How Algae Ink™ Is Changing the Industry

How Algae Ink™ Is Changing the Industry

Posted on Jun 27th 2022

Sustainable printing inks for packaging

Ink is ubiquitous. You typically can’t go a few minutes without handling an item with printing ink - packaging, magazines, your keyboard, or a pen. However, few of us understand what goes into commercial printing ink and its impact on the planet and people. In our research, we’ve been surprised by what we’ve learned and what the industry glosses over. We’ve come to recognize that even our practices - though thoughtful, well-intentioned, and rooted in the best commercially available technologies today - are not necessarily the eco-friendly ink utopia we initially thought.

That is why we have been thrilled to partner with Living Ink Technologies since 2017, as they have been developing a full line of Algae Ink™ printing inks. Living Ink has invented the world’s first truly sustainable, renewable, biodegradable algae-derived printing ink

Algae Ink™ for packaging

When we announced our first “Algae Ink™ Print,” a few folks said -- “But what about soy, water or vegetable inks? Aren’t these sustainable printer ink options already available?”

The term “soy-based” or “water-based” ink sounds great. It sounds like you can safely eat the ink, compost it, or dump it down the drain with no negative environmental ramifications.

And yes, these sustainable inks have come a long way to being more eco-friendly over the past fifty years (progress that makes us so grateful for the critical role of regulation in our lives).

However, despite this progress, vegetable, soy, and water-based printer inks are still not 100% renewable, chemical-free, or harmless to the environment. We can still make significant progress.

Let’s geek out about ink and its materials to understand why.

What is Commercial Printer Ink?

Colorant: This is what most people think when they think of “ink,” but the colorant typically makes up less than 20% by volume of ink. Colorants can be pigments or dyes; printing inks almost always use pigments. What’s the difference? Dyes are soluble; pigments are suspended in liquids. Think about salt versus mud. Stir salt in water, and it will dissolve, and if salt were a dye, it would change water to its color. Stirring mud around in the water will make the water look brown, not because the mud has dissolved but because the mud particle is suspended in the liquid.

Regarding coloring, their substrates, dyes, and pigments operate differently. With dyes, the colorant chemically binds to a material. With pigments, colorants physically bind or stick to a material.

The majority of commercial printing ink contains pigments (not dyes). Pigments typically come from a variety of inorganic sources. Most black ink (including vegetable, soy, and water-based ink) uses Carbon Black as a colorant. Carbon Black is a material produced by the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products such as FCC tar, coal tar, ethylene cracking tar, and a small amount of vegetable oil. Other pigments come from minerals such as cobalt, titanium, cadmium, and zinc.

Bottom line? Colorants, or pigments in the case of most inks, are made with nonrenewable resources, even in water, soy, and vegetable-based ink.

Vehicle: This makes up the vast majority of ink by volume - up to 65% or more. The vehicle or carrier is the liquid component of ink that holds and then binds the pigment to the printed surface. The process and speed by which a vehicle is absorbed and “set” on its printing surface have a massive impact on the quality and long-term strength of the ink. Some inks are designed to dry through absorption of the vehicle into the surface, others by evaporation of the vehicle, others by oxidation (a process by which the solvent or oil absorbs oxygen and undergoes polymerization and solidification), and others by cold setting (the ink is applied warm and dries as it cools).

Additives: These typically comprise a relatively low percentage of an ink’s volume by weight but can play a vital role depending on the use case. Different additives have different functions. Some support the flow and lubrication of ink through the printing mechanism. Some aid the drying process. Some help inks resist scuffing, running, and slipping off the substrate. Some act as pH buffers to give balance and control between the ink and fountain solution. The combination of additives in an ink formulation gives it its unique properties and characteristics, basically turning a liquid into a solid.

How to Evaluate Eco-Friendly Ink

Okay, so now we have a basic sense of what ink is. Let’s talk about sustainability. We think about a few things when evaluating a self-proclaimed sustainable commercial printing ink.

  1. Are the ink ingredients renewable and produced in eco-friendly ways? Common non-renewable ingredients include petroleum-based oils, minerals, and heavy metals. Common renewable ingredients include vegetable oils (such as soy, tung, and linseed) and water.
  2. What impact does the actual printing process with the ink have on workers and the environment? The main concern about the effect of inks on human and environmental health is related to VOCs or volatile organic compounds. Volatile organic compounds are materials that contain carbon and evaporate into the air during the printing process. When evaporated in the presence of nitrogen oxides (NOx), these VOCs form ground-level ozone — the primary component of smog, which acts as a lung irritant, causing health problems for all life, including animals and plants. For that reason, VOCs are regulated under the federal Clean Air Act and similar state laws.
  3. What are the end-of-life implications of the printer ink? Can it be “de-inked” to allow printed materials to be easily recycled? If the ink is used for compostable products, does the ink leave any synthetic or toxic residues in the compost? How does it behave in the landfill? In the ocean (if its material is discarded as litter)?
  4. Can unused printer ink be disposed of easily without hazardous implications on the land and water? There is always some ink that needs to be disposed of - changing ink colors in the printer well between jobs, old ink that will no longer print well, etc. Inks are considered “hazardous waste,” and the optimal process for disposing of them is based on their formulation and the capabilities of the local waste management company. Some ink can be evaporated into a solid and then thrown away. Other ink must be disposed of with an authorized chemical waste disposer.

