A Welcome Breath of Fresh Air

Posted: May 6, 2014 by
Dion Zuess

It's press check time, and I brace myself as I walk into the pressroom and prepare for that very industry specific scent of inks, solvents, paper, press washes, and equipment. I'm eager to see the results of this press run, as the FSC-certified printer I am working with has recently switched to ink formulations with low VOC vegetable-based inks for daily use.

Although soy-based inks have been around for years, some new formulations of soy and other agri-based inks have lower VOCs than ever before. At this year's Graph Expo in Chicago, several ink manufacturers showcased new low-VOC or VOC-free ink formulations, responding to customers' requests for high visual quality and low environmental impact printing. According to a recent survey conducted by PIA/GATF, more than 90% of printers believe that their customers will require "green" printing in the future.

In truth, no ink formulations for press (or solvents to clean up afterwards) provide the perfect environmental choice. But the recent formulations of low-VOC or VOC-free vegetable-based inks are a welcome development for graphic designers, print professionals and ink manufacturers alike.

Why the focus on low-VOC inks?

VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, lead to the formation of ozone when released into the atmosphere, and are a major component of pollution, urban smog, and related health problems. Mostly derived from petroleum, VOCs are found not only in inks and coatings, but also in solvents and press washes. The amount of VOCs emitted depends on the type of ink formulations and printing process used.

Inks made from renewable sources, such as vegetable-based inks or agri-based inks, contain varying percentages of vegetable oils rather than non-renewable resources like petroleum. While linseed oil, soya oil, and canola oil are the most common types of vegetable oil used, you may find chinawood (tung) oil, oiticica oil, cottonseed, and castor oil in many vegetable ink formations.

The amount of vegetable oil content varies, typically from 20% to 100% of oil in the formulation. Sometimes petroleum products are still included, to assist with the drying process; however, agri-based inks do not have the VOC levels found in typical petroleum-based solvent-based formulations, which can be as high as 25% to 40%.

The next time you prepare to go to press, keep air quality in mind and ask your printer about vegetable oil-based inks with verified (EPA TEST Method 24) low-VOC content. By specifying low-VOC or VOC-free inks you can make a positive step for the environment—not only globally, but locally, right there inside the print house. VOCs are known irritants for print shop workers, and lead to adverse health effects. The use of low-VOC inks and solvents contribute to a healthier workplace—a conscious design and production choice that leaves all of us breathing easier.

Sustainability Tips for Inks

1. Choose inks made from renewable sources, such as vegetable or agri-based inks.
2. Specify low-VOC inks – Some new ink formulations are lower in VOCs than earlier soy-based ink formulations.
3. Ask your printer about barium-free inks, and ensure that inks for children's packaging meet ASTM specifications for safety.
4. Design for reuse and recycling – Keep ink coverage to a minimum. Paper must be de-inked before the pulp can be recycled into new paper.
5. Avoid additives or finishings – Thermography, foil stampings, varnishes, and laminates can be harder to de-ink and add contaminants to the de-inking sludge.
6. Explore other ink options for packaging – Paper and paperboard readily accept water based inks and coatings. Water based inks can be a viable option for flexography and reduce costs from lower emission treatment of inks.

Printers' National Environmental Assistance Center:

PIM Greater Printer Environmental Initiative:

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership:

Dion Zuess provides eco-conscious design for visionary businesses who share a caring commitment to the environment, good causes, and the community. An eco-designer for over a decade, Zuess also acts as a consultant, guiding other design professionals, groups, and businesses with transitioning into the fast growing green market. Her award-winning studio ecoLingo ( is dedicated to green design and blends design ecology, style, and sustainability.