Eco-Friendly Screen Printing 101: How To Run A Sustainable Screen Printing Shop
If you’re like the majority of screen printing shops today, the shirts that are flowing out of your dryer are decorated with plastisol prints, and walking through the occasional cloud of dissipating aerosol is an acceptable risk when traversing your print shop floor. While green and sustainable business practices sound ideal, the fear of upfront investment prices, lack of educational resources and the additional learning curve have kept North America’s sweatshirt sweetheart – plastisol ink – as the dominant printing method for decades now. Many of these issues are still problematic, but over the past few years a new crop of trailblazing shops and innovative manufacturers have been changing the game. Starting or rebranding as a green printing shop is no longer the overwhelming obstacle it used to be, and one-by-one, the things that kept us clinging to the safety of our traditions are being knocked down as support for the green movement grows from all sides.
The decorated apparel industry is ruled by market demand. In the past, and especially during the last recession, customers set their sights on finding the cheapest products and services. Eco-friendly values took a hit for the bottom line as many innovators shifted towards safe fiscal policy rather than developing costly eco-consciousness products. Now that the economy is in expansion, there has been a surge in sustainable products, as industries continue to move towards greener and more sustainable practices. The consumer mindset is changing, and with it, so is our own.
To stay ahead of the curve: watch the innovators. Many of our most beloved products were originally pushed by innovative businesses, waiting in relative obscurity for those who were willing to take a chance. Their passion and willingness to educate their customers has lead them to being the billion dollar pillar corporations they are today. The green ideal is fast spreading through the consumer mind thanks to passionate and persistent brands in the decorated apparel industry. Eco Printworks, Real Thread, Pirate Ninja Print Shop, Ink Forest, Forward Printing, and Inferno Screen Printing are all examples of screen printing businesses who have successfully challenged the idea that customers aren’t willing to seek out or pay for green printing practices.
Transforming Your Shop
If you’re trying to take your shop green for the first time, it looks something like this:
- Eco-friendly chemicals
- Water based ink
- Waste recycling
- Proper filtration systems
- Appropriate marketing
“If you’re looking to make an eco-friendly switch, start with your chemicals. The easiest and least expensive change would be using pallet paste, because aerosols are such a huge thing. Then, ease into water based inks, because of the learning curve. Going green [in a screen printing environment] is harder than going green in other kinds of shops, because you’re always going to have a little bit of waste. We’ve been printing with plastisol for the past 10 years. This year, we’ve been really pushing to go water based and eco-friendly. The biggest thing has been trying to get rid of chemicals. They either smell bad, or hurt your body in some way. In the last year companies have improved the chemicals, but with water based ink you don’t need chemicals. We don’t even have aerosols in our shop anymore. When you use spray adhesive, you go through a couple cans a week, but with the water based tack you only have to apply it once a week.”
Jarrod Hennis owner of Pirate Ninja Print Shop (an all water based shop in Rockford, Illinois)
For those who still print with plastisol or solvent ink, a jump to a completely chemical-free environment might be unrealistic. Luckily there are a number of options on the market. Judy Mazzuca, owner of Ink Forest (an eco-friendly screen printing shop outside Chicago), suggests a change from industrial chemicals to soybean and citrus based chemicals. Ryonet and many other manufacturers sells many options for eco-friendly chemicals. Whatever you choose, do your research, unfortunately not all eco-friendly chemicals are the same quality.
What You Can Do Today:
- Start by switching out all aerosols with their equivalent eco-friendly options.
- Choose water based adhesives, and soy or citrus-based eco-friendly screen washes, openers, degreasers, and strippers.
Water Based Ink
Currently, North America dominates with it’s plastisol demand, although print shops in Europe and overseas have long favored water based alternatives. Regardless of whether you’re a long-time printer or getting ready to pull your very first squeegee, you’ve probably heard at least one plastisol vs. water based discussion. The biggest concern is that the majority of plastisol inks contain potentially toxic phthalates and PVC, and while there has been strong pressure to eliminate PVC from printing in recent years, CISPA regulations being a great example, many of these ink options are still niche and pricey.
So why hasn’t North America joined the water based fan club?
“The most difficult part is the learning curve. You have to learn the new temperatures for curing, how it sits on a t-shirt, blending colors, the opacity. Seeing how colors work together – what a white underlay with a color on top looks like versus a plastisol, which is more opaque. We’re still learning,” says Jarrod, and he’s right. One of the biggest deterrents of starting a water based shop is learning its nuances. “The rules don’t apply sometimes. There’s no standard way to use water based [ink]”, Judy warns. But this doesn’t have to hold you back.
