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Inks and Environmental Issues--Compliance vs. Quality

May 1998
Environmentally speaking, what's hot in inks? The EPA—hot on the trail of compliance offenders.

But commercial printers cited for noncompliance need not join the much-dreaded "Environmental 4-H Club"—hazardous (as in waste), havoc (as in scrambling for compliance), helpless (the feeling of ineffective scrambling) and hell-to-pay (the cost of noncompliance).

With hundreds of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) listed by the EPA—and even more listed at the state level—it's easy to see why printers are feeling suffocated by the growing compliance haze. This controversial issue, like the color of polluted air, is gray, on the best of days.

"The first line of defense is to contact industry organizations like the PIA, GAA [Gravure Association of America], FTA [Flexographic Technical Association] and GATF," says Dr. Edmund Funk, Sun Chemical's vice president of sales and marketing. "These organizations exist to serve printers. They represent the industry and are the best to give advice."

However, since legislation is the top concern for both printers and printing ink manufacturers, it's understandable that vendors are receiving an onslaught of calls from concerned customers.

Which Technology to Use?
"Customers will call and say, 'I've been cited! What do I do? Which technology should I use?' We go over the different technologies with clients and do a comparison of efficiencies, economics and applications to find out which will work best for them," explains Funk. "As ink manufacturers, we make recommendations, but it's the printer's decision."

According to most major ink manufacturers, the votes are already in. Reports show the strongest areas of ink growth are in UV curing, water-based, soy-based, and waterless inks—in that order.

The heightened growth in UV (and EB) ink has been spurred, in part, by the fact that these inks are 100-percent solids and contain less than 1-percent VOCs. Also, since UV inks don't dry on the press, there's less washup, which translates to less harmful waste. Less skinning is another environmentally friendly benefit of UV ink.

Water-based ink is the number-two choice of compliance-seeking printers. As more R&D dollars are spent in the water-based arena, improvements are being made in its drying, adhesive and print qualities.

Third-ranking soy-based inks are enjoying continued growth, as more R&D is devoted to this environmentally friendly bean from America's Heartland. (See sidebar for more about soy.)

Waterless inks are tied with soy formulations for third place in environmentally friendly inks. The main advantage of waterless is the elimination of fountain solution waste, says Ken Ferguson, technical director of Van Son Holland Ink.

While growth in waterless has been slower than expected, Dennis Miller, general manager of Spinks Ink, believes waterless has significant potential and, therefore, should be an R&D priority.

"It makes sense to print without water," says Miller. "Start-ups are quicker, there's less dot gain, better ink laydown, quicker setting and drying, and it offers the ability to print higher resolution screens."

However, what makes sense in theory may not necessarily hold true in commercial practice. Miller explains that in a commercial environment, operating conditions, such as press and pressroom temperatures, as well as plate sensitivity to marking, are factors that can be difficult to control.

"If improvements could be made in these areas," concludes Miller, "there might be a higher level of interest in waterless printing."

Improved "housekeeping" is another issue on the environmental agenda. Ink manufacturers, like Van Son, are improving their packaging by developing products such as vacuum-sealed cans that reduce contamination and skinning, and disposable ink dispensing systems that leave no residue in the cartridge. Furthermore, Ferguson says Van Son is working closely with press manufacturers, like Heidelberg, to incorporate the disposable ink system into next generation press designs.

Ink suppliers are also teaming up with industry organizations to provide other environmental services, such as the Great Printers Project, a self-compliance program for lithographic printers. The study was sponsored by the Printing Industries of Illinois in conjunction with the state EPA and paper and ink manufacturers.

Kevin Facklam, manager of product safety and regulatory information services at INX International Ink, explains that this voluntary program assists printers as they go through their shops with a step-by-step compliance guide, which lists 13 areas of concern, ranging from air emissions and waste-water discharge to environmental auditing. Participating printers must pass an annual pollution-prevention assessment in order to display the Great Printers emblem on their products.

Tailored Reports
Another innovative service provides customer-tailored environmental reports, which leading ink suppliers, like INX and Flint Ink, are delivering to their clients on a monthly, quarterly and/or yearly basis. The summaries include vital information, such as the VOC and HAP levels of all inks purchased by the customer and whether those levels exceed regulations. Not only are these reports handy tools to assist printers with compliance, says Facklam, but they're also a tremendous value-added service.

Recycling is another area of interest to printers. New developments include: off-site ink recycling; on-site ink recycling; mobile ink recycling; ink-sludge recycling; plate-chemical recycling; ink-recycling software programs; and recycled-ink sales programs.

