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Looking for Green "Shoots" in the Eco-Friendly Movement

Spotlight on Clean Ink

By Thomas Franklin

The term "green" is still something of a moving target in the large format print industry. For different inks, it means a variety of things. Long before the environmental movement held any marketing cachet, ink vendors formulated less aggressive solvents with fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that did not require specialized ventilation but, unlike aqueous inks, were still durable enough for outdoor applications. These milder solvents, also dubbed eco-solvents, are eco-friendly by virtue of the limited hazard posed to printer operators but do not address the issues surrounding the general environmental impact of the ink manufacturing or disposal process.

Solvent Replacements
Today, green encompasses an array of factors beyond the health of printer operators. An ink is considered environmentally friendly based on the compounds and chemicals used to formulate the ink and whether it degrades quickly in a landfill. There’s even a case to be made for replacement solvent inks, argues Steve Igoe, North American sales manager, Bordeaux Digital Printink Ltd. "Mix-and-match technology provides chemical and color compatibility with an OEM formulation, replacing one cartridge at a time. Print service providers (PSPs) don’t have to throw out all the ink or flush existing cartridges. That keeps inks out of the waste system," he says.

Work is underway to find replacements for hard solvent inks that reproduce the color of regular solvent, with its outdoor durability and without VOCs. EFI Inkware’s Bio ink is a corn-based ink recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment program. Mutoh America, Inc.’s iteration, Mubio, handles rigid substrates, while EFI VUTEk’s BioVu tackles roll-to-roll.

Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) pigment-based latex ink was created to sideline solvent, says Rudy Herrera, business development manger, graphics solutions business, HP. The ink—which is composed of 70 percent water—contains extremely low levels of VOCs , but lasts for three years outdoors without lamination.

UV ink is considered environmentally friendly for other reasons. "It has a solid chemistry, so what you put on the substrate, stays on the substrate," explains Jeffrey Nelson, digital product marketing manager, Fujifilm Sericol U.S.A., Inc. There are fewer VOCs than solvent inks and since UV printers image directly to substrates, UV saves on mounting and laminating. Reduced media consumption is one benefit, the other is an emerging class of UV inks cured through LED lights, which consume less energy than traditional heating bulbs.

3M Graphics Market Center groups the company’s UV inks under products with environmental advantages. It also continues to reduce the use of heavy metals in ink pigments.

Vendors hope to make UV inks even greener, according to Terry Mitchell, director of marketing, Fujifilm Sericol. The oligomers used in UV inks are typically derived from fossil fuel products, but the company is experimenting with bio-based oligomers, he reveals.

To some, aqueous inks were the original green ink, says Michael McEvoy, director of commercialization, Sawgrass Technologies, Inc. “This type of ink contains no VOCs, hazardous air pollutants, or toxic air pollutants. What has held it back is the lack of available substrates. But that is changing as more media becomes available for water-based inks,” he adds. With the increasing number of textiles and fabrics entering the U.S., aqueous sublimation printing is a growing alternative.

“Everyone is striving to produce cleaner ink,” says Randy Rickert, VP/GM, Mutoh. “The more EPA friendly it is, the more comfortable PSPs are. A lot of our printers are going into locations such as strip malls, and they can’t emit odors.”

“There is a definite shift toward green products and it’s not hype,” remarks Brad Kisner, president, INX Digital International. “Most people want to do the right thing and the change in attitudes over the last two years is proof.”

“In the past, printers adapted new technology when it made economic sense,” explains Terry Amerine, segment manager, wide format graphics, Fujifilm Sericol. “If it happened to be green, it was an added bonus. But now it is starting to be important enough to impact cost analysis. A lot of PSPs interact with customers that want the eco-friendly solution.”

Show Me the Green
The big question surrounding environmentally friendly printing is whether there is any profit to be found. Opinions from PSPs and ink suppliers are mixed.

On the one hand, there is the tremendous pull of large print customers such as Nike, Wal-Mart, and a variety of Hollywood studios making eco-friendliness a cornerstone of their marketing. That, in turn, lures a subset of printers to embrace green printing to capture that business. “You’re seeing a big focus from these brands on the sustainability of their practices, and having an eco-friendly product to pitch them is a way to grab that customer,” says HP’s Herrera.

“Customers are more specific in how sustainable they want the prints that they buy,” agrees Amerine.

On the other hand, there is the perception that environmentally-friendly products entail a trade off. One of the issues that challenges green marketing is the perception that eco-friendly products come with a price premium, particularly eco-solvents, observes Bordeaux’s Igoe. During profitable times, some print customers might be willing to dig deeper for the self-satisfaction of helping the planet.

“When you say green, people immediately think the product costs more and is of a lower quality,” says Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson. As the company went through the formulation process of Epson UltraChrome GS eco-solvent inks, it aimed for 24 cents per milliliter to make it cost-competitive with eco-solvents.

“The economic situation in the last 12 months didn’t dampen awareness, but many business owners focus more on the bottom line,” notes INX Digital’s Kisner. “The market is extremely competitive, and with clients unable to spend extra dollars on green printing, print shops that once enjoyed this edge are forced to reconsider.”

