Sustainability >Properties

Alternative inks

Uses vegetable or soy oil as a base, rather than petroleum.


Ink is composed of pigment for color, a binder to merge the ink with the substrate, solvent to disperse the ink, and additives to prevent the ink from cracking.

There are carcinogenic VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released by solvents during the printing process1. Alternative inks like water-based or UV-cured inks avoid the need for these solvents, which means less toxic printing and lower carbon emissions.

Traditionally, ink binders have been derived from petroleum1. Recently, alternatives to petroleum based binders including soy, linseed, castor, tung, canola, and safflower oil have gained popularity, however these new binders also derive from carbon intensive monocropping operations. Even if an ink uses a soy-based binder, the ink may still contain pigments, solvents, and other additives derived from petroleum1.



Through sustainably managed sources and reuse, some materials have a lower environmental impact.

Why choose it

Alternative inks can lower the carbon footprint1 associated with raw materials, alleviate toxicity concerns during printing, and improve the recyclability of paper, especially during the de-inking process. If the materials allow, companies might print with alternative inks to improve recyclability, biodegradability, or especially compostability.

Why not choose it

Due to the complex and often misunderstood composition of ink, this area is ripe for greenwashing. For example, inks can be designated as “soy based” in certain applications with as little a 6% of ingredients2 being derived from soy.

Companies may not prioritize inks because of the opaque, often misleading market. The inks can also be cost prohibitive.

Frequently asked questions

Ink will not affect the recyclability of a package. Recyclability depends on the substrate the ink is printed on. During paper recycling, deinking occurs to separate ink from the paper pulp. The pulp is used to make new paper products while the de-inked sludge is either landfilled or incinerated.

As for composting, because ink is typically such a small percentage of a package, it may not even be counted in compostability tests. In US ASTM D6400 biodegradability tests, ingredients that take up less than 1% of the item do not need to be tested individually. As ink flirts at that 1% threshold of a package, the ink itself doesn’t technically need to be compostable to meet US Compostability standards. However this shouldn’t be a free pass to print with potentially hazardous inks. Some ink suppliers have managed to make many of their ink lines and colors meet the OK Home Compost standard.

Certain colors and effects should be automatic red flags. In general, big ink companies in Europe are pushing hard to make blues with low enough levels of copper to pass the stringent European compostability tests on their own. Reds and yellows can contain high levels of cadmium and barium as well. These colors certainly shouldn’t be avoided altogether, but check with your printer about metal content of the pigments involved, and if applicable, perform a verified compostability test.

At a high level, here are the metals in various colors:

  • Reds risk containing cadmium and barium
  • Yellows risk containing cadmium and barium
  • Whites risk containing zinc and lead
  • Metallic inks risk high levels of copper and zinc
  • Blues risk container copper

Look for a non-fossil-fuel-based binder and a pigment with healthy levels of metals. If your substrate allows it, seek out water-based or UV-based printing methods.

ISO 167594 is the standard methodology for conducting a lifecycle analysis around ink.

Unfortunately there are no standard certifications to look for, however there are a few organizations and certifications to be aware of.

In the US, the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers assigns a Biorenewable Content number (BRC) to an ink. This number indicates how much of a given ink is sourced from bio-based resources. For example, a BRC 50 ink contains 50% bio-based components. If you want to know the BRC index of available inks, we can request this information from factories in the Lumi network.

Also here in the US, the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership has guidelines that form a good rubric for domestic printers, however their certification program is still growing so it’s certainly not a red flag if your printer isn’t certified SGGP.


  1. Tobias Robert. “Green ink in all colors”—Printing ink from renewable resources (Progress in Organic Coatings, 2015)

  2. Soy Ink Seal (ASA)

  3. Gulnur Mertoglu-Elmas. The Effect of Colorants on the Content of Heavy Metals in Recycled Corrugated Board Papers (BioResources)

  4. ISO 16759:2013 (ISO, 2013)

  5. Quality of Chemical Safety Information in Printing Industry (Ann Occup Hyg, 2016)

  6. Environmental Impact of Printing Inks (EuPIA, 2013)

  7. Duane A. Tolle, David P. Evers, Bruce W. Vigon, John J. Sheehan. Streamlined LCA of Soy-Based Ink Printing (Int J Life Cycle Assess, 2000)

  8. Brian Dougherty. Green Graphic Design (Allsworth, 2008)