If you’re just stepping out into the water based world, there are a few pieces of equipment you might need to make the job easier. Water based ink is notorious for drying in your screens during longer print runs. “We just bought a humidifier for our shop. It made a huge difference because it’s cold and dry right now,” Judy offered. Curing also comes up a lot as a major deterrent for non-water based shops, and Jarrod suggested investing in an appropriate dryer, “With water based [inks], you have to cure it a lot longer. I highly suggest getting a dryer with better airflow.” Since water based ink lets off a large amount of water in the curing process, shops who print with only water based and/or discharge ink will find that investing in an appropriate dryer or air flash can make all the difference.
Luckily, if you’re a small shop or even just a one-man show, you don’t have to buy specialized equipment. With the recent invention of a unique water based low cure additive, some water based inks can now cure at much lower temperatures. This also frees up printers to use water based inks on materials they previously would have had to rely on plastisol for, such as polyester and other synthetic fibers.
Another common issue that most shops run into when considering a change to a water based is a concern for color purity and intensity. Jarrod suggested adding more opaque additive to water based colors, which helps to raise the opacity. “Color matching with water based – that’s also tricky. It’s definitely one of those things that requires you have to have some color theory knowledge. Plastisol inks are pretty easy to mix, because they are forgiving. You can add more or less of a color and fix it, but with water based if you make a mistake it’s stuck.” Judy seemed more positive though. “Traditionally water based just printed out pastels, nowadays you can print the big bold plastisol ink colors with waterbased ink.” The US is only starting to catch up to the vast market of European and international brands of water based ink, but as manufacturers have begun to push the boundaries, qualities such as opacity and vibrancy have also begun to slowly catch up with their plastisol cousins.
Despite its challenge, switching to water based printing provides many benefits, including softer prints and easier cleanup. “The water based [ink] is so soft, you can’t tell the difference between the shirt and the ink,” Judy professed. While Jarrod said, “we’ve been printing water based for a year, and our printers love it, just because of the ease. The softness of the ink in particular, especially with discharge. It’s easy to clean up – no mess, and it washes up with water.” And the trend is growing. “Since we’ve started this out in September of 2013, it’s tremendous to see how many water based options there are, even from a year ago. I would hope this would continue, it’s just so much healthier! I’ve certainly seen it grow since we started this,” Judy told me.
It’s obvious that a switch to water based printing presents a number of challenges but dedication and a thirst for knowledge will set a shop up for success.
What You Can Do Today:
- Look for alternatives to pvc based plastisol inks, and if possible consider a switch to water based printing shop-wide.
- Take a class, do research, and start practicing with water based inks.
- Invest in a water-based appropriate dryer or air flash dryer, or find a water based low cure additive.
- Tip: Check to make sure your chemicals and emulsion are all water based compatible before making the change
Awareness in Eco-Consciousness
It’s worth it to mention that since the movement’s first rush to market, there have been questions about the authenticity of some “green” products. Often, with all of the earth-loving power that these products may possess, if used inappropriately, they can fall prey to the same toxic footprint as their chemical-laden brothers and sisters.
“Just because [the ink] is water based does not make it green. If the shop is not recycling the inks or disposing of them properly then the green factor goes away.” Brandon Lennert from Inferno Screen Printing (A water based and discharge only shop out of New Orleans.)
Many shops view eco-friendly chemicals as a one-stop solution for rendering their waste drainsafe, but that isn’t the case. While these eco-friendly solvents or chemicals may be safe by themselves, once they dissolve a plastisol ink or emulsion they become laden with non-safe materials. These should never go down the drain. While it’s inarguably better to use green chemicals, keep in mind that the eco-friendly nature of these chemicals are often reserved for the chemical alone and proper waste management should still be used.
Before you consider this a lost cause – Why would you use an eco-friendly chemical if it doesn’t even turn your byproduct drain safe? Remember, there are many people working with and around these chemicals who come in close contact with them daily. Health problems, such as cancer, skin conditions, and respiratory problems are often directly caused by these chemicals. Using eco-friendly solvents, chemicals, and other solutions, will help to save the health of your printers in the long run.
Not to worry though, by-products from chemicals, including eco-friendly ones, can be processed and filtered in a variety of ways. There are many shops who have found creative solutions for removing and filtering out their chemical waste.
