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Garment Printing with a Conscience

(October 2004) posted on Fri Nov 12, 2004

Making social and environmental issues a priority in your daily operations may not seem practical when turnaround times and finances are tight. But if you follow the lead of garment printers who have researched the effects of sweatshop labor, chemically treated cotton, and ecologically unfriendly inks, you may just change your mind.


By Ben P. Rosenfield

Phthalates also are used in the production of plastisol inks. They're industrial plasticizers that increase PVC's flex-ibility. OSHA recognizes dibutyl phthalate as the plasticizer commonly used in printing inks. The organization's list of symptoms from exposure to dibutyl phthalate ranges from nose and upper respiratory tract irritation to pain and weakness of the upper and lower extremities. And the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI), part of Australia's Department of the Environment and Heritage, states that inhalation exposure at high levels may cause nausea, tearing of the eyes, vomiting, dizziness, and headache. The NPI also notes that long-term exposures may cause liver, kidney, and reproductive-organ damage and may harm a de-veloping fetus.

What are alternatives to conventional plastisols? Many screen-ink manufacturers have responded to printer demands for more environmentally responsible products by developing PVC- and phthalate-free inks for garment screen printing. Water-based ink also is a pop-ular alternative to plastisols. However, water-based ink can contain cosolvents, some of which may be petroleum based. These cosolvents are often added to decrease the time and heat required to achieve a good cure. As Roth explains it, "Just because the vehicle is water doesn't make it safe. It makes it a renewable resource."

The practicality of keeping plastisols around to satisfy customer demand also is a factor that can't be ignored. After all, staying in business is your top priority. "To make a legitimate, modern company that employs a lot of people, you can't be a purist," Roth says. "But you can push the envelope all the time about your own practices and you can be increasingly informed."

Real-world examples
T.S. Designs developed Rehance, a comprehensive garment-decorating method that works without plastisols or fabric-surface coatings, nearly six years ago. Rehance is a patented, water-based screen-printing and fabric-dyeing system that's based on nanotechnology. As Henry ex-plains it, "We're changing the way the cellulose fibers are going to react when they see the dyes." With Rehance, the shirt is printed and then garment dyed. This results in areas that will not dye and areas that absorb more of the dye.

Rehance requires the use of water-resistant emulsions and custom-built dryers that accommodate longer dwell times when curing the water-based components. "Once it's cured, it's sent to the garment dyers," Henry says. "These dyers are certified. They sign a contract to follow our procedures. It assures us of the results."


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