Today’s concern about the environment has led to significant improvements in sustainability efforts within the digital fabric graphics industry, including greener and cleaner inks.
By Maura Keller
These days, just about everyone in business is burdened with some kind of environmental challenge—from cutting landfill deposits to properly disposing of toxic printing products.
The fabric graphics industry is no exception. Fabricators are recognizing that to survive in the postrecession global economy, they need to adopt smart, safe and sustainable technologies that increase productivity, meet business objectives, and improve their ability to compete through the use of more energy-efficient and safe processes. Today’s fabric graphic companies that take steps to become more environmentally friendly often find that the benefits of “green business” go far beyond contributing to a healthier planet. They also make for a healthier bottom line.
Today’s continued concern about energy and the environment has led to significant improvements in sustainability efforts within the digital fabric graphics industry, including greener and cleaner inks.
According to Ruth Zach, marketing coordinator at Bordeaux Digital PrintInk Ltd., a company that develops, manufactures and distributes high-quality premium digital inks and solutions, the most commonly used greener ink, compared to other types of inks, is the UV LED, which is marked by reduced electricity consumption and reduced heat—enabling more flexibility in the use of substrates.
“However, the only truly environmentally friendly inks are those based on water, which is the most natural liquid,” Zach says. Bordeaux was the first alternative ink manufacturer to introduce latex-water based ink, EDLX, alongside other inks used in the graphics arts sector.
“The main revolution of latex ink is their compatibility with outdoor conditions,” Zach says. “Bordeaux especially formulated the inks for the popular Piezo Drop-On-Demand (DOD) print head technology to ensure compatibility to a wide range of printers. The ink can potentially be installed in most solvent drop-on-demand printers without requiring modifications.
One of the eco-friendly inks offered by Graphics One LLC includes GO EcoOne Ink, a high-performance eco-solvent ink that has been tested and proven to be compatible with Mutoh, Roland, GO and Mimaki printers. Its SEPIAX Water-Based Resin Ink is a “direct-to-anything” indoor/outdoor environmentally friendly ink. SEPIAX is a completely harmless water-based resin that can adhere to uncoated or coated materials. Likewise, Mutoh’s Multipurpose (MP) Ink was developed with the environment in mind and consists of 60 percent bio-based materials and does not include hazardous air pollutants or metals.
Zach stresses that, generally speaking, the progress in the field of digital printing in technology and speed and in inks—in just 10 years—is almost incomprehensible.
“Traditional inks, based on hard solvents, are hardly used anymore because of their harsh odor and the restriction imposed on the shipping and manufacturing of the solvents used to manufacture the inks,” Zach says. “Furthermore, tougher European regulations pose further difficulties to ink manufacturers on currently used solvents and the presence of metals, especially nickel, in the pigment composition. Even UV inks, although they do not emit solvents since they harden immediately when reaching the surface, consume a lot of energy for curing and they are manufactured from materials that are an irritant to the users.”
However, inkjet inks have made a step toward sustainability. As Zach explains, most printer manufacturers introduced UV LED printers that consume less energy and generate less heat.
“Currently the most sustainable digital inkjet inks are the water based inks, especially the latex, which is offered by HP only for HP Latex printers, Mimaki for its newly released latex printer and Ricoh’s latest latex printer,” Zach says. “Bordeaux is an ink manufacturer which offers EDLX, latex ink for most printers with Piezo drop-on-demand print head technology and is not associated with a single printer.”
As Stephen Goddard, environmental leadership program manager, graphic solutions business at Hewlitt Packard (HP) explains, in recent years green inks, including water-based HP latex inks have been one of the key sustainability developments in sign and display textile printing.
“With the use of these inks, print shops can create a better work environment since—unlike many of the solvent inks they are replacing—they do not require special ventilation, do not require hazard labels and are nonflammable and noncombustible,” Goddard says.
HP latex inks are versatile, water-based sign and display inks that were introduced in 2008. So how are these inks being used? As Goddard explains, a print service provider that operates an HP Latex printer might well print temporary textile and fabric applications, among traditional sign and display output.
“The inks contain no heavy metals, phthalates or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and are also nonflammable and noncombustible,” Goddard says. “They are an alternative to solvent-based inks, which can only print coated textiles, and have an improved environmental profile.”
It comes as no surprise that sustainable inks are leading the “going green” movement within the digital fabrics printing industry. One common problem facing the industry is printers overclaiming their use of green products or manufacturers misleading customers by making false claims about a green product or service. Known as “greenwashing,” it may be a deliberate marketing technique on the part of some companies, but it is often an innocent mistake on the part of fabric graphic print providers.
