Environmentally friendly inks have been attracting a lot of attention in recent years. A myriad of solutions has hit the marketplace, promising less water use, renewable raw materials or organic components. While many of the claims are true, a closer look at the environmental impact of the so-called green inks reveal a different picture.

“Printing has an environmental impact, yet in 2014 it has generally improved on previous years with less waste, lower energy and water consumption associated”, says Sean Smyth, Print Consultant at Smithers Pira in an email interview. “However, some of the claims do not really stand up”, he points out, adding that a neutral scientific approach would be useful but so far, there is no single accepted source to conduct such a review. Information about the ecological value of inks is often provided by printers or ink manufacturers and in many instances, they use environmental performance as part of their marketing, which can lead to misconceptions.

As European Printing Ink Association (EuPIA) highlights in its publication “The environmental impact of printing inks”, some terms like “water-based” or “vegetable oil based systems” carry positive associations, yet in some instances, these products have less of an overall beneficial environmental impact than previously thought.

The EuPIA paper contains a chart that gives a broad overview of the environmental effects of different printing technologies, using a traffic-light color scheme. EuPIA emphasizes that this table only shows the relative impact and may be simplistic in some of its generalizations. To assess the environmental consequences of each ink and printing technique, a life-cycle analysis is necessary, taking into account raw materials, manufacture, application, in-use and disposal.

Print analyst Smyth provides an example of what a thorough analysis may reveal: “The replacement of solvent by water-based inks seems to be environmentally beneficial but may require a higher energy input to dry, resulting in an overall higher carbon footprint.”

Likewise, the use of soy ink can have some unintended consequences: “Petroleum resources are seen as bad, but the use of renewable resources has led to change in agriculture away from food crops in some regions, with forestry clearance for cash crops to yield bio-oils, solvents and resins and this can lead to medium to long-term damage”, says Smyth.

There are also varying specifications for different inks regarding the amount of soy the ink needs to contain to qualify for the Soy Seal logo from the American Soybean Association ranging from six to 40 %. The reason for this is technical: If a specific ink contains too much soy oil, it will not dry properly.

There have also been concerns about heavy metals in inks. The four toxic metals cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, and mercury are covered by the EuPIA exclusion list, which is based on a voluntary self-regulation effort by the industry. EuPIA concedes that trace levels of these materials may still be present in raw materials but only in concentrations below levels that trigger classifications as a hazardous material.

After looking at a few of these issues, it quickly becomes clear that no single perfect solution exists.  “As with all environmental issues there are interest groups and pressure groups pushing their views,” says Smyth.  “What is needed is an independent scientific approach to determine the real cradle-to-grave analysis, comparing the performance of different types of ink.”

And even this may not provide one clear answer as several factors such as energy use in the drying process vary depending on the substrate. Still, some progress regarding the environmental impact of inks has been made in recent years. The rise of Corporate Social Responsibly and Sustainability Reporting reflects a change in attitude of the big brands and organizations and it is likely that the demand for environmentally friendly solutions will drive further innovations.