Disappearing Inks

What The Future Holds For Plastisol

Disappearing InksFor years, plastisol inks containing PVC have been the screen-printing standard. But now, environmental worries may be changing everything.

It was four years ago that Latitudes and plastisol parted ways. The Portland, OR-based screen printer didn’t have a choice. Its top client – none other than Nike – had declared that all of its apparel decoration must be free of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. And because plastisol contains PVC, a synthetic polymer, Latitudes had to rethink almost its entire approach to printing.

The decorator spent months researching and held multiple “PVC-Free Summits” to test its options. The owners of the shop even traveled to Europe to search for a solution. But when it came time to switch in November of 2011, Latitudes didn’t have the luxury to slowly phase out plastisol.

“Instead of a gradual ramp-up, we pretty much hit a wall and had to go straight into it,” says Jamie McCrae, Latitudes’ production manager. The screen printer immediately went from printing 50,000 impressions a day to 6,000. Adds McCrae: “It took us maybe three weeks to get back up to 70%.”

While the breadth of ink and equipment alternatives has improved since then, the task of replacing plastisol remains a giant headache. The equipment requirements are different (and costly to replace), the processes are more labor-intensive, and changing over is no mere flip of the switch. “A lot of people have an unrealistic timeline to make the change,” says Rob Coleman, segment marketing manager of textile screen inks for Nazdar SourceOne. “They think they can do it in a month or two. By and large, depending on the size of your shop and how much you’re investing, it will take probably 8-12 months.”

Defining PVCWith so much difficulty involved, why are some of the largest screen printers in the country abandoning plastisol, the gold standard of user-friendly inks and the dominant ink chemistry in the United States? It’s because they don’t have another option – and, perhaps at some point in the future, neither will you.

Turning Green
During the summer of 2011, Greenpeace launched a new campaign labeled “Detox.” At the center was an investigative report from the environmental organization that highlighted water pollution caused by the textile industry. Greenpeace singled out several global apparel brands, starting with Nike and Adidas, and called on them to clean up their practices. Six weeks after the campaign was launched, Nike announced it was “committed to the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.”

The prevailing perception is that Greenpeace’s campaign spurred Nike to eliminate PVC in all forms – including plastisol ink, which contains a PVC resin. But Greenpeace’s “Dirty Laundry” report at the time only mentions PVC fleetingly and nowhere regarding apparel manufacturing or decoration.

The confusion underscores the complicated – and even controversial – environmental profile of PVC. Greenpeace and multitudes of other groups have urged manufacturers to phase the compound out of everything from electronics and toys to athletic shoes. PVC can contain phthalates and lead, and it releases toxic dioxins into the air if incinerated improperly.

And yet PVC is found in hundreds of everyday items – piping, insulation, flooring, blood bags and much more. In the case of plastisol, the PVC resin is encapsulated, and then fused to the garment. Because of that, when a garment is disposed, there is no runoff or migration, says Marci Kinter, vice president of government and business information for SGIA.

While the saber rattling against phthalates the last few years reached a crescendo, by contrast, the scrutiny of PVC has been a mere whisper. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes no mention of PVC. California’s Prop 65 regulates the presence of lead and phthalates in PVC, rather than limiting the amount of PVC in a product. “What we’re finding with the issues with PVC is that it’s very marketplace driven,” Kinter says. “It is not driven by any regulatory agency. Really, we see more issues with phthalates than the PVC.”

That was the case for Nike when it decided to replace plastisol. In 2010, Nike had introduced guidelines to “highlight ‘positive’ chemistries,” including PVC- and phthalate-free screen-printing inks. In its initial response to Greenpeace’s directive the following summer, Nike highlights its use of PVC-free ink as an example of its sustainability engagement, terming it “a major accomplishment for the apparel industry.”

And Nike isn’t the only one. According to Nazdar SourceOne, seven of the top 10 global apparel brands (including Zara, Adidas and Ralph Lauren) have partial or full PVC restrictions. That may affect a mere slice of decorators worldwide who work with those companies, but it also represents a significant volume of decorated garments. In short, the PVC initiative is surprisingly broad – and growing.

