How to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Lithographic Ink Wastes
Ink waste creates a disposal cost for the printer, but
also represents a less than optimum use of purchased raw materials.
In the extremely competitive world of commercial printing, reducing
ink wastes and their costs just makes good business sense.
This fact sheet discusses several ink management techniques that
increase the opportunities to prevent, reuse, and recycle waste ink.
A list of ink recycling service providers is also included.
Managing Ink Waste
Most lithographic inks are not classified as hazardous wastes
under state and federal regulations. The exception is if an ink
contains pigments with heavy metals (for example, cadmium, lead or
chromium), or if the ink is mixed with solvents classified as
hazardous wastes. Proper disposal of ink wastes can be expensive,
but is necessary to meet regulatory compliance requirements, and at
least as importantly, to minimize liabilities faced by a printer. To
be landfilled, waste ink must be in a non-liquid state or otherwise
Many printers dispose of their inks by sending them to a
fuel-blending service, which combines and forwards these and other
wastes for burning at industrial boilers or kilns. Burning the inks
reduces the potential exposure to litigation and cleanup costs to
which a printer could otherwise be exposed if a landfill is used and
it experiences groundwater contamination problems.
Whether waste inks are burned or landfilled, costs can be reduced
by minimizing the generation of ink wastes and internally re-using
inks whenever possible. Recycling services can sometimes be used to
reclaim remaining waste inks, although presently these services are
more practical for web press operations, especially those with
larger amounts of waste inks. Whether ink can be reused or recycled
is dependent upon the quality of the ink waste that is generated.
Waste ink can typically be classified in one of the following two
- Uncontaminated, excess ink - this category includes ink that
has not been used in the press fountain. Although it can be
recycled, reuse of this ink is usually a more cost-effective means
of managing it.
- Contaminated, combined ink - this ink has been used in the
press fountain and is commonly contaminated with paper fibers,
solvents, or other colors of ink. For these inks to be recycled,
they typically must be filtered, reconditioned and reblended. The
remainder of this fact sheet addresses strategies for reducing ink
wastes, internally reusing inks whenever possible, and using
recycling services for remaining inks when use of these services
is technically and economically practical.
Reducing The Volume of Ink Waste Generated
There are many practical ways for sheetfed and web lithographic
printers to reduce the volume of waste ink generated:
- Help press operators to accurately estimate the amount of ink
needed for each job through training in ink estimating techniques.
Keep accurate records of the quantity of ink that is used for
specific jobs, particularly for repeat customers' jobs or
- Use a standard ink sequence - from light to dark ink.
- Monitor your ink inventory and use existing stock according to
the "first in - first out" strategy. Test any out-of-date ink for
usability before you consider it waste ink.
- Carefully label, log, and store special-order colors for
future use rather than dumping them into waste ink drums.
- Donate ink that you no longer use to schools, or give the ink
to other printers, rather than pay for disposal. (Colleges,
universities and vocational/tech schools with graphic arts
programs often have small on-site print shops.)
- Use an automatic ink leveler to maintain the desired ink level
in the fountain.
- Dedicate presses to specific colors or special inks to
decrease the number of cleanings required for each press.
- Keep in communication with ink suppliers regarding proper use
and handling procedures for their inks.
Ink Management Techniques for Better Reuse and Recycling
To maximize the opportunities for ink reuse and recycling:
- Do not mix small quantities of leftover or obsolete inks with
different colors of ink.
- Keep different types of ink separate.
- Store excess ink in properly sealed and labeled containers.
Place plastic or waxed paper on top of sheetfed ink, and/or spray
the ink with an anti-skinning agent, or cover the ink with an oil
consistent with printing inks to prevent oxidation.
- Do not dip knives deeply into sheetfed inks. Removing the ink
evenly from the top surface of the ink can reduces the surface
area of the ink exposed to oxidation.
- Transfer used ink back to the original empty containers and
prevent drying by keeping the ink containers sealed.
- Clearly mark the containers used to collect waste ink to
prevent mistakenly discarding it. Avoid contamination with
solvents and trash (e.g., floor sweepings, cigarette butts, etc.).
Don't treat excess ink as waste. Instead, manage it like a
manufacturing by-product that should be re-introduced, as much as
possible, back into the manufacturing system.
