Printing Industry Expert Reveals Surprising Truths About Soy Ink

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Gary Jones, Vice President EHS at the Printing Industries of America, about the environmental impact of printers’ inks. And what he had to say about soy ink was nothing less than eye-opening.

Soy beans for soy ink
One of the major misconceptions about soy ink is that it’s made entirely from soy.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Gary Jones, Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety Affairs at the Printing Industries of America, the largest graphic arts trade association in the U.S. As you can imagine, Gary is one of the most knowledgeable people on the face of the planet when it comes to the environmental impact of printers’ inks. And what he had to say about soy ink was nothing less than eye-opening.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Anne: There’s a popular conception that soy inks are generally better for the environment than petroleum-based inks. Is this true?

Gary: At the heart of the issue with soy inks is that they were not designed to be greener than conventional inks. They were designed to maximize the amount of soy oil that could be formulated into an ink.

The term “Soy inks” was coined by the American Soy Association. In order for an ink to use the orgnization’s Soy Seal logo, it only needs to contain the specified amount of soy oil or soy oil derivatives. No other specifications regarding the other components of the ink are identified.

For example, in order for a heatset web offset lithographic paste ink to be considered a “soy ink”, it must have 7% soy oil content. Why 7%? Because if soy oil were present in any greater concentration, the ink would not dry. Therefore, a heatset litho ink that contains 7% soy oil and 93% of other ingredients such as methyl ethyl death would be considered a “soy ink” and can carry the Soy Seal logo!

Anne: So, you can think you’re being green, but actually get a product with very little renewable content.

Gary: You have to understand that there are many different types of inks, formulated for different purposes. There’s a huge variation in the percentage of soy that can be successfully used in any given type of ink.

The most common and most noted use of soy oil is in offset lithographic inks – the kind used in commercial printing. So the term soy ink generally refers to these inks.

If you look at the way the American Soy Association has their Soy Seal set up, the amount of soy oil required in order to call an ink a “soy ink” varies by type of ink. It’s based on the total percent of the weight of the ink. For example, sheetfed offset lithographic inks must contain 30% soy oil, and inks for printing newspapers or news inks must contain 40% soy oil in order to qualify under the Soy Seal trademark program.

Anne: There’s a popular conception that “Soy ink does not contain hazardous substances.” Yet you say it can. What are some of the chemicals commonly found in soy ink?

Gary: The biggest misconception people have is that all of the components of soy ink are made from soy.

What else is in inks? The basic components ― besides the ink oil, which is considered the ink solvent ― are pigments to color the ink and make it opaque; resins and film formers (which bind the ink together into a film and to the substrate that will protect pigment from rubbing off ); and additives, such as waxes, slip agents, and in some inks, a catalyst to assist in drying.

Offset inks are a paste ink, a very thick, viscous ink. They dry by absorption and oxidation. Once the ink is applied to the paper, the non-drying oil quickly drains into the surface as the ink sets. Then other components of the ink ― resins and film formers ― dry and form a film to protect the pigment. Heatset web offset lithographic inks (ed. note – used on coated paper such as magazines and newspaper inserts) dry by evaporation, so they can’t contain so much soy oil or they’d never dry.

In terms of the pigments, there are many choices, but the more common one for black is carbon black which is organic. Yellow is diarylide yellow which is also organic. Red pigments are barium based and blue is copper phthalocyanine. The catalyst can be cobalt or manganese based. Linseed oil and other renewable ingredients are often used as part of the varnish, which is the clear porting of the ink that contains the resins, solvents, film formers and additives.

Anne: What about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)?

Gary: Soy inks do have a lower VOC (volatile organic compound) content and since soy is used to replace the mineral oil, we’re increasing the renewable content of the ink.

But it’s important to realize that VOC content and VOC emissions are two different things. The EPA has a specific test method, Method 24, that is required to be used to determine VOC content. A sample of ink is heated at 110 centigrade for one hour and the amount of weight lost is considered the VOC content, after being adjusted for water and exempt compounds. Using that method, there’s less VOC in soy ink.

However, vegetable oils, including soy oils, will auto-oxidize, which means they absorb oxygen from the air and that oxygen cross links at certain points in the vegetable oil to cause it to dry. When the vegetable oils cross link, they can actually gain weight and in this process of oxidation they produce and emit VOCs in the form of alcohols, ketones and aldehydes. So in reality, even though the actual measured VOC content may be lower, it’s not uncommon to see a higher veggie oil content resulting in more VOC’s actually being emitted.

Anne: Is it true that soy inks are better for paper recycling?

Gary: That’s a case of “Don’t believe everything you read online.”

Soy inks are harder to recycle than their conventional counterparts. It’s all over the Internet that soy inks are “easier to recycle,” because of a preliminary bench top test performed in a major university laboratory. Soy released more organics, so they assumed it’s easier to recycle. But they did not take the aging of the ink or actual recycling processes into account.

Several additional studies have shown that aged soy ink is much harder to remove than conventional. A large contributor is the oxidation and cross linking that occurs in the drying process. While soy oils are not the best drying oil, they do and can crosslink.

In short, the research wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t complete. It wasn’t a full evaluation, but people ran with it.

Anne: Would you say that soy inks are more environmentally friendly?

Gary: That’s a loaded question with no easy answer. While soy oil is renewable, one of the important questions is – where is the soy oil coming from?

While some is produced domestically, much is sourced from many other parts of the world, including razed rain forest areas that have been converted to agricultural plantations. Plus, the distance that the oil is shipped adds to the environmental burden. If it is shipped literally halfway across the world, the impact will be much greater. I have not seen any life cycle assessments to indicate that soy inks are preferable.

Anne: Are you aware of any inks that are produced 100% domestically, in the U.S.?

