Ink is ubiquitous. You typically can’t go a few minutes without handling an item with printer ink - packaging, magazines, your keyboard, a pen. But few of us really understand anything about what goes into commercial printer 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 own practices - while certainly thoughtful, well intentioned, and rooted in in the best commercially available technologies today - are not necessarily the eco-friendly printer ink utopia we initially thought.
That is why we are so thrilled to partner with Living Ink Technologies, as they develop out a full line of Algae Inks™. Living Ink is developing the world’s first truly sustainable, renewable, biodegradable algae-derived printing ink. We can currently print with Algae Inks for black printing on our custom shipping boxes and completed the first ever commercial Algae Ink print in October 2017 for Alluvian, a small-batch manufacturer of aquatic botanical soap and sustainable grooming products.
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 or compost it or dump it down the drain, with no negative ramifications on the environment.
And yes, it is true that these sustainable inks have come a very long way to being more eco-friendly over the past fifty years (progress that makes us so grateful for the important role of regulation in our lives).
However, despite this progress, vegetable, soy, and water-based printer ink are still not 100% renewable, chemical free or harmless to the environment. There continues to be important and significant progress we can make.
To understand why let’s geek out a bit on what ink is and what it is made out of.
What is Commercial Printer Ink?
Colorant: This is what most people think of when they think “ink” but actually, the colorant typically makes up less than 20% by volume of ink. Colorants can be pigments or dyes, and 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. Stir mud around in water and it will make the water look brown, not because the mud dissolved, but because the mud particle is suspended in the liquid. In terms of 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 has pigments (not dyes). Pigments typically come from a variety of inorganic source materials. The vast majority of black ink (including vegetable, soy, 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? Colorant, 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 make up a fairly low percentage of an ink’s volume by weight, but, depending on the use case, can play a very important role. 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 is what gives it its unique properties and characteristics, which is basically to turn a liquid to a solid.
How to Evaluate Eco-Friendly Ink
Okay, so now we have a basic sense of what ink actually is, let’s talk sustainability. When we evaluate a self-proclaimed sustainable commercial printing ink, we think about a few different things.
- Are the ink ingredients renewable and produced in eco-friendly ways? Common non-renewable ingredients include petrol-based oils, minerals, and heavy metals. Common renewable ingredients include vegetable oils (such as soy, tung, and linseed) and water.
- What impact does the actual printing process with the ink have on workers and the environment? The main concern on the impact 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.
- What are the end of life implications of the printer ink? The maCan it be “de-inked” to allow printed materials to be easily recycled? If the ink is being 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)?
- 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 it is based on its 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 of nonrenewable resources in ink. About 50 years ago, petroleum-based ink became the norm. These once ubiquitous solvent-based inks are 100% VOCs and therefore led 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 petrol-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 not suitable 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.
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.
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 great 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 that have significantly changed the printing industry for the better.
Recycling of printed materials has also come a long way. When printed paper and other printed materials are recycled today, they are “deinked” before they go back into the manufacturing supply chain. There are a few different processed for de-inking, but the most common is called flotation deinking, 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, used when fillers and contaminants need to be removed, or bleaching when vibrant fibers are needed. While it is true that different inks respond differently to the various deinking processes, ultimately the process used on a bail of recycled materials will typically depend on the intended reuse of of the fibers in question rather than the type of ink that as used. The efficacy of the deinking process will be driven by the combination of the inks that were originally 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 deinked. 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, and cannot be de-inked well and are therefore rejected from most recycling streams.
So yes, great 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 actually 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, the vast majority of commercial printing inks (including the ones that EcoEnclose currently uses as its main ink options) are made with nonrenewable pigments. While some heavy metals are highly regulated and restricted, others (including some with known negative 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. In order to use the Soy Ink Seal (a seal overseen by Soy Growers of America) ink, between 6% and 40% of the ink must have soy (with the range varying based on the type of ink). For example, a screen printing ink can be a 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 questions 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 petrol-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/or 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.
- Pigments are nonrenewable, and in some cases, potentially hazardous materials are used.
- Inks labeled as “eco-friendly” can have a varying amount of VOCs and petroleum-based (as part of the vehicle and/or as additives), depending on the ink formulation.
- 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 typically be evaporated and then disposed of in the landfill. Other inks (even those labeled as “sustainable”) must be dropped off with hazardous materials waste management experts.
- Most printed paper materials can be deinked today. However, some (such as dyes) require bleaching, others (such as water-based inks) are difficult and may require chemical additions to the deinking process, and still others (such as solvent based inks on glossy surfaces) simply cannot be recycled and deinked. 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, but if composting makes sense for you, we believe 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 a variety of 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 a real list of what is contained in the ink. Ask for a list of substances in your ink and your manufacturer is likely to provide you with an extensive document that tells you nothing because the information is proprietary and therefore protected. If you are looking at your printing processes as an area you want to make more sustainable, you are likely to have no idea where to begin.
EcoEnclose utilizes flexographic printing for all our custom branded shipping boxes and custom branded mailers. Currently, 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 our corrugated printing. These water-based inks use soy (versus petroleum) derived resin.
Why Algae Inks™?
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 be partnering with Living Ink Technologies as they develop their line of Algae Inks. These algae printer inks will address the sustainability gaps outlined above.
Their pigments 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 thing!
This line of Algae Ink is 16% algae cells and 63% water. The remaining ingredients in the formulation are all VOC-free and 100% biodegradable, 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 actually safely dump it down the drain! Also, eco-conscious customers who want to send only the safest, purest items to their compost bin can also rejoice as these printer inks will biodegrade instead of becoming synthetic contaminants in a compost pile.
Living Ink Technologies has a black ink we can offer TODAY for printing on our custom shipping boxes! Note that because Living Ink Technology is still deeply embedded in their research and development phase and is not yet mass manufacturing these inks, we can guarantee that an algae ink order is printed with at least 50% algae inks (with the remainder in water based inks), depending on their supply and lead times.
Over time, we will expand to offer 100% Algae Ink options in a myriad of colors and to bring this ink option to our custom branded poly mailers as well. If you are interested in branding your shipping boxes with black Algae Ink, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
In the end, 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 develop a fully 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 partner that is transparent and honest about their gaps, and the progress they still need to make in developing the perfect, earth-friendly, highly functional printer ink.