How Sustainable are Printing Inks Today?

Eco-friendly printer inks have come a very long way since 1970.

The industry has shifted away from petroleum-based inks, leading to reductions in both VOCs and the reliance on nonrenewable resources in ink. About 50 years ago, petroleum-based ink became the norm. These once ubiquitous solvent-based inks are 100% VOCs, leading to poor working conditions in print shops and poor community air quality. The oil crisis in the 1970s led chemical companies to explore alternatives to petroleum-based inks, and soy, linseed, and tung oil started becoming more common as ink vehicles to replace traditional solvents. The 1990 Amendment of the Clean Air Act set limits on VOCs, a move that strengthened the case for soy and vegetable-based inks. A study by the University of Illinois showed that soy-based inks emitted less than 20% of VOCs than petroleum-based inks. Additionally, print shops reported drastic improvements in their VOCs, hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), and overall air quality.

Soy and vegetable inks are unsuitable for all printing processes, including flexography. As such, over the past several decades, water-based ink technology (which works well for flexographic printing) has also improved drastically. These aqueous inks use water as a primary vehicle ingredient and, depending on their formulation, could have very minimal VOCs.

Radiation and UV or UB (electron beam) curable inks have also become more common. These inks are cured by polymerization on exposure. They, therefore, have no solvents and emit no VOCs.

In addition to these reductions in nonrenewable ink ingredients and VOCs, the printing ink industry has virtually eliminated the use of known, highly toxic heavy metals. In 1989, the Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation and state laws based on the Model were established to prohibit the intentional use of any amount of lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium in any packaging and packaging component.

So yes, no one can deny the significant progress that has been made in ink technology over the past five decades, especially around the movement from petroleum to renewable materials, reduction in VOCs, minimization of highly toxic heavy metals, and vastly improved human health and working conditions in print shops. We are grateful for the Clean Air Act and other regulations significantly improving the printing industry.

Recycling of printed materials has also come a long way. When printed paper and other printed materials are recycled today, they are “de-inked” before returning to the manufacturing supply chain. There are a few different processes for de-inking. Still, the most common is flotation de-inking, which relies on air bubbles to carry ink and other contaminants to the water surface with the help of surfactants (detergents) and other chemicals. 

Other processes include washing when fillers and contaminants need to be removed or bleaching when vibrant fibers are required. While it is true that different inks respond differently to the various de-inking processes, the method used on a bale of recycled materials will typically depend on the intended reuse of the fibers in question rather than the type of ink used. 

The efficacy of the de-inking process will be driven by the combination of the inks that were initially used on the printed material, the age of the printed material, the substrate mix (i.e., corrugated versus computer paper), and the age of the printing (i.e., how long the ink has been on the printed material before it was recycled). Newspapers, which today are typically printed with soy-based inks and have a short life span before they are recycled, are easily de-inked. On the other hand, glossy wrapping paper requires solvent-based (petroleum) inks because soy-based inks don't dry quickly enough on the slick surface, cannot be de-inked well, and are therefore rejected from most recycling streams.

So yes, significant progress has been made! Then, what’s our beef?

Our main issue is the industry’s lack of transparency and how it has adopted terms that conjure inks that are more benign than they are. It is easy to think that water-based or soy/vegetable-based inks are almost 100% benign, but once you dig into the various components of the ink, it is clear that this is not the case!

First, let’s consider pigments. Today, most commercial printing inks (including the ones that EcoEnclose currently uses as its conventional ink options) are made with nonrenewable pigments. While some heavy metals are highly regulated and restricted, others (including some with known adverse health impacts) are not and are often used in pigments.

Then, let’s look at the vehicle. Something can be “soy-based” or “vegetable-based” and still have petroleum products in the vehicle. To use the Soy Ink Seal (a seal overseen by Soy Growers of America) ink, between 6% and 40% must have soy (with the range varying based on the type of ink). For example, a screen printing ink can be soy-based ink with just 25% of its volume by weight from soy oil, leaving 75% of the ingredient list open for question.

Additionally, the vegetable-based oils in question utilize a significant amount of water and petroleum to grow, harvest, process, and transport. Soybean agriculture in the US typically utilizes genetically modified seeds. A single acre of soybeans, which produces 70 gallons of soy oil, requires 385 pounds of lime, 43 pounds of pesticides and fertilizers, 700,000 gallons of water, and 5 gallons of fuel. More chemicals and petroleum-based materials are needed to process soy and other vegetable oils. For example, to extract oil from soy flakes, they must be soaked in a petroleum-based solvent, hexane.

