was clear that we should consider water or soy-based inks; with a preference for water-based inks which have low to no VOCs, tend to print well on paper/corrugate, and are relatively easy to deink from paperboard if it is needed in the recycling process. This was an easy solution for our paperboard packaging as water-based ink absorbs and quickly dries on our corrugate and paper. 

Identifying a water-based ink solution that would be successful with our poly mailer was a bigger challenge. Water-based inks don’t always spread evenly on the coated surface and tend to dry very slowly. After testing multiple formulations, we were able to find a formula that works for poly printing, but it is not without its challenges; we’re always adjusting the pH levels and viscosity of it over the course of the day—something that doesn’t have to be done as much with solvent based inks. 

Over the years, we’ve lost count of the number of companies who have asked us for plant-based ink; the requests made under the assumption that the ink is made entirely from plants and, therefore, biodegradable. And while the terms “soy-based” and “water-based” sound great, they are not chemical free. 

As we continue to research and evolve, we’ve been surprised by what we’ve learned and what the industry glosses over. We’ve come to recognize that even our own practices—while certainly thoughtful, well intentioned, and rooted in the best commercially available technologies today—were not necessarily the eco-friendly printer ink utopia we initially thought. 

Changing the industry with algae-based ink   

In 2013 Scott Fulbright and Steve Albers, both PhDs with years of experience converting algae into biofuels and other commercial products, had the idea of growing algae for pigment. Their mission from the beginning was to create algae-based inks that could replace every day printing inks in flexo, offset, and digital printers. However, in the early years of their research and development (in which they often felt like mad scientists at work), they discovered that their first iteration of algae-based ink actually changed color over time. 

They turned their fun discovery into time lapse ink pens (with the first ink that grows) and launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2016, which raised more than $60K. 

After their Kickstarter and experimenting with screen printing inks, they narrowed their focus on commercially viable inks. In 2017, they reached out to our team at EcoEnclose—primarily, as a fellow Colorado based company with a shared passion for sustainable innovation. 

They were eager to test their ink on our custom shipping boxes. We did them one better. We committed to including Living Ink’s Algae Ink™ as an offering to our customers- a ready base of eco-minded people who would jump at the chance to elevate the sustainability of their packaging. 

Now, it’s important to note that at the time, Living Ink was still in R&D—refining their ink formulation frequently and without a consistent manufacturing process and timeline. Our goal was to team up as innovation partners to test and refine the algae ink formulation until it was consistent, produce high-quality prints, and help Living Ink take the innovative formula to market as a better, more sustainable ink solution. 

What is Algae Ink™?

The first ink (in the global market) where the pigment itself is made from algae. The main carrier is water (so technically, it is a water-based algae pigment ink). And it’s biodegradable. 


Why Algae Ink™?

Our goal is to provide sustainable businesses with 100% eco-friendly packaging, down to the printer ink we use. The pigments in Algae Ink™ are actually renewable, made with algae cells. And algae is a breeze to grow, requiring just water, sunlight and CO2 to produce. Algae don’t need fertilizer, herbicides, and/or genetically modified seeds. As many people already know too well, algae grow practically anywhere there is water. This often makes it a total nuisance, but for the purposes of ink, it makes it a beautiful, sustainable life cycle.  

Testing Algae Ink™

Some of our first Algae Ink™ print jobs were for our customers Alluvian and Bedrock Sandals. We learned a lot from testing Algae Ink™ during these print jobs. Sometimes, the ink would foam or bubble or the coverage or depth of ink color wasn’t quite where we needed it to be. At times, we would mix our own water-based black ink with Algae Ink™ (for a 70% algae and 30% water-based mix) in order to achieve a high-quality final print. 

Rocky Mountain Oils Sustainable Shipping Box

Throughout these test prints, the Living Ink team was an amazing innovation partner. Oftentimes, they were on-site to work with us, troubleshoot and make adjustments on the fly. Our joint commitment to teamwork allowed us to deliver high-quality prints with Algae Ink™ and help Living Ink test and refine their formulation. 

Key findings: 

  • Our team has always appreciated working with Algae Ink™ (even before the kinks were ironed out) - it smells better, washes off easily, and is the most sustainable ink on the market.   

  • 18 months after our first print with Living Ink Technologies, we now offer black Algae Ink™ as a standard offering on our box prints and at no extra cost

  • In Q2 of 2019 alone, 50,000 boxes have been printed with algae ink! 

  • Since we first started working with Living Ink, we’ve used more than 100 gallons of algae ink and approximately 180 lbs of pigment, which is the same as removing the CO2 that would fill 1.46 millions of balloons. 

  • 9 billion lbs of ink are used worldwide. This is ~1.8 billion lbs of pigment (all of which is made with petroleum, even in water/soy-based ink). If we replaced that quantity with ALGAE instead of petroleum pigment, it would sequester the same amount of carbon as 17,085,850 old growth trees.

  • This algae ink formula is made from the waste of algae production facilities (e.g. if someone is growing algae to make algae oil, Living Ink is taking the WASTE from that process and turning it into a usable good).  

  • Three of our manufacturing partners have successfully and independently tested black Algae Ink™. 

  • We are experimenting with Algae Ink™ on our paper and poly mailers as well- Living Ink has been a great partner in creating formulations that will yield high-quality prints on these new substrates. 

  • Dr. Jason Quinn, an assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Colorado State University, performed a Life Cycle Assessment of the Production of Algal based Ink. Among the findings: Living Ink Technology has a very real possibility of scale up the technology into a carbon negative process. (See Figure 1) 

  • Finally, Living Ink is in the midst of developing new colors which we cannot wait to offer! 

Carbon Footprint

Figure 1 - Life Cycle Assessment of the Production of Algal based Ink shows Algae Ink is carbon negative. 

Algae ink pigment (the portion of the ink that remains on the package itself) is carbon negative. Alternatively, the majority of black inks in the world contain pigment made from carbon black (e.g. petroleum). So when you touch anything black, it is petroleum you are touching. On the other hand, when you touch a box printed with algae ink, you are literally touching algae cells (which sequester carbon).  

Partner With Us

As we continue to empower ecommerce brands to be a force for positive environmental change, that means we’re always in research and development so we can test new products and bring them to market, as well as empower businesses to make environmentally smart packaging choices. 

Let’s work together: 

  • Are you looking to use the most sustainable ink on the planet in your packaging?

  • Are you a manufacturer interested in advancing your capabilities and testing our new earth friendly materials or designs?

  • Are you developing a new earth friendly material, formulation or manufacturing process -- but aren’t sure how to bring it to market?

  • Are you a sustainable ecommerce business who prides yourself in making thoughtful, earth friendly decisions across your entire business? Do you stay on the cutting edge of sustainability?

If you're looking for a truly carbon negative ink, we’d love to work with you! Contact us at [email protected]. Continue reading to learn more about our specific innovations and partnerships. 

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