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How to go green with any colour ink: the root of plant-based printing

Posted on Mar 30, 2016 5:14:58 PM

Soy Field Bio-Based World NewsA break-through group of printers and researchers have been working on sustainable initiatives at the root of a global shift in materials used in global print production.

For generations green product researchers and industrialists have been exploring ways to improve sustainability and cost-management in the printing value-chain. Driven in part by health and safety requirements and wider environmental concerns that currently burden products using traditional petroleum-based inks, industry leaders may have found the perfect solution to replace existing, flawed processes in the printing industry.

After testing on 2,000+ different vegetable oil formulations researchers have declared the optimal alternative to petroleum in print management – The answer may surprise you.

Usually found on your plate not on your newspaper, this durable bio-based print material was nominated across studies as the surprising plant-based alternative that holds the answer to hampered printing supply chains. Numerous tests across the value chain from technical researchers, scientists and end-user brands revealed a clear winner for the silver bullet of printing materials – Soy ink.

Soy ink is a kind of ink made from soybeans. As opposed to traditional petroleum-based ink, soy-based ink is more environmentally friendly, is said to provide more accurate colours, and makes it easier to recycle paper. Importantly, it is low-cost, renewable, widely available and instantly sustainable, offering printers a rewarding alternative to moving away from petroleum-based inks.

Soy ink and the environment

Soybean agriculture cuts waste and global emissions - Almost half of all soybeans grown in the USA do not require waste water for irrigation and as a plant-based material. The soy ink itself is naturally low in VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), chemical compounds that evaporate and react to sunlight, its usage can therefore reduce emissions causing global air pollution from the atmosphere during its growth. Soy-based inks use extracted soy bean oil, the cultivation of which only uses 0.5% of the total energy required to produce soy ink. Soy ink is favoured for it’s ability to be produced domestically without the market instability that often plagues petroleum-based global trade. 

Soybean seed germplasm Bio-Based World NewsOnce harvested, the environmental benefits of soybeans do not stop there - Research teams at the Western Michigan University (@wmunews) have found that if used, soy ink can be removed more effectively from newsprint than petroleum-ink during de-inking, resulting in less paper fibre damage and a brighter paper. In addition, the waste is not considered hazardous and can be treated more safely, comprehensively and cost-effectively. Residue waste ink is considered a liquid industrial waste that requires proper disposal and as such many newspapers and is a global problem. With the advent of a soy alternative, large commercial printers are recycling their ink by mixing black ink with unused colour inks - This process reduces waste and results in a more cost-effective, efficient use of ink.

Rising product demand

Rising customer demand for soybean oil-based formulations over traditional kinds of ink has buoyed manufacturers and brands to make the shift to develop products with bio-based inks such as soy ink Already well established in America, soy ink is quickly gaining traction across international markets. There has been tremendous expansion particularly in Asian markets, especially in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The use of soy ink is also growing in Europe and Australia as a move towards sustainable products is becoming standard practice for global industrialists.

SoyInk Label Bio-Based World NewsAlready applied across a range of industrial products (identifiable by certified labels such as this US one, right), soybeans are a proven alternative to petroleum-based goods - Soybean can be found in bio-based products including oils, soap, cosmetics, resins, plastics, inks, crayons, solvents and clothing. Soybeans have even been used as fermenting stock in the manufacture of branded alcohols such as the innovative '3Vodka'. Soybean oil is also the primary source of biodiesel in United States markets, accounting for an impressive 80% of domestic biodiesel production.

Superior print

Newspaper Bio-Based World NewsOne of the key industries embracing soy ink in their products is the printed press and publishing houses. Soy ink is increasingly favoured by international publishers and newspaper outlets seeking to manage their supply chains in a more sustainable and cost-effective way. Soybean ink’s market testing has been overwhelmingly successful, driven out at first by a few trail-blazing publishers such as Iowa’s ‘The Gazette’ (@gazettedotcom) as far back as 1988, the board of directors of The US Newspaper Association of America (@NAACEO), American Newspaper Publishers Association and the American Soybean Association (@ASA_Soybeans) have in recent decades has challenged their own teams of technical staff to roll-out this alternative to petroleum-based ink across supply chains. Today, one-third of America's nearly 10,000 total newspaper printers use soy ink, a staggering shift towards bio-based alternatives. Presently, over 90% of these daily newspapers are printed with a soy ink palette of colours.

Colour Palette Bio-Based World NewsThe colour-based soy ink is favoured for its superior performance, its minimal environmental impact and its vibrant colours surpass traditional ink colour palettes. Soybean oil's clarity allows pigments to reach enhanced vivacity, resulting in deep, rich bright colours. While the black soy ink variant is about 25% more expensive than petroleum-based inks, printers report that they need less ink for more papers which makes it competitive in price next to traditional inks, meaning that it often takes less ink to get the improved, colour-rich results.

Another boon to soy ink’s usability in the printing press is that is has a greater rub resistance than traditional inks, making it an asset to newspaper readers that wish to read their news untroubled by the characteristic smudged finger-prints we associate with newspapers.

Another impressive feature of soy ink is its lithographic stability which equally reduces the amount of adjustments that a press operator needs to make during the production process. This lithographic stability is maintained throughout the entire print job meaning that the supplier rejects fewer copies because of inferior quality. The boiling point of soy ink is also lower, as such there is a diminished chance of the ink being transferred to the machine parts instead of the paper, an important feature when ink needs to be exposed to the heat of a laser printer or copy machine in production chains.

Soy ink, for all of these merits, is now being adopted across value-chains, from newspapers, magazines, commercial printing, packaging, business forms to everyday household items. Increasing numbers of manufacturers have made this shift to meet with the increased customer demand and a wider call for greater environmental awareness from consumer brands.

The growth of soy ink in global markets is not just about environmental sustainability, it is significant of a wider commercial and cultural movement to move industry back into domestic markets without the volatility of the world market or a reliance on processes that contribute to, as opposed to lessen, global emission rates.

The commercial value of sustainable ink alternatives is clear; "Brands will not be able to opt out of [being green],” said Lee Daley, chairman and chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi UK. “Companies which do not live by a green protocol will be financially damaged because consumers will punish them. In the longer term, I do not think they will survive.”

Bio-Based Products World (Europe)

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About the Author

Holly Williams
I explore the projects, policies and personalities that affect future development in the bio-based value chain. My features include global contributors include industry pioneers, scientists, policy-ma...read more