Even though you can find and look at many documents online without printing them out, from time to time you’re going to have waste paper, electricity and ink for a hard copy. Whether you’re printing a college term paper or mass producing copies of a magazine, it does matter which type of ink is used for the job. Our society might have a history with petroleum-based ink, but some are turning over a new leaf and embracing soy.

What’s up with traditional petroleum-based ink?

About 50 years ago, petroleum-based ink entered the scene for two reasons: it was inexpensive and had an efficient drying time. While these might be admirable features, they do come with consequences. Petroleum (crude oil) is a natural resource, but it’s a nonrenewable one. In order to recover it from the earth, drilling is necessary and then it still has to be refined and separated before becoming consumer products such as ink, asphalt, kerosene, etc. Even worse is that petroleum is a toxic and flammable liquid, and when it dries as ink, it emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs). There is no doubt that damage is being done to the environment in order to obtain crude oil and make the petroleum usable. Supporting products made from this natural resource only aids in causing poor air quality and a contribution to global warming.

Does soy-based ink come out on top?

It wasn’t until the oil crisis in the early 1970s that soy- and vegetable-based inks came into the picture. In comparison to petroleum-based inks, soy ink had some drawbacks, but its advantages outweigh the bad. Yes, soy-based inks dry slower and cost more, and they also can still contain a percentage of petroleum as well as other trace amounts of hazardous substances. However, on the upside, soy inks work well on recycled paper, wastepaper processors can de-ink soy-printed publications easily, and many printers agree that soy ink is forgiving and clearer/brighter. Because of these pros, it’s becoming common to see newspapers and even magazines printed with soy-based inks. Also, the EPA conducted a waste reduction evaluation report and compared petroleum-based ink to soy-based ink. The Office of Printing Services (OPS) at the University of Illinois participated in the study, and a full-scale print run was done. Results showed that soy-based ink emitted less than 20% of VOCs than petroleum-based inks, which is important since printers need to comply with Clean Air Act’s 30% limit on ink’s VOCs. Soy-based inks are definitely more sustainable than petroleum-based inks and are a better choice. However, the printing industry could go one step further. The greenest ink — the one that really stands out on top — is vegetable-based or petroleum-free inks. These don’t contain crude oil, and therefore reduce contaminants such as VOCs and hazardous waste. So, when choosing an eco-friendly ink, always go for petroleum-free first, but keep in mind that soy-based is the runner-up.