Q. What’s so great about soy-based ink? I didn’t even know regular ink was bad for the environment.  –Aimee, Tulsa, OK

A. Soy-based inks do have a smaller environmental impact than do traditional, petroleum-based inks, says Sevim Erhan, PhD, a Department of Agriculture chemist who researched soy ink as part of the USDA's attempt to address a soybean surplus in the 1980s and 90s. Manufacturing traditional ink is a pretty dirty business -- it produces a lot of pollutants called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Soy ink produces a lot less. Plus, when it comes time to recycle, paper printed with soy ink is a lot easier to de-ink, and anything that makes recycling less energy-intensive and more cost effective is a good thing.  

It's worth noting, though, that most inks out there labeled with the "SoySeal" do have at least some petroleum-based oil in them, and that the actual soy content in some types might be as little as 6 or 7 percent, according to the labeling standards set up by the American Soybean Council. Newspapers can actually be easily be printed with a high soybean oil content ink; 90 percent of US papers choose it -- probably not because they’re particularly environmentally-conscious, but because it’s a practical, affordable option for them. Greeting cards, wrapping paper, and posters also lend themselves to soy-ink-printing. We've even heard tell of soy-based tattoos.

Magazine printing, on the other hand, is less soy-friendly. Since the magazine-compatible soy inks on the market today contain pretty high percentages of petroleum, Plenty has elected to forgo soy ink for our print magazine for the time being. We use soy-ink in the office, though!

But a good general rule of thumb is to choose soy-based inks over petroleum-base ones, whenever possible. Fewer VOCs will wind up in the atmosphere, and you'll be helping to make it easier to recycle paper.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

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Are soy inks really greener?
Opt for soy ink -- its environmental impact is far smaller than traditional ink's.