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Mineral oil-free inks are on par with conventional inks

Switching to mineral oil-free inks presents challenges for news publishers. WAN-IFRA and CITEO’s (France) new report sheds light on solutions to the challenges and highlights what printers must keep in mind before switching to these inks. Aultrin Vijay explains what these are

Ink manufacturers have long considered switching to mineral oil-free inks (MOF) links to achieve sustainability targets, in part due to strict government regulations on materials that harm the environment. Many news ink manufacturers have planned to transition away from mineral oil based inks, but the challenges are formidable.

Factors such as printing speed, ink misting, smearing, ink-water balance, de-inkability and so on play a vital role in the economics of print production. Experts from France and Germany spent the past 10 years researching ways to address the concerns regarding the use of mineral oil-based inks. The results have now been jointly published in WAN-IFRA and CITEO’s (France) latest report – ‘Circular economy: Changing to mineral oil-free inks’. The report on reducing mineral oils in web offset inks was also done with the participation of AGRAPA and UBA (Germany), in helping to address the myriad issues noted above.

Why mineral oil-free inks?

Nigel Wells, Editor, OPHAL and Associate, Ecograf, France, and also managing editor of the report, lists three key reasons to switch to MOF inks:

  • MO inks are harmful to human health.
  • It contaminates the paper recycling chain.
  • It undermines circular economy efficiency.

Wells said, “Web offset inks are the largest source of mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH), and it’s been declared a priority to eliminate them, to avoid the transfer of residues through recycling.”

In the past few years, regulatory controls on web-offset inks in Germany and France have forced ink manufacturers to look at sustainable alternatives. The report brings together all of the independent work undertaken by these two countries with shared objectives for the new inks.

Real world tests yield good results

Studies on MOF inks began in Germany in 2012. Later, the German Environment Agency (UBA) and Arbeitsgemeinschaft Graphische Papiere (AGRAPA) projects kicked off with newly designed inks. “We tested the printability and ink consumption patterns. Short-term and long-term tests were performed under real conditions. We measured the mineral oil content in the print product itself and its deinkability,” Philipp Stolper, head of Department Materials and Environment, Fogra, said.

Early results were not satisfactory, so a number of tweaks were made. The latest generation of inks have been showing good results when used on different materials and rollers. Stolper said the consumption pattern of MOF inks was comparable to conventional inks. However, the de-inkability of these inks depended on the ink manufacturer and the paper that was used but yielded good results. Combining MOF inks with conventional ones was possible. For instance, black MOF ink could be used with three conventional inks of different colours. Though the ink-water balance is different from conventional inks, colour reproduction, misting and soiling behaviour was almost similar.

Long-terms tests conducted in Germany show that MOF inks could be used in practical print production and also conform to German regulations on mineral oil inks.

MOF inks are deinkable, French study finds 

CITEO, a private non-profit company, has been entrusted by the French authorities to ensure a transition to circular economy. “We started the project in 2017, and we based our study on the German research because they have already done a lot of work,” Seheno Ratsimbazafy, Ecodesign Director, CITEO, France said. The new French regulation demands a move from low mineral oil to mineral oil-free inks in 2025. This ban applies to inks only, and it applies to all printers supplying in France and wherever the inks are produced.

The objective of the study was to not only use reduced MOH inks but also assess the technical performance, printability, de-inkability, and economic balance. It also tried to identify whether the alternate inks were better, same, or worse than the conventional mineral oil inks.

“De-inkability of the new inks was the first criterion we wanted to check. The results were good for many inks; almost all of them were easily de-inkable,” Ratsimbazafy said.

Tests on MOF inks produced “really good results”, but with a caveat: the costs of these inks could increase by 30 to 50 per cent. This means printers must plan in advance to purchase these inks due to its limited availability. Heatset and waterless inks, although not compatible with the new French regulations, were also tested to assess the quality of colour reproduction. The results were similar in most cases. “All printers and suppliers agreed that the performance of mineral oil-free inks was technically equal, if not better, than conventional inks,” Ratsimbazafy said.

Strict European regulations

Strict regulations have forced the two European countries to look for solutions through discussions with all the stakeholders in the value chain. Though the objectives were common, the strategies were different. In Germany, AGRAPA signed a voluntary commitment with the Minister of Environment in 2023 for a 50 per cent transition to MOF news inks in 2025 and 100 per cent by 2028. However, in France, mineral oil in paper was banned in 2020. It was prohibited for packaging in 2022, and for commercial advertising in 2023. From 2025, mineral oils will be banned on all printed products (newspapers, magazines, books, catalogues).

High costs, availability issues remain major concerns

The transition to mineral oil-free inks comes at a cost. Printers are ready to adopt the new inks, but the higher purchase costs have held them back, according to Wells. The availability of these inks is also a major concern, requiring long-term planning and extensive discussions with the ink supplier. Some recommendations are to better understand ink consumption measurement and how to reduce cost.

France and Germany represent about 35 percent of total coldset production in Europe in 2022. A European cross-industry platform to accompany the transition to MOF inks seems viable. “Now, it really needs a European discussion on where to go next,” Wells concluded.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer is a media analyst with WAN-IFRA.)