“For example, a few years ago, HP launched a range of ‘recyclable’ HDPE- and PET-based media for use with HP Latex printers. Although they were certainly recyclable in principle, we found in practice they were often not, simply because recycling companies are often not interested in taking small quantities of media,” Goddard says. “This issue was one of the reasons we established the HP Large Format Media take-back program. This free recycling program enables print service providers to return relatively small quantities of media to HP. We then aggregate the media into larger quantities and send them to a recycling partner.”
So how do printers verify green claims on products? How do they ensure the “sustainable” inks they are using in their end products are indeed sustainable?
A key resource is environmental certifications from third-party organizations. One organization that offers a reputable program through which a textile printing company could pursue sustainability certification is the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership. “They have already certified around 50 print service providers,” Goddard says. “HP is a leading supporter of the program.”
Furthermore, UL Environment now offers the UL Environmental Standard for Sustainability for Printing Inks (UL 2801) with criteria to certify water-based inkjet inks, screen printing inks and UV-curable inks.
“When choosing sustainable inks, applicability and durability should be the primary consideration for PSPs,” Zach says. “Their first choice should be inks that can perform on the applications and media that they are using. Good inks should be able to adhere well to a wide range of substrates and be compatible with the printer without clogging the valuable print heads.”
In the future, Zach says the two main technologies for printers to focus on should be UV LED and latex inks. “Both have clear advantages in terms of sustainability and are taking over the wide format digital printing scene,” Zach says. “UV LED is an improved version of UV inks, which consume less electricity and less heat and therefore are even more flexible in the choice of substrates compared to regular UV. Latex is still a juvenile technology but which poses a real environmental advantage and yet can be used for applications previously dominated by solvent inks only.”
Goddard adds that, in sign and display textile printing, there is a continued move away from solvent inks. “Not only are there often environmental issues with these inks due to the presence of VOCs and often HAPs, but they also only print coated textiles well,” Goddard says. “Coated textiles come at a significant price premium to uncoated textiles, which can be printed by technologies like HP Latex.”
Zach says that when a demand for green inks is a must for a PSP, they should be prepared to ask their ink supplier for green certification used in inks, specifically Greenguard Environmental Institute, which deals with indoor air quality and EcoLogo’s CCD-040 certification program, which is a specific standard for printing ink including inkjet digital inks. EcoLogo is North America’s largest, most respected environmental standard and certification mark. EcoLogo provides customers—public, corporate and consumer—with assurance that the products and services bearing the logo meet stringent standards of environmental leadership. Within its CCD 040 program, a number of “green” printing products and services that supply the movement towards green printing in North America are evaluated and audited to ensure compliance with EcoLogo criteria.
What the Future Holds
If handled correctly, embracing the green movement can be a powerful advantage in today’s environmentally focused economy.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative states, “Evidence has shown that firms incorporating both environmentally and economically sustainable manufacturing processes can gain competitive advantages in that they reap inherent cost savings (i.e. improving their energy efficiency, minimizing raw materials usage, etc.).”
While strong environmental initiatives are beginning to gain the upper hand within the fabric graphics industry, customers are demanding that the companies show the steps they are taking to become more sustainable and renewable.Â One way of doing this is by educating themselves on the universality of sustainability through all facets of the fabric graphics printing process.
Cindy Gilbert, director of the Sustainable Design Online Program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) says that, due largely to consumer demand, graphic professionals are recognizing the need to gain the knowledge and skill-base to put sustainability frameworks into practice to capitalize on current demands for “green” products and services.
“From an educator’s standpoint, programs such as MCAD’s Master of Arts in Sustainable Design program are working to change the status quo in the industry by cultivating a new type of graphic designer: designers that drive systemic change by integrating sustainability principles and practices into every piece of work they produce,” Gilbert says.
However, Holly Robbins, adjunct faculty member in MCAD’s Sustainable Design program believes that the graphics industry hasn’t yet tackled the issue of sustainability in a comprehensive way. “To really tackle the issue, every material we specify, every process we use, every tool we employ, including computers and server farms, would need to be assessed for potential impacts and inputs and outputs,” Robbins says. “Then it would need to be analyzed for opportunities for reform and innovation. As it is, most of the impacts of the industry, as with other industries, isn’t always obvious. Each material has consequences and impacts when you follow each ingredient upstream.”