Environmental and Sustainability Consultants

Smarter Management of Chemicals in the Printing Industry

Smarter Management of Chemicals in the Printing Industry

The printing industry utilizes a variety of chemicals including inks, solvents, coatings, developers and adhesives. Smarter management of chemicals can help address a number of environmental health and safety issues. Focusing on smarter management of chemicals can: (1) reduce exposures to employees who work with chemicals; (2) decrease air emissions and (3) reduce the quantity of solid, hazardous waste and toxic wastewater.   Smarter management of chemicals starts with taking control of the chemical inventory, in particular at the point of purchasing.   The key is to understand the types of chemicals being utilized and to accurately track the quantity of chemicals used and discarded.


Screen printing for example, used for printing signs, displays, electronics, wall paper, greeting cards, ceramics, decals, banners, and textiles, utilizes a variety of chemicals.  Ink systems used in screen printing include ultraviolet cure, waterborne (which may contain ammonia), solvent borne, and plastisol (polyvinyl chloride). Plastisol is mainly used to print on textiles. Solvent-based ink systems (which may include EPCRA Section 313 chemicals or chemical categories) contain aliphatic, aromatic, and oxygenated organic solvents.



The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the hazard communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires each facility to maintain an updated inventory of chemicals. To understand the types of chemicals being utilized in the printing facility, the following steps can be followed.

  1. Obtain a safety data sheet (SDS) for each chemical used or stored in your facility. The SDS should have been updated from the manufacturer or distributor (within 3 years). Old SDSs or material safety data sheets may have outdated regulatory or safety information and may pose hazard.
  2. Prior to ordering chemicals request a safety data sheet to review the ingredients and to evaluate the toxicity of the product. Avoid using products that contain carcinogens such as methylene chloride and/or highly toxic chemicals.
  3. If applicable, determine whether you can use less toxic substitutes. In some instances, water-based cleaners can result in acceptable re-cleaning. Do not utilize halogenated compounds, petroleum-based cleaners, and cleaners with phenol. These highly toxic chemicals can lead to problems if discharged to the sewer and can be costly to recycle or dispose of.
  4. Choose materials that can be recycled. Whenever possible select inks, cleaning solutions, and other materials that are non-toxic.
  5. Order minimum quantities of materials and chemicals. This practice reduces waste and unused materials when procedures or processes are changed, expiration dates pass and spills occur, as well as minimizes severe problems in emergencies such as fire, etc.
  6. Inspect containers of raw material closely for leaks before accepting deliveries.
  7. Return expired or off-spec materials to the vendors.
  8. Use a “first-in first-out” materials management policy (i.e.use the materials in the order that they were received) to make sure stockpiled chemicals do not expire before use.
  9. Standardize the types of solvents and cleaning solutions used in the facility. Using the same fluids for as many applications as possible facilitates reuse, recycling, treatment, storage, and disposal.
  10. Keep storage areas clean and conduct daily inspections so that leaks and spills can be detected and stopped as soon as possible.
  11. Where possible select suppliers who not only provide fresh materials but also accept the used materials for recycling, in order to “close the loop.”
  12. Recycle or reuse spent fixer, solvents, water, lubricants and containers when possible.
  13. Recycle waste ink. Most inks can be recycled or reused; they can often be blended to make black ink. Consider purchasing inks from a distributor who will take or buy back unused or spent inks.
  14. Segregate your wastes to facilitate recycling.
  15. Label waste barrels/drums to remind employees to separate wastes and to recycle. Include information such as contents, date accumulation starts, etc.
  16. To accurately track the quantity of chemicals used, develop and implement a system to document the amount of chemical dispensed.   All chemicals should be dispended from a centralized location.   Employees should only be provided with just enough amount of the chemical. The chemical and quantity needs to be logged into the database. Large containers of chemicals should not be utilized at work stations. Only the quantity needed for the shift should be dispensed to the employees.

In conclusion, smarter management of chemicals starts with taking control of the chemical inventory in particular at the point of purchasing.   The key is to understanding the types of chemicals being utilized and to accurately track the quantity of chemicals used and discarded. Standard operating procedures need to be developed and implemented for handling chemicals and how to work with chemicals throughout the print process. Employees need to be trained on the proper handling of chemicals with a focus on reducing the overall quantity and waste material. Training of employees is required under OSHA and EPA (or local EPA agencies). Regularly conducting audits of the chemical management system and how employees work with chemicals is very important.

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