The Skinny on Soy-Based Inks: What You Need to Know.

by Rich on April 14, 2009

Theoretically, soy-based inks are supposed to be the solution to the environmental problems associated with petroleum-based inks on millions of tons of paper deposited in landfills.  They do make a difference-and they are more environmentally friendly than traditional inks. But they’re not ideal, and you can’t buy them yet at your neighborhood office supply store.  Here are a few things you should know about soy-based inks.

It’s environmentally friendly-to a certain extent. Soy-based inks are environmentally friendly to the extent that they don’t release volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) into the air, as the usual commercial inks do.  With the usual inks, petroleum is used as the medium where pigmentation granules are suspended-and petroleum releases VOC’s.  These chemicals travel into the atmosphere, where they contribute to global warming. They also leak into the soil when they’re disposed of in landfills. And you thought printing was harmless.

Soy-based ink proponents claim their inks are environmentally friendly and more biodegradable because they’re made from natural vegetable oils-not VOC-laden petroleum.  However, they also use heavy metals including copper, barium and zinc to create some colours-and these can be harmful to the environment as well, especially when left to decompose in landfills. In addition, many soy-based inks use waxes and other chemicals, which are also not ideal when leaching into the environment at a landfill.  They do release fewer VOC’s, but they have an environmental impact in other ways.

Its colours are brighter. Soy-based inks are said to have more vibrant colours than traditional inks, and this is generally true-mainly because vegetable oil is clearer than petroleum.  This can contribute to soy-based inks’ claim to environmental friendliness-with soy inks, you need to use less ink to get more coverage than you do with petroleum-based inks.

It’s not available to the general public. You can’t simply decide to use soy-based inks in your printer as a way of protecting the environment, because personal printers that accommodate them don’t exist.  They’re mainly used by professional printing companies who’ve chosen to go the environmental route, and their machines can accommodate these inks without much trouble-they don’t have to switch equipment to switch ink. If you want to use soy-based ink in support of environmental causes, you’ll have to do enough printing to require the use of a professional printing company.

Soy inks cost more, but you use less. Soy ink cartridges can cost significantly more than petroleum-based ink-usually about 10% to 50% more.  However, you really do use less ink per page with soy-based ink-an estimated 15% more.  In addition to the fact that the colours are brighter, the ink spreads more readily on the surface of the paper.

You can’t use it on glossy paper. Soy-based inks don’t dry as quickly as petroleum-based inks do-petroleum inks dry quickly because of the evaporative properties of VOC’s.  They work well on porous paper surfaces, but they smear when you print on glossy paper. This limits your choices when you order a commercial print run.  A few print companies are exploring the idea of using UV-reacting ink curing technology to boost the drying time, but because commercial printers would have to buy expensive new equipment, this idea hasn’t taken off in the commercial print market yet.

There are other eco-friendly inks out there. When it comes to environmental responsibility, soy inks aren’t your only choice.  Inks made from linseed and other vegetable oils are also available, and they tend to be of comparable quality and ecological soundness to soy-based inks-although they’re not as well-known. Some printers use a blend of ink types.  If you’re interested in ecologically friendly printing, ask for “low-VOC” instead of soy-based inks-this may be more representative of what your printer uses.

Soy inks are generally more environmentally friendly than traditional inks.  But they’re not without their own problems.  Still, they don’t use VOC’s, they spread better and produce brighter colours-so you can use less ink to get the same effect. Overall, soy-based inks are a positive advancement-and a good start toward developing truly environmentally sound inks. Hopefully, the industry will continue to develop them until they have a product that’s completely biodegradable.

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