Solving the Solvents Issue

Given today’s large and growing interest in green, sustainable solutions, aggressive solvent printers appear to be falling out of favor with many. That naturally invites the question whether solvent technology has a future in the industry.

In an effort to help solve the solvent dilemma, we recently talked with a variety of wide-format imaging experts about their views of the future. What, we asked them, ar e the odds of future government regulations focused on solvent printing? How will any such regulations impact smaller shops lacking the budgets to afford newer and greener equipment? And what viable options are available to replace solvent printers?

The answer to any questions regarding sustainability needs to take a broader view than just printers, says Marci Kinter, vice-president of the SGIA in Fairfax, VA.

“In talking about sustainability, I’m not just looking at one component,” she says. “I’m not looking at just the equipment, the printer, or the chemicals. It’s really a more holistic approach involving more than just whether I’m using solvent printers.”

Many printers like to examine their input chemicals alone, trying to convince themselves if they change those chemicals, they will be transformed into a green printer. Kinter and her colleagues don’t advocate that position. Instead, they suggest examining energy and materials usage, environmental regulations, employee health and safety concerns. “All that should go into the choice, not just what types of inks you’re using,” she says. “If you look at whether solvent printing has a future, I would say yes, because screen printing can still only be done with solvent inks.”

A number of other professionals agree solvent printing will continue to be used, at least in the near term. Among them is Sterling Keays, president of Fredericton, New Brunswick-based Massive Graphics, a 12-year-old Canadian company producing tradeshow exhibits, vehicle wraps and museum exhibits for clients throughout North America.

For the immediate future, solvent printing will remain a workhorse for companies like his, Keays says. His clients particularly value the warranty vinyl manufacturers provide when solvent inks are used. “When they are offering the same or better warranties with UV curable or other chemistries, we will look at switching,” he says.

Also worth considering is the number of solvent printers currently in use, says Terry Amerine, segment manager for FujiFilm Sericol in Kansas City, KS. There’s a very large installed base of such printers, and that’s not going to change overnight, he argues. He expects that as wide-format imaging professionals purchase printers, they will follow their consciences and examine greener solutions.

However, he adds, “The statement we’ve always made is people love the color of green, but business owners are more motivated by green—as in money. It has to be economically viable. Business owners are not going to sacrifice the bottom line to be greener. Many times buyers want the greener solution, but aren’t willing to pay for it.”

Another observer, San Francisco-based consultant in business development for digital graphics Steve Beard, takes a similar but blunter view.

Noting he’s been called an early adopter of “disruptive technology” who’s “now taking the more pragmatic approach of an environmental realist,” Beard says the industry has pretty much thrown its weight behind solvent printers, whether it likes it or not. “They made machines smaller, and they proliferated, and now we’re stuck with solvent printers,” he says. “Now, unfortunately, the market has spent its money on the solvent printers. There’s not enough business in this economy, and with the lack of credit, it basically can’t afford to move away from solvent. If you ask a small shop to spend more on a UV printer, they don’t have the money, credit being what it is.

“In this market, ‘green’ isn’t the driver. It’s the other green.”

More Government Regulations

The general consensus among those we spoke with is that additional regulations from federal, state and local governments are a fait accompli. Given the well-articulated philosophy of the current administration, it’s likely federal regulations will only become more stringent, Amerine says. For her part, Kinter believes more and more regulations will be part of the future, and will not only focus on inks but overall solvent usage, including clean-up solvents used within print facilities.

Regs will address air permitting issues, and issues of hazardous and solid waste, she predicts. “Many regulations are already in place, but a number of smaller and even larger output facilities are unclear how the regulations impact them,” she says.

“The regulations will never say, ‘You cannot use this equipment.’ What the regulations may do is put a limit on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by any one facility. The regulatory agencies don’t really care about how you lower your VOC emissions, they just mandate those emissions be lowered. That may or may not impact the smaller print facilities. And to be honest, many of the smaller facilities may never be impacted, from the standpoint of emissions. But from the employee safety standpoint, they’re already impacted. That’s because OSHA regulations do not exempt facilities on the basis of the number of employees they have.”

