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Environmentally Friendly Screen Printing Inks

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Your T-shirts say more than that you like Justin Bieber. On each of your tees, your environmental impact is literally written in ink.

Traditionally, choosing the right ink for your tee has been a combination of quality, ease of use, and price. However, for designers and consumers today, the environmental impact of our choices matter more than ever before. If you’re looking for eco-friendly screen printing that doesn’t affect quality or price, what are your options?

Screen printing companies large and small are jostling for pole position in the “green” and “eco-friendly” ink markets. However, because these claims are largely unregulated, just because a product or a company claims to be “green” or “eco-friendly” doesn’t mean that it actually is.

Knowing this, it’s important for us not just to claim that one kind of screen printing ink has a lower environmental footprint than another. We need to break down, systematically, the many factors that go into making a responsible choice.

Let’s start by talking about the ink that remains the industry standard today: plastisol ink.

The Environmental Impact of Plastisol Ink

environmental impact

Plastisol ink, which is a plastic-based ink often used for mass-produced apparel, is still the screen printing industry standard due to its ease of use. To understand the environmental impact of plastisol ink, let’s look at its basic chemical components.

Plastisol’s chemical base is made up of something called polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), which is composed of a plasticizer liquid and PVC resin (i.e. harmful chemicals). PVC is valued for its ease of use and versatility in mass production. However, making it results in the release of the chemicals polychlorinated biphenyl (or PCB) and dioxin. Both of these chemicals are, at the very least, highly toxic, and, in some cases, carcinogenic according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to the toxicity of its chemical base, the chemicals used in the manufacturing and maintenance of plastisol ink have potentially detrimental effects on both small-scale and wide scale environmental health. Specifically, most plastisols contain something called phthalates.

Phthalates are added to plastisol inks to transform a naturally hard plastic into a soft, malleable one. However, like PCB and dioxin, phthalates have also been shown to be carcinogenic. In addition, there has been a lot of research on the damage phthalates can do to the reproductive system.

Not only are phthalates potentially harmful to human health, they’re also released into our ecosystem during the printing and curing process, resulting in cumulative harm to our environment. It doesn’t just stop in the screen printing shop either, plastisol-made garments continue to release phthalate toxins when exposed to heat, such as sustained sunlight, and even just a high-powered dryer.

Finally, in addition to the toxicity of plastisol’s chemical base and its added phthalates, the specialized chemicals screen printing shops need to use to clean up plastisol inks can also be extremely toxic if not disposed of properly.

Essentially, plastiol screen printing ink impacts the environment in every stage of its life cycle, from making it, to using it, to laundering it. But is the alternative to plastisol ink, water based ink, any better for us and our environment?

The Environmental Impact of Water Based Ink

water based ink

Water based ink, which is made by suspending a 100% biodegradable pigment into a water base, is gaining popularity within the screen printing industry due to its combination of quality, affordability, and eco-friendliness.

As a compound, water-based ink is much more gentle on the environment than plastisol ink. It simply doesn’t contain any of the toxic chemicals of its plastisol counterparts (no PVC, no phthalates). Instead it’s comprised of naturally occurring substances.

Because of this, water based ink is much less risky for printers, consumers, and the environment. In addition, because it’s water soluble, no specialized chemicals are required for its clean up. This keeps potentially harmful substances out of our waste and water supply.

It’s important to remember that, though the components of water based ink are certainly less harmful to the environment than those of Plastisol Inks for Screen Printing, the ultimate eco-footprint of water based ink has as much to do with how the ink is handled, stored, and cleaned as it does the fact that it is much less toxic than plastisol ink.

Water based inks are only eco-friendly when you use and dispose of them in a responsible manner. To put it simply, you can’t go halfway, you have to finish the job. Even the best, most gentle industrial inks and cleaning products are still chemicals. Most of the long term ecological damage of screen printing is a result of the waste in cleanup, not the process or the chemicals. This is why it’s so important to learn how to safely dispose of screen printing ink.


environmental impact

Consumers now know the effects that screen printing chemicals have on the environment and their own health. For screen printers, this means we must consider mother nature in addition to quality and price. We need to review our processes, from our products to our equipment to our waste, and look for ways to be environmental advocates.

This is printing. It all starts with the ink. Despite its convenience and ease of use, the persistence of plastisol inks in this business is irresponsible to our climate and to ourselves. Water based ink products, when used correctly, can maintain the quality that our consumers demand, while also forwarding the goal of being stewards of the ecosystem we all share.

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Alex Hales

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