May 10, 2018



Eco-friendly ink is one component of green printing. In earlier posts we explored printing on recycled paper and tree-free paper. Today we’ll focus on ink’s composition–whether it’s petroleum or plant based–and its release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when determining if ink is environmentally friendly and sustainable. 

What is vegetable-based ink?

First, we need to understand the composition of most inks. Inks require colorants (i.e. pigments or dyes), additives that help improve performance on the press, and the vehicle or carrier medium for the other elements. The vehicle can be water, solvent, or oil based. Early inks were derived from natural, plant-based sources. By the early 1970s, the supply of vegetable oils was limited so manufacturers used petroleum products. Today, synthetic products have surpassed vegetable-based alternatives, but environmentally conscious manufacturers and consumers are turning the tide.

Common oils used in vegetable-based inks are soy, linseed (flax), canola, and safflower. Soybean and linseed oil are the two most prominent. Each type of oil comes with its own advantages; for example, soybean oil is relatively clear so it can provide more vivid colors than petroleum-based oils. Vegetable-based inks often employ a blend of oils to maximize quality and minimize drying times.

What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

VOCs are compounds of carbon–excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides, or carbonates and ammonium carbonate–which participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions. More simply put, they can evaporate at normal indoor air temperatures and their greenhouse effect contributes to global warming. The European Commission reports that offset printing consumes around three million tons of hydrocarbon-based inks and chemicals every year. These inks and chemicals release VOCs that can contribute to global warming and be harmful to the health of print workers if not properly managed.

What inks have higher levels of VOCs?

As petroleum-based inks dry, they release VOCs. Additional VOCs can be released when presses are washed between print runs. Petroleum-based inks require harsher solvents and more VOCs are released. Vegetable-based inks can be cleaned from machinery with less water and solvent

How do vegetable-based inks compare to petroleum-based inks?

Sustainability, recycling, and the environment

Obviously petroleum is a non-renewable resource, while the plants used for vegetable-based ink are fast growing and renewable. Oil-producing plants can be widely cultivated and oils can be easily extracted and refined. In addition, VOC-free inks eliminate the release of greenhouse gases. Finally, vegetable-based inks are easier to remove during recycling’s deinking process than petroleum-based inks.


As we know, VOCs can be harmful to indoor air quality and health. The American Lung Association reports that some VOCs are harmful by themselves and some react with other gases and form other air pollutants after they are in the air. Vegetable-based inks are preferred for food packaging or anything that might come in contact with food.


A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Biomaterials and Functional Materials tested the quality of vegetable-based inks and petroleum-based ink used for offset printing. They found that linseed-soybean oil-based ink gave the highest brightness value, and vegetable inks containing linseed oil are glossier on all types of paper than mineral oil-based ink. While mineral-oil based inks have less color change on coated papers, vegetable oil-based inks change less on uncoated papers. The study also found that mixing vegetable oils can produce the desired print results. The paper’s authors recommended that vegetable-based inks should replace petroleum-derived mineral oil-based inks due to their quality, environmental and health benefits, and comparable costs.

“What is expected from printing ink is quality, being trouble-free, economical, and efficient. Because vegetable and mineral oil-based inks show similar printing performances on coated and uncoated papers in terms of printing quality, the determinant for ink choice should be the environment and health.”

–Cem Aydemir, Semiha Yenidogan, Arif Karademir, and Emine Arman Kandirmaz, “The examination of vegetable- and mineral oil-based inks’ effects on print quality,” Journal of Applied Biomaterials & Functional Materials  

Does BambooInk use eco-friendly ink?

Yes, we use a wide variety of inks including those from Van Son Holland Ink Corporation. Van Son’s Zero line is made with 100% vegetable oil and is VOC free. It contains no petroleum solvents and no mineral oils. It’s a high-intensity ink that complies with GraCol 7 and DIN ISO 2846-1 printing standards. It offers high print contrast, water tolerance, outstanding gloss, and fast setting times. It’s also rub resistant and has excellent dot sharpness. It can be used with aqueous and UV coating.

Is eco-friendly ink right for you?

There are many factors that influence sustainable printing. We’d love to talk with you about eco-friendly inks and sustainable printing methods. Contact us to learn more or get an estimate.

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