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Water-Based Inks: An Eco-Friendly Solution for Special-Effects Garment Printing

(November 2008) posted on Mon Nov 10, 2008

The search for sustainability pushes many screen printers to rethink their production methods and consumables choices. Read on to learn why water-based inks are a viable solution and discover how you can use the latest formulations to produce unique effects on garments.

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By Ed Branigan

Most garment screen printers look to water-based inks when ask-ed to suggest environmentally friendly alternatives for apparel decoration. The common wisdom is that if the ink is water soluble, and no mineral spirits or harsh chemicals are used in clean up, then it can’t be harmful. Some will say there are limits to what you can do with water-based inks—you can only use low mesh counts, and you can’t print on dark shirts. The fear sets in almost as soon as the words are spoken. You’ll hear that the water-based inks will dry in your screens. Then comes the nightmarish image of a 100º summer afternoon, where the inside of the shop feels like a baker’s oven, nerves are frayed, screens are caulking up, and the dreaded deadline is looming. Few will admit they enjoy working with water-based ink systems, but you should reserve judgment until you’ve had a chance to learn about and experience the benefits and drawbacks of water-based inks in the variety of textile applications for which they’re suited.


A few facts about water-based inks

Most traditional water-based systems contain 60%-70% water, which gives the impression that they’re safe and leads to the assumption that the remaining 30%-40% solids content is not subject to local and/or federal rules concerning disposal and safe handling. It is, in fact, required that water-based inks be handled in much the same manner as plastisol inks in this regard. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) must accompany all shipments and be available to any printer who uses the product. Water-based inks do release VOCs, so proper ventilation is required.

Water-based inks have been used for garment printing since the late 1950s. While the arrival of plastisols revolutionized the mass-production capacity for T-shirt printing and, over the years, has taken a larger slice of market share—particularly as the technology has advanced—water-based inks still have retained a niche and have remained a core tool for many printers.


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