Because of that, “I can assure you on the ink side, that your big companies like Wilflex and Rutland are spending a significant portion of R&D on non-PVC technologies,” says Coleman. Plastisol alternatives may have been slim a few years ago, but the range of choices continues to improve. Rutland Plastic Technologies, for example, offers its EKO PVC-free plastisol (which uses an acrylic base), silicone ink and a variety of waterbase inks, including traditional and high-solid acrylic (also known as rubber ink).

The original EKO line was first developed in 2007, “but this last year has been the big year where it’s come forward and people have started really using it,” says Brian Lessard, print applications manager for Rutland.

Equipment manufacturers, too, have been forced to modify their offerings to accommodate these new inks. It was last fall at the SGIA show that M&R CEO Rich Hoffman flatly said: “We’re not even addressing plastisol anymore.” The company has developed a number of solutions to address two of the major issues with plastisol alternatives: the significant increase in necessary curing time and the need to flash between each color. Among other products at the show, M&R unveiled the Sprint 3000T, a tri-level version of its dryer that offers 30 feet of belt travel within a footprint of a 12-foot-long chamber.

“We have hundreds of customers that are large production shops, and they have their floors laid out around their equipment,” says David C. Zimmer, textile products manager for M&R. “You can’t simply tell the customer, ‘Sorry, but the new inks are going to require that you buy four times as much space for all your driers.’ And they’re not going to re-layout their entire shops either if they can avoid it. We’re trying to offer them a solution that fits within the footprint they already have built in.”

Rethinking Ink
Last year, Nazdar SourceOne surveyed the major screen-printing ink manufacturers to predict ink sales over the next few years. According to the results, in 2014, 70% of the ink sold was to be comprised of PVC inks. In 2018, the survey predicted a decline to 45%.

Those numbers underscore two major conclusions regarding PVC ink. One is this: Plastisol will still be the primary ink used in North America. The vast majority of screen printers – those who cater to the promotional products industry, small businesses and the average everyday user – will still trade in plastisol. There will be no external pressure on them from their customers to make a switch for safety reasons. “I think there’s always going to be a place for plastisol ink,” says Coleman.

The other conclusion: Traditional plastisol will still experience a dramatic decrease in usage. That change won’t occur without ramifications. When major brands champion an initiative, others tend to follow suit. Wal-Mart, for example, announced in 2007 that it was reducing or phasing out PVC in all of its products and packaging, yet the company still sells screen-printed garments with plastisol ink. “If a major retailer decides to buy into this whole thing,” says McCrae, “things will start moving pretty fast – much like the phthalate-free issue.”

The race to remove phthalates a few years ago highlights the wide-ranging aftershocks of regulation. Phthalates in children’s clothing and apparel decoration weren’t banned by product safety legislation several years ago, yet the scrutiny was so great that ink manufacturers were compelled to eliminate them from their formulations. Similar fallout can occur with PVC, either directly or indirectly as the result of regulation.

Zimmer likens it to the switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline – a mandate from the government where many had not seen an environmental concern. “I have a feeling,” says Zimmer, “it may not be up to the printers in the long run to make that decision.”

And the truth is, there are reasons beyond sustainable initiatives that are causing plastisol to dip. Traditional waterbase and discharge has become a leading method of decoration in retail, and it has driven customers to places like Forward Printing in Oakland, CA, which specializes in all things waterbase. Owner Dan Corcoran says none of his customers have mentioned PVC – they just want the soft-hand feel they see in retail. “Waterbase is going to be pushed forward by a lot of fashion brands,” he says.

Whatever the reason, replacing inks that contain PVC will certainly be more difficult, but it can be done. “It’s not as bad as they think,” says McCrae. He lists a number of reasons: It’s easier for small, agile shops to make the switch compared to large shops with dozens of employees and presses; the durability requirements for prints of companies like Nike far exceed what the average buyer will want; and the level of knowledge and products out now surpasses what was available a few years ago.

Despite all the hair-pulling, McCrae acknowledges that going PVC-free has made Latitudes a better shop. “It turns out we weren’t really as good a printer as we thought we were,” he says. “This whole exercise has made us much better.” – Email: cmittica@asicentral.com

PVC-Free Alternatives