Victor Leal
National Association of Manufacturers of Paints and Inks
Expert Contributor

Sustainable Inks Are the Way to a Greener Future

By Víctor Leal | Mon, 11/30/2020 - 09:21

The origin of the written word cannot be understood without ink, an essential element for the writing, dissemination and recollection of human knowledge.

The creation of this input dates back to ancient Egypt, as can be seen in the hieroglyphics made of soot and vegetable gum; however, later, red ink appeared, made of iron oxide and copper, which was more widely used in textiles.

There have also been significant advances in Greece with regard to the production of ink. However, this invention was attributed to the Chinese around 2500 B.C., who developed it with soot and other vegetable products.

Over the centuries, ink has evolved and formulas have focused on meeting various needs. You can now find everything, from invisible fluorescent inks that can only be seen with ultraviolet light, to sublimation, latex, solvent and solid inks, to name a few.

However, climate change has forced the industry to return to basics and develop environmentally friendly solutions. One example is eco-solvent inks, which do not contain materials that are harmful to health and are a good alternative to reducing the carbon footprint of the most common inks.

Currently, many raw materials are biodegradable or recyclable, although the ease of reuse is defined by the components of the product to be recycled and the degree of transformation, or if the material is able to decompose. The problem, however, has become more complex because of ink’s components. It is, therefore, important to consider that sustainability is a chain of different links in which ink, a key input into packaging, cannot be excluded.

Sustainable ink development is becoming increasingly popular in Mexico and on a global scale. At present, products are based on water, soy, algae and vegetable inputs for printing. However, the choice of the right product depends on a number of factors and variables, such as the printing method-flexography, offset, offset lithography, digital toner, digital inkjet, silk screen and printing substrate, corrugated paper, plastic coated, glass, aluminum, cotton, wood, silk or plastic, not to mention the drying process.

Although inks are such a small part of the package, they have an enormous impact. They also play a key role in conveying the marketing message of the product. That is why ink manufacturers and printers need to be understand that end users are aware of the importance of sustainability at all levels.

As far as packaging and containers are concerned, inks and substrates are closely related, since once both materials are united, separating them is complex, although it occurs in recycling and disposal, but the results can contribute to worsening environmental conditions. 

This becomes relevant if we consider that the world generates 2.01 billion tons of solid waste annually and unless urgent action is taken soon, waste will increase 70 percent to 3.4 billion tons by 2050, according to the latest World Bank report on global waste entitled What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. This is the third report of this type prepared by the institution, dating back to 1999. It highlights that of the total waste, 17 percent corresponds to paper and cardboard, 12 percent to plastic, 5 percent to glass and 4 percent to metal, while the rest is food waste. 

In addition, the document states that the Middle East and Africa contribute 129 million tons of garbage, while Sub-Saharan Africa contributes 174 million tons, South Asia 334 million tons, Europe and Central Asia 392 tons and East Asia and the Pacific 468 tons.

In low-income countries, 90 percent of waste is not properly managed, increasing emissions and poverty disproportionately. Taking all these figures into account, the production of sustainable products at all levels is essential in order to contribute to the decrease of carbon footprints, the reduction of waste and the use of waste through recycling and biodegradable products.

At this point it is crucial that all companies contribute to the care of the environment and at all levels. Ink is not exempt from this, especially since using this type of solution is also less harmful to human health, since it would allow easy recycling of the package and would not release toxins when buried or left exposed.

Although there is no specific definition or legislation on sustainable ink, there is growing awareness of its benefits, so that it does not contain materials that are harmful to human health by exposure or ingestion. 

It is time to dye everything “green”, without forgetting the hierarchy of solid waste: reduce, reuse and recycle, factors that must be taken into account when formulating or choosing packaging inks.

Photo by:   Victor Leal