Reusing Excess Ink
Excess ink results from overestimating ink usage at the press or
at the time of ink purchase. Whenever possible, return unopened cans
of excess ink to the supplier. Reusing excess ink in one of the
manners described below can reduce both your virgin ink purchasing
costs and your waste ink disposal costs: Mix excess ink, including
black and/or colored inks, on-site to produce usable ink. Many
printers like the quality of the black ink produced from mixing
colored inks, because the colored inks are of such a high quality
which produces a richer, darker black tone. Mix excess ink with
virgin ink of the same color, provided that the excess ink is
contaminant-free. Use a computer software program, such as "The
MixMaster" to keep track of ink in your inventory and to produce
recipes for needed PMS colors from excess ink in stock. If volume is
large enough, consider installing a computerized color match system
equipped with color scanners.
Recycling Waste Ink
Ink recyclers take waste inks and reprocess them, along with
necessary additives, to make recycled ink. Opportunities for
recycling web offset inks are growing, but are currently very
limited for sheetfed inks. Consider the following advantages to
recycling waste ink:
- The cost of fuel-blending or landfilling the ink can be
avoided. The avoided cost typically results in a savings of $100
to $200 per 55-gallon drum.
- Liability associated with ink disposal is minimized.
- The recycled ink meets new ink specifications and is available
to you at a savings compared to new ink prices.
- Business with environmentally sensitive customers may
increase, if they are aware that you recycle.
Typically, ink recycling service providers filter the ink to
remove impurities, mix the ink with oil or otherwise adjust its
physical characteristics. Some blend the recycled ink with new ink
to ensure that product specifications are being satisfied. Some ink
recyclers will mix colored inks to produce black inks. Others have
the capability of recycling color for color, if large volumes of
colored ink are generated. Most ink recyclers will return your
recycled ink to you.
Some service providers will accept ink for recycling which is not
returned, but sold to other printers.
Current Status of the Availability of Ink Recycling Service
On behalf of PNEAC, SHWEC has identified ink recyclers that serve
printers located throughout the United States and Canada. Most of
these companies offer recycling services for both heatset and
non-heatset inks from web presses.
Economies of scale associated with ink volumes affect the
feasibility of recycling. Therefore, accumulating a large quantity
of waste ink reduces the cost of recycling the ink on a per pound or
per drum basis. However, as demand increases, and the technology for
processing sheetfed ink improves, it is likely that the availability
and affordability of sheetfed ink recycling will increase.
Another limitation on the recycling of sheetfed inks is the
difficulty of removing "skinning" layers, which are caused by drying
agents in the ink. Removing and disposing of each "skin," or dry
layer, is necessary to recycle ink in some processes; however, the
process is labor intensive, and reduces the overall volume of ink
available for recycling. "Skinning" can be prevented by placing an
anti-oxidant material in waste sheetfed ink drums, or by covering
the ink with a thin layer (1/2 inch) of oil that is compatible with
Printers that are successfully reusing and recycling lithographic
ink include General Litho Services in Minneapolis, MN and Quad
Graphics, headquartered in Pewaukee, WI. These companies are saving
money, improving shop productivity, and reducing environmental
liability through reducing ink wastes.
The following list is provided solely as a service to printers
desiring more information about recycling lithographic inks. The
information is voluntarily supplied and listed alphabetically. It is
not necessarily a complete list of available services or suppliers
and does not represent an endorsement by SHWEC or PNEAC.
By providing the list, neither SHWEC nor PNEAC represents that
the companies listed are or are not in compliance with applicable
laws. Users of this list should use appropriate caution and
discretion in assuring that providers of ink recycling services
follow applicable federal and state laws when transporting and
*Additional savings result from avoiding disposal costs for used
Prepared by: Wayne Pferdehirt, Waste Reduction and Management
Specialist, SHWEC. Assisted by Dan Boehm, Danelle Kratzer, Kristin
Andersen and Robert Gifford. SHWEC document #425.WP.9905.
For more information, contact the University of
Wisconsin-Extension, Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center
(SHWEC) at 610 Langdon Street, Rm. 529, Madison, WI 53703.
Telephone: 608/262-0385, Fax: 608/262-6250.
Last Updated: May, 1999.