Is Waterbase Ink More Eco-Friendly Than Plastisol?

April 7, 2015 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

EcoPokerHave you noticed that more and more products claim to be ‘Green’ or ‘Eco-Friendly’?  Since these claims are largely unregulated, it should come as no surprise that many are unsupported by the facts, misleading and/or flat out incorrect.   In our world, we’re often asked why non-PVC products (such as water base inks) are considered ‘Green’ and PVC plastisols aren’t.  Is one truly friendlier to the environment than the other?  Not necessarily.  Here is more from Steve Kahane regarding this topic, recently published in Impressions:

As a manufacturer of PVC, water base and other plastic coatings, we have a long history with plastics and their constituent materials.  We may be best known in the industry for our PVC plastisol inks, but we have been making and selling water base inks for many years.  (We also manufacture water base paints for the traffic marking industry.)  We see and understand the differences between PVC and water base plastic products.  And yes, water base inks, like PVC plastisol, are plastic.

Fact or Fiction?

Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace and one of its leaders for 15 years, has been an outspoken critic of false environmental claims, in particular with regard to PVC.  Dr. Moore left Greenpeace when it shifted away from science-based policies to what he felt was emotion-based confrontation.  That confrontation has driven much of the unsupported arguments against PVC products, and has helped propagate a lot of the misinformation on what is and what isn’t environment-friendly.

Dr. Moore points out that PVC offers many environmental benefits including sustainability, safety, and durability.  PVC requires less energy and fewer resources to manufacture than old-tech materials, and its production creates virtually no waste.  Because of these and other attributes, PVC is now the second largest-selling plastic in the world.  PVC pipe accounts for more than 70% of the new buried water distribution pipes being installed in the US and Canada.  And PVC/vinyl is an integral component of blood bags and IV tubing used around the world.  (To learn more, refer to Dr. Moore’s book Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout, The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, Beatty Street Publishing, 2010)

The Science

PVC plastisols have been and continue to be the inks of choice in North America for good reason.  They’re versatile, easy to use, cost efficient and they’re safe.  Plastisols don’t dry in the screen because they don’t cure until they are heated.  Plastisols are considered ‘100% solids’ and consequently provide virtually a 100% yield.

Water base inks are plastic compounds comprised largely of plastic binders and solvents.  The binder is usually an acrylic or a urethane that is suspended in water and other co-solvents.  Water base inks aren’t as popular as plastisols in North America largely because they’re not as easy to use (drying in the screen), not as efficient (lower yields, waste) and in the case of some ‘high-solids’ inks, are more expensive.

Claims that water base inks are more environment friendly than plastisols are questionable at best.  Both inks rely on plastic resins or binders, pigments, fillers and various chemical additives.  Plastisols contain plasticizers that cross-link with the plastic resin.  These plasticizers don’t evaporate off but become part of the ink film.   Water base inks, on the other hand, rely on solvents that evaporate off leaving the pigmented binder compounds on the garments.  While the primary solvent is water, water base inks often contain co-solvents such as formaldehyde and alcohols.  These co-solvents may be harmful and put printers at risk unless they are properly protected from the evaporative fumes.


Plastisols and water base inks have environmental footprints that are quite different.  Water base printing generally requires more energy (to drive off the moisture).  At the end of a print day, plastisol can be left on the screen or put back in the bucket for use at another time.  Not necessarily so with water base inks.  Water base printing tends to generate more waste, and that waste quite often is mistakenly poured down the drain.

The common misconception is that water base inks are benign since they’re largely water.  Not so.  They are chemical compounds that aside from the harmful co-solvents, contain other chemicals (binders, fillers, additives and pigments).  Some of these chemicals are considered hazardous and must be managed as such.  Plastisol waste that can’t be reused can often be recycled for other uses or when cured can be disposed as a regular plastic.  Water base binder in some cases may be disposed similarly if all solvents have been evaporated.

The point here is not that plastisol is better than water base ink.  It’s that water base isn’t necessarily better or greener than plastisol.  It’s not.  Much of how green your shop is comes more from how you manage it – materials, energy and workflow.

So the next time you hear a claim about one product being green or greener than the next, take the time to understand the basis for that assertion.  It just might be that someone is trying to hook you into a game of liar’s poker.

Steve Kahane is International Coatings’ president and CEO.   Prior to joining International Coatings, he held senior executive positions in the environment and engineering fields.  Steve holds a Doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering as well as a Masters in Environmental Health.  In addition, he served on the faculty of the UCLA School of Public Health where he taught a core course on environmental health.

International Coatings manufactures a complete line of non-phthalate screen printing inks, including a wide variety of whites, specialty inks, special effects inks, color matching systems, additives and reducers. For more information on our products, please visit our website at


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