Toxicity | Environmental | Kelly Street

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Continuing with the theme of my last post, printing and its affect on the environment, health, and the alternatives available to us to minimize these side effects. Just a reminder VOCs are toxic emissions that react with sunlight and contribute to the greenhouse affect and global warming, bad for our health and bad for the environment.


As we found out in my previous post, when recycling consumed paper one step of the process is de-inking which takes chemicals and a lot of water, which creates toxic sludge and is expensive to dispose of properly. One solution to cleaning up the de-inking process is the use of biodegradable inks that come from renewable resources such as soy, linseed, cottonseed, tung or china wood oil (barefoot Press). I'll be focusing on soy-based ink since soybeans seem to be the most popular alternate resource when it comes to being green.


Soy-based ink was developed in the mid-1980s to reduce the impact of the oil shortages on the availability and price of traditional petroleum-based inks (it seems that everything is connected to oil availability and pricing)(Claims - and facts).

"Researchers at Western Michigan University have found that soy ink is removed more effectively from newsprint than petroleum ink during the de-inking process, resulting in less paper fiber damage and a brighter paper. In addition, the waste is not considered hazardous and can be treated more easily, completely and cost-effectively" (Soya).

Unlike petroleum, soybeans are a renewable resource. Producing soy inks also requires only .5 percent of the total energy needed to produce petroleum-based inks, and soy inks are biodegradable (Waxman).

The benefits of printing with soy-based inks courtesy of Soya:

  • Vibrant colors - Soybean oil's clarity allows pigments to reach their full potential, resulting in deep, rich bright colors. In addition, used in newspaper ink, it shows an excellent outcome of pigments. Soy ink delivers a high quality print when you switch from petroleum-based ink to soy ink, and you may even see an improvement!
  • Lower rub-off - Soy inks show a greater rub resistance. This is especially of important for newspaper readers.
  • Soy ink is cost effective - The prices of soy ink colors are competitive with conventional ink colors since most of the cost in the colored inks comes from the pigments used and not the vehicle portion of the formulation. Because soy ink provides more intense color, printers do not use as much ink. As a result, more materials can be printed with less ink and thereby reducing their costs. And since they spread further, soy inks leave fewer ink containers to dispose of in landfills.
  • Laser proof - This is important when ink needs to be exposed to the heat of a laser printer or copy machine. As the boiling point of soy ink is lower, there is less chance of the ink being transferred to the machine parts instead of the paper.
  • Stability - Soy ink maintains its lithographic stability throughout the entire print job, so the press operator makes fewer adjustments during production and rejects fewer copies because of inferior quality.

More than 90% of the nation's daily newspapers are printed with color soy ink. Most newspapers use soy ink for color printing because its price is comparable with that of conventional color ink and it has many advantages (Soya).

The disadvantage of soy ink is with drying. Since soybean oil is non-volatile, nothing evaporates and the ink gives off no VOCs (claims - and facts). It's like Nathan Abel from 3M said, the best product is the most toxic (though the best part can be debated when compared to the benefits of soy-based ink). This creates challenges for some printing presses, especially those that use coated papers such as magazines instead of porous, uncoated paper such as newspapers where the ink can dry via absorption (wikipedia). So some soy-inks are mixed with petroleum for quality purposes, so they still contain some VOCs, but the soy-based inks release less than one-fifth of the amount of VOCs emitted by petroleum-based inks (Waxman). And considering less soy ink is needed for adequate printing, this means petroleum-based inks emit 70 percent more VOCs than soy-based inks for the same amount of printing (Waxman).

Soy-based ink is not the perfect solution for eliminating toxic waste completely, just minimizing it, since the soybean oil is just the vehicle; particles of coloration are suspended in the oil, such as the heavy metals zinc (found in white inks) and barium (found in red inks), which can still be quite toxic. They can leach into the groundwater and contaminate the soil if the used ink is not adequately discarded (Waxman). This and certain other chemicals make soy ink not 100% biodegradable (Soya). Then there are the environmental concerns with the actual growing of the resource; an over-dependency on a single crop can introduce the risk of crop disease and epidemics, like the Great Irish Famine. Additionally, the agricultural impact of soybeans can be great: today, 92% of soybean acreage in the US is planted with genetically-modified soybeans, which some believe can pose environmental and human health risks, and soybean production is a major source of deforestation in the Amazon basin in Brazil resulting in the release of carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming (wikipedia).

It may seem that our efforts in trying to preserve our environment by swapping one resource with another and trying to find an alternative material that is less toxic, more energy sufficient, more sustainable is getting us no where. Since they still create negative side effects for our environment and it seems we are stuck in an endless cycle of search and destroy, like our progression from wood to coal to oil for energy and almost depleting our natural stores of each, and this may be true, but the side effects are considerable less than they were before after switching resources, if we look at our efforts in paper and ink. We just need to regulate and moderate the use of these alternative renewable resources so they stay renewable without causing more damage as with the search for different energy sources has.

Some extra tips for printing green courtesy of the Barefoot Press

  • Standard sizes are standard for a reason; they make the best use of the paper on the press. A 6-by-6 inch booklet may please a designer's eye, but it wastes a lot of paper and raises the cost of the project.

  • Approach color creatively. Can you make a two-color design be as elegant and effective as full color?

  • Combine jobs in a way that optimizes the paper, ink, energy and labor.


Barefoot Press. Green Printing. Barefoot Press. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from

Claims - and facts - about environmental concerns: what magazine publishers should know about paper, inks and polybags Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management. (1992). Retrieved March 24, 2010 from

Soya. Soy Ink. Soya. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from

Waxman, Steven. The Skinny on Soy-based Inks. Target Marketing. (2006) Retrieved March 24, 2010, from

Wikipedia. Soy ink. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from


  • Printer

  • soy bean cartriges

  • Brazil

This is really interesting. I never really thought about inks and how they are affecting the environment. It will be interesting to see later on, as we get more involved with the printing process, how things will change (if they do) and what companies will do to support this less toxic alternative.

It is interesting when you break it down that we only get paid somewhere between 13-16 dollars an hour. I had a feeling when we were told we get salary right out of college it really had less to do with being a professional and more that they probably know it is cheaper. Firms probably know that designers just out of school work like mad to try and not seem like the weak link so they know better than to pay us overtime.

hmm...this ended up on the wrong post. How did that happen?

Nicely broken-down information. A lot of cool stuff here, but did you notice that some of your numbers from the Waxman reference don't seem to match up?

This is exactly what we mean when we say find all of the background information to make a truly informed decision! As a designer who is making environmental decisions every day, it is great to see that you will have the tools to find the information, and the real story, before you make choices that have many affects. Good work!

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This page contains a single entry by stree073 published on March 24, 2010 8:57 PM.

Quality - Environmental - Micki Benson was the previous entry in this blog.

Recyclability // Social // Jessica Uhl is the next entry in this blog.

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