The age-old dilemma of adverse effects of technological advancements on the ecological balance resurfaces when one looks at the impact of printing ink and paper on the environment.
Despite a lot being said about the ill-effects of our increased reliance on the process of printing and growing humdrum around green initiatives, the global work culture is still far from adopting the utopian paperless communication and documentation process.
The fact that PDF files, e-mails and soft copies of documents have failed to reign over their printed counterparts is evident from the fact that the global consumption of paper has increased three-fold in less than three decades.
However, even today a majority of people do not think of the long term hazards before pressing the print button.
Ironically, a substantial number isn’t even aware of the fact that the printing process impacts the ecology on multiple levels and the loss is not just limited to losing trees for manufacturing more and more paper.
Environmental Impact of Printing Ink: How Real is the Threat?
- Have you ever thought about the composition of ink, cartridges and toner used in the printing process?
- Have you ever spared a thought about the environmental impact of ordering a print job?
These facts about the ill-effects of printing ink will establish how tangible the threat is:
- Over 350 million waste cartridges of toner and ink are disposed off every year in the US alone.
- Decomposition of empty ink cartridges can take up to a 1,000 years
- Similarly, the manufacturing process of one toner cartridge leads to emission of 4.8 kg of Carbon Dioxide
- Toner cartridges are laden with harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known to be hazardous to human health.
There are top concerns and reasons why in majority of western countries exist special niche of business, called “managed print services“ which capitalize on reducing costs and environmental impact of printing jobs they offer to environmentally responsible companies.
How Printing Ink Impacts the Ecology
The printing process affects the environment and disturbs the ecological balance on more than one level. Right from the raw materials used to manufacture inks and other elements such as solvents and toners used, the production process, their application and waste disposal, every aspect of the printing process has adverse effects on the environment in one way or the other.
Printing inks are manufactured from a wide array of raw materials. A significant number of inks available in the markets today use natural and renewable resources such as vegetable oil, cellulose derivatives, ethyl acetate and ethanol derived from natural bio-sources, as their components.
However, these natural raw materials form only a part of the entire composition and their proportion depends on the printing process for which the ink will be used. Apart from these renewable resources, these inks are laden with metals and other elements which are considered harmful not only for human health but also for the environment.
The four toxic metals present in almost all printing inks include mercury, lead, hexavalent chromium, and cadmium. Besides, some other metallic elements such as nitrogen oxides and tri-organo tin present in printing inks are known to environmental hazards on aquatic life, ozone layer and the atmosphere at large.
Though the hazards may not be as substantial, the process of manufacturing printing inks causes certain emissions that have ill-effects on soil, air and water. The manufacturing of printing inks leads to emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), extender dusts and pigments into the atmosphere.
In addition to this, the manufacturing process leads to generation of waste streams and dumping of excess solid waste materials into the landfills. Though there are a large number of regulations in place to check the generation of harmful by-products in the manufacturing of printing inks, the generation of harmful waste products cannot be completely ruled out.
The negative impacts of inks and toners used in printers is not restricted to just the raw materials and manufacturing processes alone; even the process of application of the inks, solvent and toners has its side-effects on the environment. The Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) emitted during the process leads to photochemical reactions which are harmful to the atmosphere.
The energy requirements of the printing process also have its implications on the environments. Wastage of ink in the process of printing, release of solvent-based cleaning fluids, as by products, and dumping of empty, dry ink containers in open landfills are some of the common repercussions of application of inks in the printing process.
The disposal process of used ink and toner cartridges and other waste products generated in printing process pose great environmental risks. Though great emphasis is being laid on reuse of used cartridges to minimize environmental hazards and make waste management more effective, collection and sorting of empty cartridges, particularly those made of plastic, acts as a roadblock.
The basic calorific content and slow process of biodegradation – an empty ink cartridge can take up to 1000 years to wither away – adversely effects the landfills, and thereby disturbing the ecological balance.
Environmental Impacts of Printing Paper
The use of ink in printing is not the only factor to blame for ecological imbalance – the increased use of paper and the production process to meet the ever growing requirements too has serious effects on the environment.
Affluent released from paper mills are a leading cause of land, water and air pollution, so much so that the pollution caused due to paper production is often separately categorized as paper pollution. Waste generated from paper, like most other waste materials, contains toxic elements such as polymers, dyes and inks, which have carcinogenic elements in high quantities.
In fact, the process of paper recycling is also not entirely pollution free.
Gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), responsible for greenhouse emissions, are emitted in large quantities from paper mills in the process of paper production.
Besides these gases, affluent released in liquid forms pollutes water streams and landfills, alike.
Also, felling of trees for paper production has adverse effects on the ecological balance. Statistically put, pulp extracted from a single tree can make up to 80,500 A4 paper sheets. More stats here.
In all, none of the printing processes and elements used in the present times offers a universally environmentally congenial solution. Taking a serious look at greener initiatives such as paperless offices is the only way to save the environment from the hazardous impact of printing ink and related processes.