For a PSP, there are some extra costs associated with eco-friendly printing, but they’re mostly associated with the media, not the ink, explains Lacy Kuller, co-owner, Signs By Tomorrow, based in Chesapeake, VA. With the purchase of a HP Designjet L65500 to replace solvent-based HP Designjet 9000s, Kuller repositioned her shop as eco-friendly.

The adoption of the latex technology and a media recycling program was not simply to position the company as a green supplier, but out of a personal commitment to the environment. “We have a variety of environmental initiatives, both internally and through the products we offer,” she says. Kuller has recently met customers half-way on costs. “We don’t want to pass on quite as much cost to our customers, so we compromise.”

That said, the increased capabilities and print quality of the new latex printer allows the company to capture new business as well, boosting the bottom line. “We can do more in-house now,” Kuller observes. In addition to printing on vinyl and PVC banner material, the company also offers Tyvek banner and recyclable fabric for trade show displays.

There are other green opportunities for PSPs that may not be obvious at first, suggests Herrera. “Many companies have internal environmental initiatives. They may not know that they can meet some of these benchmarks with eco-friendly prints,” he says. A PSP can educate customers on how green prints help a company meet its internal environmental or sustainability commitments without necessarily making a huge marketing splash about its eco-credentials.

Other PSPs, such as Ken Kubalik, owner, Sign Here based in Nashville, TN, do not intentionally set out to go green. Instead, they find a system’s eco-friendliness to be an added bonus. Kubalik invested in the Mutoh ValueJet 1608, which uses Mubio ink, for its competitive price and print flexibility. “Honestly, the environmental impact wasn’t the main driver for me,” he admits. Since purchasing the ValueJet 1608, however, the company began emphasizing some of its greener qualities, touting the use of bio-friendly inks on its Web site.

“A lot of it has to do with educating your customers on the benefits of environmentally friendly ink,” says Kubalik. “And it’s a learning curve for us, finding the right media. But right now, with the economy the way it is, cost pushes everything.”

Kubalik admits that the recent downturn has deterred customers from requesting eco-friendly products. “The downturn reduced some demand for green graphics, but we still have customers that demand it,” he adds.

Finding Green Shoots
Given the costs of adopting new technology in a down market, PSPs are understandably wary about making new investments just for the sake of environmental positioning, Herrera admits. When HP launched its latex ink as a substitute for hard solvent, it knew PSPs would not jump unless it was cost-competitive with the solvent it intended to replace.

Costs need to be considered holistically, says Mutoh’s Rickert. Even if the ink is slightly more expensive, the margins can remain healthy, he adds. “What’s the difference if print costs are 23 cents a square foot versus 18 cents when you’re charging six to 12 dollars a square foot?”

The use of greener inks can yield cost savings that don’t need to be marketed to print buyers, suggests Epson’s Hecht.

“Some sign shops use green to position themselves to knowledgeable print buyers, but other shops see a cost value in terms of avoiding air scrubs, ventilation, printer hoods, and the peace of mind that employees won’t become sick from VOCs. Business owners don’t need the extra worry that employees may charge them with a lawsuit down the road,” he says.

Investing in Green
There are still questions about whether environmental issues—either through regulation or customer demand—will drive further investment and innovation in ink. Many vendors and end users clash on this topic.

For example, Kuller believes eco-friendly processes in printing are a mainstay. “I don’t think environmental concerns are a passing thing,” she says. “If they are, we as an industry are going to find ourselves in some trouble.”

Environmental friendliness is something that effects everything we do, even outside of the print world, as Kuller admits. She is firmly committed to positioning Signs by Tomorrow as a green shop.

Adversely, Kubalik does not see the green movement playing as prominent an effect in his sign shop. “I don’t see it having a huge impact on my business. It’s definitely a factor in the market, just not one that hits all print shops equally,” he comments.

Ink manufacturers walk a fine line between maximizing the performance, color, and durability of ink while simultaneously minimizing environmental impact, explains Fujifilm Sericol’s Mitchell. This is why vendors emphasize the entire product lifecycle—the inputs used to manufacturer, package, and ship the ink—and not just the impact in a print shop.

“Green will play a huge role in our future, not only impacting our industry but the rest of the world,” argues Kisner. “There’s too much at stake for it not to and more people are realizing it every day.”

“This is not a fad,” Rickert seconds. “Everyone is working on making inks more environmentally friendly.” Improving the eco-friendliness of inks is an evolutionary process, ink vendors stress, with the technology still in its early stages. “Much of the innovation in the green push is going to come from the ink side,” Rickert adds.

As PSPs wait for the next advancements in green ink they continue to use all available resources, from eco-solvent, to UV, latex, and aqueous. Each come with their own set of benefits and challenges, but all succeed in lessening the impact of harmful substances on our environment.

Editor’s Note
Tragically, Brad Kisner, president, INX Digital International, passed away from a heart attack on August 22, 2009.

Oct2009, Digital Output

 
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