The Mötley Crüe of Colour

The truth about printing inks

Ah, the smell of a newly delivered print job. Show me a designer who doesn’t relish that distinct odour. It’s kinda like the kid with his head hanging out the window at the gas station, inhaling deeply. The two are related because of that good ol’ petroleum hit.

You can still get that whiff of petroleum today despite the fact that we’ve moved away from petroleum-based inks in general. Even when printing with vegetable-based inks like soy inks, a carrier is still needed to “carry” the pigment, dye or colourant to the substrate material. The smell that attracts designers and children alike is that petroleum-based carrier. Some printing presses require more, some less. Certainly floods of colour require greater amounts and each of the fore-mentioned scenarios will vary with the printer. The percentage of carrier may be as low as two per cent or as high as 30 per cent.

Designers take time to reflect upon and select perfect colours but may not consider the chemical makeup of these colours. Many pigment formulas are benign, but some are downright nasty. Most prevalent in ink formulas today are heavy metals barium and copper (barium-based red lake C, copper-phthalocyanine blue and copper-phthalocyanine green). When heavy metal inked products are recycled, the heavy metals leach and enter ground water. Just pick up your Pantone® Formula Guide and you’ll find colours that include the higher percentages of warm red, process blue, and green—colours and derivative colours that include heavy metals. So look for formulas without those colours and you’ll be safe. If you have a good relationship with your printer, ask how you might be able to eliminate toxicity with custom ink mixes (keeping in mind that the more mixing, the more waste in the press room). And while formulas may have a low percentage of a barium-based ink, one of our printers worked with us some time ago to substitute rubine red for warm red in Pantone® 123 with good results.

I note Pantone® because it is one of the largest colour manufacturing companies, known for over 50 years — but they’ve made positive contributions, too. They made an effort to evolve the industry when they released the Pantone Goe System® in 2007 with non-toxic base colours. But despite their best efforts in marketing, the tantalizing increase from 1,114 colours to 2,058 colours has not been enough yet to counteract the prohibitive cost of investment to printers. Some printers have told me that to the average non-professional, no notable difference might even be seen; that’s a hard sell.

Some designers love the punch and gleam of fluorescent and metallic inks. They too contain heavy metals and are most commonly available only as petroleum-based inks. Metallic inks also have greater resource requirements. Pantone® removed 55 metallics from their existing metallic inks list in 2000 because they were listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (Section 313) as toxic due to copper and zinc components. What’s more, the beauty of their effects is most appreciated when printed on coated stocks (stocks that are difficult to recycle and sometimes simply landfilled). Metallic applications also beg to be surface-treated to enhance their effect and prevent flaking and marking, so petroleum-based varnishes are often applied, once again adding to the burden of the recycle stream.

It’s not all bad news though. As the cost of CMYK offset printing declined and demand increased, the industry developed inks lower in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When released into the air, it is these VOCs that contribute to poor air quality. These significant VOC reductions have been a step in the right direction and possibly one of the few options available outside large city centres.

Without a doubt the most innovative technology in eliminating toxins from the printing process has been Ultra-Violet (UV) printing. Polymer-based UV printing inks trump traditional printing inks in lifecycle analysis. While this technology uses energy for curing the inks, the trade-off is sound, holding impressive results for the discriminating designer while pleasing the rational environmentalist. UV inks are virtually solvent and VOC free. This makes UV inks safe for workers, safe for the end user, and kinder to the planet. Unlike traditional inks that leach toxins into soil and water, UV inks bond directly to the substrate and stay put until recycled. And they offer stunning matte/gloss contrasts with virtually no dot gain.

A take-away for designers: When greening your colours, establish a solid partnership with your printers. Spend time talking about their process. Educate yourself on what components they might use for your job and specify when you are looking for environmental alternatives. Ask for their advice. You’ll find no better partner than your local or regional printer in keeping work and money moving in your community. That too is part of sustainability.

First published: July 2012