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Sustainable Digital Printers Should Know These Eco-Friendly Inks

Water- and plant-based inks gaining popularity with environmental consciousness on the rise.

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AS THE AWARENESS of sustainability grows throughout the printing industry, the use of eco-friendly inks has grown immensely. Across the industry, and in the community it serves, we’re seeing a huge move toward sustainable practices.

The reason for this change in priorities is largely due to consumers and suppliers becoming more aware of the effect printing has on the environment and a desire to reduce their footprint. One of the easiest ways to reduce the environmental impact of your printing is to switch to eco-friendly inks.

Digital Printing

Digital textile printing has grown in popularity for those who are looking for more environmentally friendly processes. Digital printing technologies are, by nature, more sustainable than traditional dyeing methods and offer a way forward toward clean, efficient, profitable manufacturing.

One positive impact of digital printing is its use of smaller quantities of color, with typically only 10 percent of the volume being used when compared to screen printing. By using pigment inks, which use less than 10 litres of water per meter, there have been more than 40 billion litres of water saved in 2020.

Eco-Friendly Inks

Making use of eco-friendly inks is a big part of the move toward more sustainable printing methods. While no ink is 100-percent free from non-renewable resources or chemicals, modern inks are far better than traditional petroleum inks.

Inks are made up of the following compounds:

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  • Pigments, which is what gives ink its color.
  • Carriers, which is how the ink is transferred onto the substrate.
  • Additives, which improves drying time and resistance to smudging.

Traditional inks use a petroleum-based carrier and are known as solvent-based inks. When they dry, these solvents release volatile organic compounds into the air, which causes poor air quality and adverse health in print employees.

In a move to be more environmentally friendly, the industry has begun to use water- or plant-based inks instead of traditional petroleum-based inks. These new inks have changed the carriers used, while the additives and pigments have mainly remained the same.

These new plant or water-based carriers emit very few organic compounds while they dry and as a result, print shops typically report much better air quality and working conditions for their employees.

Basic Sustainable Inks

1. Algae Inks

Algae-based inks are a relatively new innovation and are often labeled as the most sustainable ink available. Algae inks might actually have a negative carbon footprint and are estimated to reduce carbon emissions by up to 200 percent. In addition, Algae inks are also resistant to UV light.

Unlike traditional inks, which use petroleum for their black pigment, algae inks make use of renewable algae cells as the basis of their black pigment. This technology is still fairly new, however, so there’s reason to believe that we’re just now starting to tap into its full potential. If you’re looking for the most eco-friendly printing ink out there, we encourage you to look at algae ink.

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2. Water-based Inks

If you’re looking for a sustainable ink, then you will need to stay away from any inks that are solvent or petroleum-based. Water-based inks are a great alternative to traditional inks, as they contain less volatile organic compounds and are made from simple ingredients.

Water-based inks are probably the oldest eco-friendly ink available, and they’re extensively used with highly absorbent substrates, like corrugated paperboard. Thanks to the extensive experience with water-based inks, there’s no sacrifice in quality for sustainability; prints continue to look great with water-based inks. Water-based inks are also simple to store and easy to clean.

3. Soy/Vegetable Inks

Soy- or vegetable-based inks are usually made from an organic compound, such as corn oil or soybeans in an effort to reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds released to improve air quality.

While soy or vegetable inks aren’t used as widely as water-based inks, they are a viable alternative for printers that are interested in more sustainable practices and minimizing their carbon footprint.

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In addition, the use of natural compounds in these inks makes them easier to recycle as they break down faster than conventional inks. Since the 1970s, newspapers have been printed largely with soy-based carbon black ink.

4. UV Inks

Finally, we will round out this list of eco-friendly inks with another great alternative to petroleum-based printing inks, UV Inks. UV inks do not contain any carrier at all because the ink is cured rather than dried.

While looking at UV inks, it’s a good time to address the distinction between volatile inks and curable inks. Volatile inks cure via absorption and are the most common type of ink. On the other hand, curable inks have very little absorption and dry using ultraviolet light.

These inks dry almost instantly under UV light and release 99.5 percent less volatile organic compounds. In addition, curable inks eliminate the need for additional coatings and protectants, unlike conventional volatile inks.

Summary

While all forms of textile printing have an environmental impact, it’s clear that digital textile printing methods combined with newer, eco-friendly inks can help reduce waste, pollution, and the amount of volatile organic compounds released.

Substrates and inks are a big part of the push for sustainable printing practices, however, they aren’t the only thing you need to consider. The end life of your product and the processes and equipment you use can also play a significant role.

By utilizing the most sustainable printing technologies, types of ink, and print materials, you can help reduce pollution, waste, and energy consumption during production and significantly cut down on your environmental impact.

Alex Withers represents digital fabric printing specialists, Forest Digital (www.forestdigital.co.uk).

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