The importance of ink in the circular economy

By Gary Stockenstroom, Digital Product Manager at Fujifilm Graphic Systems South Africa

In spite of the Circular Economy being a topic of great discourse over recent years, one of the things that isn’t being spoken about very often, albeit being the very first step of the recycling process, is the removal of the ink from the printed product before it can be recycled. This step is known as deinkability and there are certain standards that need to be followed in order for your product to be deinkable and thus recyclable.

When you consider that what you are printing, be it a flyer, magazine or packaging, can potentially go through the circular economy – and at some point that piece of paper that you initially printed on will be part of another piece of paper that will yet again run through a printing press – then you need to be cognisant of all of the processes that this piece of paper will be going through. The reason being that the circular economy is affected by the choices that you make when you run paper and other substrates through your press.

As an example, if you think about stopping at a traffic light and someone hands you a flyer, when you think about where that piece of printed paper came from, what ink was used and if the paper was sustainably sourced, where you are going to throw that paper away and the recycling collectors going through the bins who will ultimately take it in for repulping and then recycling, you realise that none of your choices are insignificant and become mindful of the steps that you are taking during your production process.

As a member of the printing, signage and packaging sector, you need to consider what is happening next as well and even before, when you are placing orders. Where is the paper that you are using coming from? Where does the cheap ink that you are buying originate from and what does it contain? You need to be aware that just simple decisions like these determine just how sustainable or unsustainable your printed products are.

What is oftentimes overlooked is the amount of research and development that goes into the manufacturing of quality inks and how they perform. While your main focus may lie with placing ink onto a substrate and ensuring that it adheres – because ink needs to stick to whatever substrate it is printed on – ink manufacturers such as ourselves also need to take into account that at some point this very ink is going to need to come off the substrate in order for it to be recycled.

Creating a product that works effectively on both ends of the spectrum requires a lot of thought. It begins with finding the best quality pigments, but it also requires finding the best adhesion so that whatever the application may be, the ink being used will meet the required standard.  The dichotomy being that at the same time just as much attention needs to go into how the ink will come off the substrate once it has been used and disposed of.

The manufacture of ink requires a holistic process, which leaves little room for, ‘What’s your best price?’ because much as there is cheaper ink available on the market that will enable you to produce your work inexpensively and you are able to make better margins for that choice. The caveat is that it can also come to bite you further down the line, through it leading to your press giving problems like the rubbers starting to perish, it may be eating through your doctor blades or it isn’t filling your anilox roller, so you aren’t getting the kind of lay down that you want.

From books, newspapers, magazines and brochures to folders, annual reports and packaging, print remains a vital and highly effective branding, marketing and communications tool. But in an age of heightened environmental concern and “net zero” carbon reduction targets, you get to decide how print can be used in the most efficient and responsible way. And it all begins with ink.