Across the board, industry organizations and corporations are trying to strike a balance between compliance and product quality. To achieve this goal, additional money is being expended on commercial R&D.

Raising Questions
For example, several ink suppliers have conducted tests that are raising questions—and eyebrows—about EPA standardization.

"Our tests concluded that the EPA's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) Method 24, which lists the amount of VOCs, is misleading," contends one ink technician (who asked to remain anonymous), explaining that the misconception goes like this:

"Let's take a petroleum-based ink, which may be listed as having 25-percent VOCs. The EPA arrived at that percentage by burning [heating to boiling point] a certain amount of ink, let's say 100 grams. Those 100 grams were burned at 110 degrees for 10 minutes to see how many VOCs were released. However, presses rarely heat to 95 degrees, and that's if there's a dryer.

"In commercial sheetfed printing, which doesn't require heat for drying, 98 percent of the VOCs are absorbed into the paper, not the air. So the EPA test is unrealistic. NAPIM is trying to get these standards changed," says the technician.

(Most ink manufacturers interviewed agreed with this assessment, although none wanted to challenge the EPA openly on its testing methods.)

Changing EPA standards isn't an easy thing to do. However, when loud enough, voices may be heard.

For example, the EPA recently exempted acetone from its list of VOCs after a study conducted by The Environmental Group showed that VOCs were significantly reduced when acetone-based washes were used instead of solvent-based solutions.

From the solution-to-pollution era of yesteryear to the pollution solutions of today, suppliers are focused on creating quality inks that contain an increased amount of natural ingredients and renewable resources.

"Ink must be formulated to meet end-performance requirements," says Len Walle, director of marketing for Flint Ink's Commercial Group. "As requirements evolve, so will ink. Ink formulation and development is an evolutionary process."

That process has become a powerful political issue. While the printing industry positions itself for existing compliance, the EPA rallies for future reform.

"It doesn't matter if a Democrat or Republican is in office, the EPA doesn't have a political preference," says Funk. "Printers better start preparing for compliance now. There's a lot of justification, investigation and time-planning involved to meet environmental regulations and compliance. Don't wait until the night before."

Unfortunately, those who wait may be cited for noncompliance and end up enrolling in the dreaded "Environmental 4-H Club."

—Cheryl A. Adams


"Bean counting" has taken on new meaning, as U.S. soy producers cash in on the environmentally friendly properties of their crops. While commercial printers scurry to comply with federal, state and local EPA standards that require reductions in VOC emissions, farmers are planting fields of beans.

As a natural ingredient with lower VOCs, soy is quickly gaining fame and fortune in the ink industry. Promoting this little bean is the job of organizations like the National Soy Ink Information Center (NSIIC) and American Soybean Association (ASA), to name a few.

Promotional campaigns include the NSIIC's SoySeal trademark program, which certifies that an ink or chemical formulation has the minimum amount of soy oil to meet ASA specifications. In their quest for a greener and cleaner America, printers are anxious to earn this earthy stamp of approval.

The NSIIC is also working with GATF to conduct the first-ever (sheetfed) soy ink inventory/assessment, which will document the environmental characteristics of soy ink across the broad spectrum of processes, from material acquisition and manufacture to product use and disposal. The study will also examine performance and other issues, such as print quality, ink drying and VOC emissions.

Ink research at the university level includes soybean-polymer modification for radiation curing, soy-oil reaction to form new faster-drying polymers, and soybean additives that broaden ink formulation. In another study conducted at the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, a soy-based toner is being developed for office copiers and laser printers.

Interestingly, many studies suggest soy has some earthy competition.

Previously, other oils, like vegetable and nut, were taking a backseat to the popular soy. However, many ink suppliers are performing their own R&D and are predicting a variety of "veggies" will soon be sharing the driver's seat.

"Everyone is stuck on soy," says one leading R&D expert, who wishes to remain unnamed, "but other vegetable-oil inks are just as good, if not better. We conducted tests and found that other vegetable-based inks, like linseed, dry faster and harder than soy. Soy is promoted, which is why it's so popular, not because it's better."

Experts from Gans, Spinks, Flint, INX and Van Son agree that hybrid formulations, which combine the ASA-certified level of soy along with other vegetable/nut oils and petroleum distillates, achieve the balance needed between compliance and quality. Using a combination of natural oils that are best for the environment, along with petroleum-based ingredients that work best for printers, ink manufacturers continue their quest to couple safety with print performance.

Until that perfect partnership is achieved—and until other vegetable farmers start promoting their products in the ink industry—U.S. soy producers will continue counting their beans.


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