Why a Sustainable Design Revolution Must and Will Happen Part 2

No items found
| May 15, 2008

Sustainable ink and the graphic designer
“Sustainable design gives an authentic value to the consumer.”– Katarina Graffman (Ethnographer)

In the second portion of this continuing essay, I turn my focus to another integral component to the graphic designer’s daily language: ink. Ink was developed, for commercial purposes, by the Chinese thousands of years ago and was constructed of various mixtures of pine soot, lamp oil and animal gelatin. Color was added through combining berries, minerals and a variety of plants/roots. As commercial printing (as we now know it) grew in demand from economic expansion fueled by the Industrial Revolution, the work of Johannes Gutenberg (moveable type printing in 1439) was continued by Friedrich Gottlob Koenig (flatbed cylinder printing press in 1810) and by Heidelberg’s “Tiegel” press (1914) which allowed for printing on a mass production scale. Ink for printing was typically made from burned rosin (pine/plant resin) suspended in linseed and other vegetable oils. This variety of agro-based ink dominated the market until the early 1960s when cheaper and better performing petroleum-based inks were introduced to the printing arena.

However, petroleum-based inks pose a host of hazards to our natural environment. They contain a range of heavy metals (barium, copper, zinc) that leach into and contaminate the soil and groundwater. Petroleum-based inks also emit VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air. VOCs are hazardous irritants to print shop workers and contribute to our world’s smog issues.

In order to minimize health risks to print workers and ourselves, I have put together this simple “recipe” that creates a framework to help you choose the most sustainable inks for your next print job.

First of all, it is important to define what a sustainable ink should be. Sustainable ink should:
– Reduce emissions (VOCs)
– Create less toxic waste
– Use renewable resources
– Be readily de-inkable/reusable (C2C).
– Be biodegradable/Minimized in use
– Not include: additives or finishings – thermography, foil stampings, varnishes, and laminates (hard to de-ink/recycle)

Vegetable-based Inks
The best option on the market at this moment is Vegetable-based ink as it contains less VOCs, and IPA (Isopropyl Alcohol) solvents than petroleum-based inks. If you also print using waterless or alcohol-free methods, you will lessen your environmental impact. Some vegetable ink could contain some portion of Soya oil.

Soya-based Inks
These inks are also agricultural-based and contain less VOCs than petroleum-based inks (mineral-based), however it is hard to determine if the soybeans used were GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) in origin. Moreover, there is not a universal standard for what “soy-based” inks mean. One could have one drop of soy oil to 100% soy oil content. However, it is important to mention that both vegetable and Soya-based inks could contain petroleum. And obviously, unless otherwise specifically mentioned, these inks are manufactured and shipped using fossil fuels. Ideally, their method of manufacture and shipping would be local and renewable. Soy-based inks would be the next best option after vegetable.

UV Inks
UV Inks are a mixed bag. They typically use less solvents and contain small amounts of VOCs, however they are not from renewable sources.

It is best to avoid petroleum-based inks as they emit higher VOCs (typically 25-40% distillates in printing) and is not renewable. Also avoid finishes like foil stamping, varnishes, and laminates as they are hard to de-ink and consequently make it difficult to recycle the paper.


No items found


This blog is powered by Sessions College, the leading online school of visual arts.

NoD Newsletter

Enhance your inbox with our weekly newsletter.