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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

One of the last hurdles for water-based inks to cross was their use for special-effects printing. The wide range of applicability of plastisols in special-effects printing is well known to some and not surprising to those less experienced. High-density, gel, suede, metallics, and thermosetting bases are some of the more prominent products, and they can be used to achieve all manners and types of texture, loft, or shine.

Many types of curable and non-curable reducers also can give a soft hand, rivaling the softness of water-based inks. But all of these reducers contain PVC and phthalates, heavy metals, as well as some of the lesser known culprits, which render them not environmentally friendly.

Many of the PVC- and phthalate-free plastisols currently on the market do not have the specialty bases with which to achieve the same looks as their PVC-containing cousins. However, some of the newer high-solids, water-based inks available do have some supporting additives and a widened application range as a result.

While clear gel currently is unattainable in a water-based format, you can use metallics, thickening agents, and puff additives to create considerable loft, as well as a suede look and feel (Figures 2 and 3). The higher solids content allows the printer to produce a thicker ink film and build on that film by using a thicker stencil to create very original textures. Foil adhesives and glitter bases are available, and foil can be applied to the ink itself to create textured, vintage look (Figure 4). Simply adding water to reduce the opacity of the ink can produce a washed-out effect. Add distressed artwork and an enzyme wash to enhance this concept (Figures 5 and 6).

Bear in mind that some of the additives are PVC- and phthalate-free, and they contain no heavy metals, pesticides, AZO, PCP, or biphenyls. This makes them very environmentally friendly, according to current standards.


Keep watching water-based inks

The addition of longer shelf life and the ability to rescue inks that have lost moisture by using emulsifiers also lessens waste and adds to their sustainability. All in all, the future looks bright for water-based inks. The trend toward protection of the environment is evident in all sectors of the economy and looks set to intensify. We’ll eventually reach a point where screen-printing inks will be entirely eco-friendly and the toxins that were once a strong part of their formulations will become relics of the past.

Water-based inks, by their very nature, are uniquely poised to make quite a contribution to this movement within the screen-printing industry. While plastisols will not go away any time soon, you could argue that as ink manufacturers spend more time in R&D of water-based, eco-friendly ink products—especially with respect to specialty printing—they can easily capture as large a share of the market.


Ed Branigan is International Coatings’ print products applications manager. He’s responsible for product development, client and marketing support, and conducting training workshops and seminars. Branigan’s background in the industry spans several high-profile printing operations, and he served as a journeyman printer and production supervisor in his native Ireland prior to coming to the US. Branigan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the National Institute of Higher Education in Dublin, Ireland.





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