Up north, Keays embraces a perspective not unlike that of Kinter. The only additional government regulations Canada is likely to witness in the near future involve proper venting and workplace safety, he says. Wide-format printers are not the only folks using harsh chemicals. Offset printers may be using vegetable based inks, but they are still cleaning their presses with solvents, he asserts.

Moreover, Keays says any government regulations requiring a small shop to stop using solvent inks cannot take place overnight. Owners will have to be granted ample time to switch equipment and materials before regulations are enforced.

“I, as an owner, have been saddled with a lease on a perfectly good piece of equipment I could not use because the technology was not current,” he says.

“This was my own choice as an owner. [It was] not necessarily a good one but at the time, we had to upgrade our technology to stay competitive and eat the least payments on the old equipment. Most shop owners will upgrade their equipment at some point. If they do not, their businesses will probably fail.”

Keays also argues there are issues other than solvent inks the industry must address. One is how to dispose of release liners. He tries to use as many liners as he can for packaging, but acknowledges they will eventually go into landfills.

“The coating on the release liners prevent the paper from being recycled,” he notes. “I have found a company that will take my core ends and polyester laminate waste and recycle them into roofing shingles. But, in my opinion, we have a lot of unnecessary waste due to manufacturers’ greed. I own a printer that uses 440 ml. ink cartridges that can’t be recycled. It is made from plastic with some circuit boards and never completely empties. If the manufacturer had a little vision when designing this machine, it would use larger, refillable ink containers that are recyclable.”

Replacing Solvents

Finding viable alternatives to replace solvent printers involves imaging pros uncovering options that work with their shops’ product mixes, Kinter says. Each needs to evaluate what technology makes most sense for their particular output. It doesn’t make sense to embrace a technology that won’t work with their customer base.

Kinter envisions regulators not dictating what equipment to use, but rather setting limits to encourage printers to examine alternate technologies to lower their emissions.

Print professionals may also decide on their own, without compliance considerations, to examine how to lower their environmental footprint. “We’re seeing a number of printers come to that decision of their own volition,” she observes.

Examining the options out there, Amerine argues the answer is not eco-solvents. Despite their name and reputation, he says, eco-solvents contain VOCs and hazardous pollutants. Their advantage is decreased odor that makes them easier to deal with for small shops. A small printer may be housed in a strip center next to a nail salon and a restaurant, making the odor of solvent printing unacceptable. “If they’re running a strong solvent, you’re going to smell it as soon as you walk in the door,” he says.

At FujiFilm Sericol, he and his colleagues are strong proponents of UV curable printing. Because UV curable inks are 100 percent solid, ink stays on the film and doesn’t evaporate into the air, and it cures through a chemical reaction resulting from exposure to UV light. The problem, he admits, is cost. Most UV systems run $75,000 to $100,000 on the low end, a major step up in expense from the $15,000 to $20,000 Amerine estimates many small print shops spend on each of their printers.

That’s why it’s essential to examine not just the cost of the UV curable machines, but cost per square foot to print. “UV curable printers may be more expensive, but the yields on UV ink tend to be significantly greater,” he says. “That’s the equation we always look at: your costs per square foot.”

For Beard, the prime issue still is the current economy, and the fact cash-strapped customers of shops are not willing to pay more for products generated by more environmentally friendly technologies. “There is a driving force toward more sustainable technologies, but in this economy, it’s kind of bogged down,” he says.

What will occur down the line, Beard believes, is the industry will revert more toward a hub print-only model. Sign shops, for instance, would no longer do everything themselves, and would instead have to outsource more of their work.

He cites an automotive analogy. If you had only a Model T, gasoline were to be suddenly banned, and you couldn’t afford an electric car, you’d stop using the Model T but would be forced to give up driving. The same is true if regulations made solvent printing untenable. Print professionals, Beard says, “won’t have revenue required to justify replacing those machines with more sustainable print technologies.”