“Try and keep as much ink as possible from going down [the drain]. With discharge [ink[, for example, I have met many printers that either pour waste ink down the drain or just throw gallons of waste in the trash. Any old / bad water based and discharge ink we have goes into 5 gallon buckets and upon half full we pour in cement and mix. After several days it is completely cured cement and safe to dispose of, or make into benches. Of course you can have a chemical waste company come and pick up, but many shops will not meet the amount needed for pick up. And they either do one of two things: harden the waste ink for disposal or incinerate at extremely high temps.” Jarrod
Ink Forest has also come up with a unique way to filter some of their waste solids. Judy explained that they use extra screen mesh at the bottom of their washout sink, which catches all of the dissolved particles and allows them to dispose of it without flowing down the drain.
If your shop is dedicated to going green, it may be worth it to invest in a filtration system for your waste water. Many states require a certain amount of filtration already, California being one of the strictest, so you should always review these laws before considering what you can and can’t pour down the sink.
What You Can Do Today:
- Invest in a filtration system, or create one of your own.
- Don’t put plastisol, water based inks or waste water down the drain.
Screen printing companies create a lot of waste beyond chemicals and inks. Rags, unused ink, clean-up materials, empty containers, used film, cardboard boxes, and at least a dozen other items get thrown into the garbage as part of daily practices. It’s easy to forget about these when you’re focused on changing to eco-friendly chemicals and learning the nuances of water based ink, but following the green initiative means being aware of the full impact of one’s actions.
Dan, owner of Forward Printing, an eco-conscious screen printing shop in California told me about his own experience. “After learning more about recycling I found that I was misinformed as to what is appropriate to recycle. Also, we see a lot of “greenwashing” in this industry. For instance, people claim to be eco-friendly just because they use water based ink. In reality, dumping water based ink is likely more damaging than plastisol. Ultimately it is all about how you manage your waste.”
There are a lot of ways to combat this waste creation. Commonwealth Press, a passionate screen printing shop out of Pittsburgh, wrote a very informative blog post about learning to recycle their old film positives, and Inferno Screen Printing uses old water based ink to color cement. Dan says he recommends “doing some research on organizations in your area that can help educate you, use common sense and make changes incrementally. It’s harder to get people to adopt good practices if they are bombarded with 20 new policies at once.” There are countless other items that can also be recycled or reused. Old or misprinted shirts can be cut into rags and used for cleaning, empty containers can be recycled, and used cardboard boxes can be re-printed for print shop branding.
What You Can Do Today:
- Re-brand and reuse your used cardboard boxes.
- Reduce your dumpster size by aggressively recycling.
- Reuse your misprinted shirts as shop rags.
- Recycle your old film positives, empty containers, and other plastics.
- Upgrade your lights to energy efficient models.
- Tip: You can often find incentives from your energy company or the local government for being more eco-friendly.
Making Green Work For You
While most would agree that adopting greener practices is a good idea, green practices require significant investment. Recycling program memberships cost money, water based printing can be tricky, and properly filtrating and removing waste and by-products is a time-consuming process, but many people argue that it’s worth it. Dan said, “I think you can actually save money if you promote sustainable practices.” Consider that if you do decide to market yourself as green, it’s a path that you’re going to have to commit to. “It is a good idea to tighten up your least environmentally friendly areas before reaching out to government agencies like the EPA. Once you are on their radar there’s a higher chance that they will visit your shop. It is a sad reality but many enforcement agents are just looking for things to fine you for,” he warned.
Ask any lifelong printer about their health and they will tell you about years spent inhaling mist adhesives and stripping fumes and the toll of the physical demands that printing takes on the body. The truth is that screen printing is a demanding and historically toxic environment in which to work. As safe as wearing ventilation masks and goggles are, using traditional cleaning chemicals isn’t a “green” process, and many long term printers deal with severe health problems down the road as a result. Brandon passionately shared, “It is just the correct thing to do. And even looking at it from a business perspective, [having] waste and not being efficient is bad for the bottom line.” For some printing shops, the bottom line is the most important thing, but as the consumer mind shifts toward a more eco-friendly approach, so do our own practices. Dan said he hopes the screen printing industry is moving towards greener practices as a whole, but “we are a stubborn bunch so I figure it will happen slowly.” Staying ahead of the curve will save you both money and time, as well as maintaining your health and the future of our earth.
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