Dear Recyclebank: Does it matter for recycling what type ink is used in printing on paper? If business cards and flyers are printed using chlorine-free ink, or soy ink, or regular ink, does it make a difference in how easily they can be recycled? –Neva D.
Dear Neva: In general, the ink used on a piece of paper won’t affect its recyclability, though there are exceptions. When it’s processed during recycling, paper undergoes a process called deinking, which cleans the fibers of ink so they can be made into new paper.
During paper recycling, paper is first deconstructed into pulp so the fibers can be reused. Ink can then be removed by several techniques, most commonly with a process called flotation deinking, which relies on air bubbles to carry ink and other contaminants to the water surface with the help of surfactants (detergents) and other chemicals. Other processes include washing, used when fillers and contaminants need to be removed, or bleaching when vibrant fibers are needed.
All in all, the process used is likely to depend more on the intended reuse of the paper fibers than the type of ink that’s being removed. One notable exception is dye-based (as opposed to pigment-based) inks, as they are difficult to remove with flotation deinking due to their water solubility. They may often need to be bleached. So if you have the option, using pigment-based inks is preferable, though most inkjet printers use dye-based ink.
Various efforts are being made to research and implement ways to remove ink from paper without subjecting it to the full recycling process, using solvents or even lasers. Until then, it’s best to make smart choices to minimize your overall impact. While it won’t play a significant role in recycling, you may wish to consider plant-based inks as a greener alternative to those made with petroleum products. No matter which ink you choose, the most important factor in your conservation efforts is to use your paper goods mindfully. Distribute your business cards and flyers sparingly, where you know they’ll have the most impact, print only when absolutely necessary, and you’ll reduce the need for disposal and recycling. (Not only that, but you’ll save time and money to boot.)