Finally, water and vegetable/soy-based printer inks have a myriad of additives, some of which can be petroleum-based, toxic, and VOCs. Common additives include cobalt drier, formaldehyde, tung oil reducer, and polyethylene (petrol-based) wax.

To summarize, though today’s environmentally friendly printing inks represent a massive improvement from traditional solvent-based counterparts, they still aren’t where we want them to be.

  1. Pigments are nonrenewable, and in some cases, potentially hazardous materials are used.
  2. Depending on the ink formulation, inks labeled as “eco-friendly” can have varying amounts of VOCs and are petroleum-based (as part of the vehicle and as additives).
  3. No commercial printing ink can be “washed down the drain” because all formulations contain chemicals that do not belong in the water supply. Inks with no VOCs can be evaporated and disposed of in the landfill. Other inks (even those labeled “sustainable”) must be dropped off with hazardous materials waste management experts.
  4. Most printed paper materials can be de-inked today. However, some (such as dyes) require bleaching, and others (such as water-based inks) are difficult and may require chemical additions to the de-inking process. Still, others (such as solvent-based inks on glossy surfaces) simply cannot be recycled and de-inked. From a composting perspective, no commercial printer ink is fully biodegradable. Yes, you can certainly toss your newspaper or printed box in a compost bin, but since the ink is rarely 100% veg, soy, or water-based, it won't fully biodegrade, and a small amount (or large amount, in the case of solvent-based inks) of contaminants are left behind. This is yet another reason we recommend recycling packaging before composting it. Still, if composting makes sense for you, this is a better end-of-life scenario (even with the contaminants left behind) if the alternative is to send them to the landfill.

We recognize that various chemicals are currently required to make the rich, nuanced color palette we have come to expect in our lives.

We’re not necessarily outraged by the fact that these ingredients are used and needed right now and that we haven’t yet achieved the perfect printer ink but rather by the fact that these nuances are often glossed over and that it is virtually impossible to find out what is in an ink formulation.

Request an MSDS sheet, and you will find any regulated safety notes and guidelines, but you won’t find an accurate list of what is in the ink. Ask for a list of substances in your ink, and your manufacturer will likely provide you with an extensive document that tells you nothing because the information is proprietary and, therefore, protected. If you look at your printing processes as an area you want to make more sustainable, you will likely have no idea where to begin.

EcoEnclose utilizes flexographic printing for all our custom shipping boxes and custom mailers. Water-based ink is the most suitable and safe option for flexography (soy-based and other vegetable-based inks are not an option). Therefore, we use Flint Group’s HydroSoy™ line of inks for corrugated printing. These water-based inks use soy (versus petroleum) derived resin.

Why Algae Ink™?

Our goal is to provide sustainable businesses with 100% eco-friendly packaging, down to the printer ink we use. That is why we are thrilled to partner with Living Ink Technologies as they develop their line of Algae Ink™ printing inks. These algae-based inks will address the sustainability gaps outlined above.

Their pigment, Algae Black™,is renewable and made with algae cells! Algae is a breeze to grow, requiring just water, sunlight, and CO2. It doesn’t need fertilizer, herbicides, or genetically modified seeds. As many people already know too well, algae grows practically anywhere there is water. This often makes it a total nuisance, but for ink, it makes it a beautiful, sustainable thing!

Living Ink’s line of Algae Ink™ includes water-based inks like Flexographic Algae Ink™ and Screen Algae Ink™ and soy-based Offset Algae Ink™. Outside of algae cells, water, or vegetable oils, the remaining ingredients in the formulation are all VOC-free, and Living Ink Technologies is working hard to make them 100% renewable as well.

And, how’s this for environmentally friendly? If we have unusable Algae Ink™ in our warehouse, we can safely dump it down the drain!

Living Ink Technologies has a black ink we can offer TODAY for printing on our custom shipping boxes, custom paper mailers, and custom poly mailers.

Additionally, apparel brands can utilize black Algae Ink™ for screen printing. Algae Ink™ is also available as UV-curable inks, which are an excellent solution for printing on rigid plastic packaging.

Custom packaging with black Algae Ink™

Over time, we will expand to offer Algae Ink™ options in a myriad of colors as well as additional pigment and printing technologies.

If you want to brand your shipping boxes or mailers with black Algae Ink™, please email for more information.

Ultimately, what we love most about Living Ink Technologies goes far beyond the product line they are developing. We are ecstatic to find a commercial printer ink partner whose first and foremost mission is to create an entirely safe, renewable, biodegradable ink line. They aren’t trying to gloss over what is hard about sustainable inks - balancing eco-conscious decisions with all of the functional requirements of a commercial ink line. Instead, they are a transparent and honest partner about their gaps and the progress they still need to make in developing the perfect, earth-friendly, highly functional printer ink.

Living Ink Technologies and EcoEnclose's progress with black Algae Ink™ is due, in large part, to the innovative brands willing to leap into untested but ecologically superior technologies. Thank you for being a collective force for positive change.

The Journey of Black Algae Ink