How Europe is leading the way in sustainable oil-based inks

Plant-based inks are growing fast – bringing with them a range of benefits.

Oil Based Ink

According to a report released in January by the Business Research Company (Oil-Based Printing Inks Global Market Report 202), the global oil-based ink market is set to experience robust growth over the next four years. It’s expected to achieve a compound annual growth rate of 4.1% a year, putting the market size at $14.64 billion in 2028, up from $12.47 billion in 2024. This expansion is driven by the growth in more sustainable, plant-based inks, with Europe spearheading the way as largest market.

Plant-based inks, which includes those made from soybeans and vegetable oils such as corn, canola and sunflower, are more environmentally friendly than traditional mineral/petroleum-based inks. Not only are they a renewable resource, but they are more effectively biodegradable. Moreover, paper printed with plant-based inks can more successfully be recycled too, as the inks themselves are easier to remove during the de-inking process.

Using plant-based inks can even contribute to a healthier workplace as, compared to traditional petroleum-based inks, they contain significantly lower volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, exposure to high doses of which can cause severe health problems. Mineral-based inks may also pose health risks when used on food packaging, meaning alternatives such as plant-based inks are a great option here.


The effects of EU regulations

According to the Business Research Company study, the demand for plant-based inks is driven by the increasing necessity for environmentally friendly inks. In Europe, legislative action is promoting the use of more sustainable materials, such as plant-based inks, and penalising or phasing out fossil-based items.

For example, the Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted in 2020 as part of the European Union (EU)’s European Green Deal, encourages the wider adoption of plant-based inks through measures to promote the use of renewable, biodegradable and recyclable materials. There’s also the EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan, launched in 2021, which aims to reduce pollution to levels no longer considered harmful to living things by 2050. That plan includes measures to reduce pollution from industrial activities, further encouraging the adoption of low-VOC, plant-based inks in the printing sector.


Germany and France act

Individual countries have also introduced their own restrictions on mineral-based inks, spurring the development of alternatives. Germany, according to a Future Market Insights study, has the largest market share for eco inks in Europe (15.3% in 2022). The government here has incentivised the development of eco-friendly inks through a range of programmes and projects, and has supported voluntary industry initiatives. For example, in 2023, the German paper-industry association Arbeitsgemeinschaft Graphische Papiere signed an agreement with the minister of environment to eliminate mineral-oil news inks by 2028.

France, meanwhile, passed a law in 2020 banning the use of mineral-based inks in printing and packaging by the start of 2025. The ban applies to all printed materials, including food packaging, newspapers, magazines and advertising materials.

While working to eliminate petroleum-based inks, France and Germany have also been collaborating on projects to evaluate mineral-oil free (MOF) inks. In October 2023, a report authored by government agencies and print industry organisations from the two countries examined the feasibility of using MOF inks in the web offset sector. It found that vegetable oil-based inks performed well in de-inability tests, that the colour reproduction quality of MOF inks is now comparable to conventional inks and that there were no serious performance issues. Ink consumption was also comparable to mineral-based inks.

The report didn’t shy away from noting some of the challenges of using plant-based inks, including the price volatility of plant oils. The adoption of MOF inks also requires a six- to 12-month transition period for suppliers to be able to guarantee delivery.

With plant-based inks growing fast and already performing as well as traditional inks, that’s a transition period many are already looking to take advantage of.

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