Eco-Friendly Ink

Another environmentally friendly decision you can make when it comes to printing is the use of eco-friendly ink. I hope the information I collected will shed some light on this topic for you and help you with your next print!

Let’s start with some history…

Early inks were made from plant-based oils. But the supply of vegetable oils was too limited by the early 1970’s so that manufacturers had to use petroleum based products. However with rising prices in the 1980 alternative oils were explored and soybean oil was successfully tested in 1987. Todays ink manufacturers are using both technologies, depending on cost, paper qualities and customer requirements.

Printing inks basically consist of four primary components.

Varnish (referred to as the “vehicle”), a carrier medium (such as water, solvent, or oil), colorant (pigment or dyes) and additives. Most conventional solvents used in the printing industry are VOC’s, and account for the majority of the 101,537 tons of VOC’s emitted per year by the printing industry (EPA, 1995).*

According to EPA’s National Emissions Inventories, the domestic printing industry ranks fifth in volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) emissions among major industries. To put this ranking in perspective, considering that the automobile industry ranks sixth, behind printing.*

* Source:

Volatile organic compounds

VOC’s are the solvents used in the inks that contain carbon and evaporate into the air both during the printing process and when an ink container is opened. Petroleum-based inks release a high level of VOCs as they dry. They are hazardous and present numerous health concerns, affect the ozone layer, contribute to smog, and is a possible carcinogen.

While some vegetable-based inks still emit some VOCs (still less than one-fifth of the amount of VOCs emitted by petroleum-based inks), there are now inks available at zero percent VOC emission. Beyond the VOC issue, another benefit is that vegetable-based inks are easier to remove during recycling’s de-inking process than petroleum-based inks. It also helps conserve non-renewable petroleum oils.

Another component is heavy metals in inks. They can form sludge during the recycling process of paper, and will be landfilled or incinerated. One major concern is that those metals can leak into ground water, which could lead to a serious health issues in both humans and wildlife.

While vegetable oils are a renewable resource, the pigment suspended in those oils is an often a toxic ingredient for which there are few substitutes. Certain colors of ink, even vegetable-based ink, contain heavy-metal pigments. These heavy-metals, like cadmium, barium, and copper are associated with various health hazards. If you choose colored ink, ask the printer for a color without heavy metals.

The most important vegetable inks are mainly produced from soybean and linseed oil. Each type of oil comes with its own advantages. For example, soybean oil is relatively clear so it can provide more vivid colors than petroleum-based oils. Vegetable-based inks often employ a blend of oils to maximize quality and minimize drying times.

So how does soybean oil inks compare to petroleum-based inks?

Soy inks spread 15 percent further than petroleum-based inks. Their vehicle (the oil) is clearer, so less ink is needed, and the colours actually are brighter as well. The need for less ink offsets its slightly higher cost, which is about 10 percent higher than petroleum-based ink. However, as with all products, all soy inks are not created equal. Ask your print suppliers if they have tested inks from different companies on press, tried them with various printing processes, techniques and paper stocks to determine which inks work best.

There are different types of printing inks available for lithographic printing. Inks are made up of various ingredients: pigments (organic or inorganic) which create the color, an oil base liquid that is mixed with the pigment and then dries, and a binding agent made of either organic resins or polymers.
Request soy or vegetable based inks for offset printing or low VOC toner when printing digitally. Avoid the use of metallic or fluorescent inks as these inks contain more harmful elements in the pigments. In some cases including heavy metals, barium, copper and zinc. Many printers use only soy and/or vegetable-based inks.

Alright, so let’s recap what you can do when it comes to printing ink.

  • Avoid metallic or fluorescent inks, they can’t be recycled and cause heavy-metal pollution.
  • Also avoid coatings like laminate and soft-touch, they are made of plastic and break down into micro-plastics.
  • If possible, always go for eco-friendly ink aka. plant-based instead of petroleum.
  • Ask your printer what options there are for the printing process you are requesting and what experiences they have.
  • As mentioned above, soy ink can be more expensive, but that’s compensated by the reduced amount of ink needed.

Bottom line, you should always use eco-friendly ink if you can. But even though vegetable-based inks are more environmentally friendly, they still contain harmful ingredients and so for all inks the less the better. Something to keep in mind when creating and designing print material or packaging.


Check out this article for more detailed information on eco-friendly ink.

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