Gary: Most ink that printers use is formulated here in the US. The best mineral ink oil is domestic, made from Pennsylvania crude. But like anything else, it’s a worldwide commodity. Where does the gas that goes into your tank come from? There are two main suppliers of (fossil-based) ink oil and like many other products, they’re going to buy where they get the best price. Same with soy oil.

Anne: Are there “greener” inks out there? What would you recommend as an environmentally friendlier choice in inks?

Gary: So what you really want to know is, ‘What do I do now that you’ve ruined my entire concept of soy ink?’

From a sustainability perspective, you want to use inks with the highest percent of renewable resource possible, sourced from a sustainable operation. However, you have to be aware of the ecological price you pay for that renewable resource. That’s the challenge and you may have a trade off because if you have an ecosystem that you destroy in order to create a monoculture – what’ s better? That or a nonrenewable resouce? In many instances, the answer is not always clear.

The thing that we have to be careful of is to reserve making value judgments. Everyone wants to know, what’s better – this or that. And I don’t know if we’re in a position to say what’s better. It’s hard to make comparisons unless there have been life cycle assessments performed, and they are using the same scope and assumptions. You don’t normally run across that. And of course people see things the way they want to see them though their own lenses and filters.

My advice is: use the inks with the highest renewable resource content and understand the sources of the ingredients. From a global sustainability aspect, the more (renewable content) that’s incorporated the better because that way you’re at least moving in the right direction.

What do you think about soy ink? Do you agree that it’s best to choose it when possible? Does it matter? Why or why not?


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28 Sustainable Ideas for your Green Lumpy Mail Promotion

pebblesFollowing are some ideas for eco-friendly objects you can use in your next 3-D mail campaign, as well as sample concepts for working them into your promotions.

Natural objects:

Nuts – “I must be nuts to be offering discounts this deep” “Are high heating bills driving you nuts?” “Let’s get cracking on a solution!”

Acorn –  “Mighty oaks from tiny acorns” – could work for insurance, any kind of investment.

Pine cones, leaves – Marquette, Michigan home improvement contractors The Window Store once sent a mailing to existing customers promoting their gutter cleaning services.  Along with the sales letter, they included a handful of pine needles and leaves raked from an employee’s back yard.  The letter was extremely successful, bringing in enough business to keep their crews busy for several weeks.

Seashell – gift from Nature; emphasizes your company’s respect for the environment.

Shark tooth – “Eat your competition alive!” (Or, if your business has been around a long time or you’re selling a product that’s been successful for decades, make an analogy to the shark. Most of the critters that evolved at the same time as sharks are long gone, but sharks are still supremely successful creatures – you can’t really improve on their design.)

Fossil – “Still using fossil fuel?” or “Don’t let outdated [technology, etc,] make you look like a fossil.”

Flower seed packet – Great tie-in if you’re representing a product that helps businesses (or consumer savings) grow!

Live bamboo plant – Also good for a growth theme, or for healthy living (plants are their own little air purifiers.) Or call it a “desktop meditation garden” and let people know your product will save them so much time they’ll now have time to relax.

Small rocks or pebbles – “Help is just a stone’s throw away.”

Office supplies:

Eraser – “Wipe away your troubles” (could work with a microfiber or organic cleaning cloth as well.)

Pen/pencil – These are tried and true promotional items when imprinted with your company’s name.  Promotional pens and pencils are available now in a number of eco-friendly choices, including bamboo, corn starch, and recycled paper.  Pens and pencils make great practical promotional items because they’re almost guaranteed to get used, and frequently get passed from person to person.  Make full use of them by including an involvement device in your package for which they’ll need a writing implement.

Pencil sharpener – “Let’s sharpen your advantage.”

Flash drive (USB stick) – Load it with your promotional materials. “Flashy” packaging your prospects are guaranteed to appreciate!

Sticky note pad (recycled) – Everyone uses these and they often get passed around.   Print some up with your logo and URL.  Make sure you indicate some reason to visit your website or call (white papers are great for this) – but leave plenty of room for notes!


Fair trade coffee – “Wake up to [your favorite benefit]!”

Organic tea bag – or how about two?  You could do a “Two for Tea” promotion or fundraiser, using the tea bags as tickets to your event.  The tea bag then gets redeemed for a prize; the extra bag lets them get their friends in on the fun, encouraging referral business. (Extra points for snide copy related to Tea Baggers!)

Organic nuts – “My wife (husband, kids, boss, dog, etc.) think(s) I’m nuts (to offer prices this low, etc.)” or  “High heating bills driving you nuts?” or “Let’s get cracking on a solution!”

Organic candy –“For the sweetest savings of the year…”

Fortune Cookies (probably best sent in a box) – Fortune cookies have insanely high open rates, and you can order them with custom messages.  And did you know you can now even get organic fortune cookies?  Why not have your prospects break theirs open to find out which one of several free gifts or discount offers they win? (The message then becomes a coupon.)

Other items

Marbles – “The boss is losing his marbles (to be offering a deal like this!)”

Pressure gauge – “Feeling pressured?” or “Take the pressure out of _____.”

Origami – From lotus flowers to sailing ships, no matter what you’d like to represent in your mailing, somebody’s probably made an origami version of it.  These folded paper objects are beautiful, intriguing and much more eco-friendly than plastic objects. True, they may not be readily available commercially, but most origami pieces are quick to make and if your mailing is small you should be able to find someone willing to earn a few bucks for folding paper into pretty shapes.  (My eleven year old daughter comes to mind!) 😉

Wooden/bamboo spoon – “Stir yourself up some savings.”

Coin – You’ve probably received mailings that had a penny or other coin glued to the sales letter, perhaps visible behind a window in the envelope.  They’re effective because no one wants to throw away money, so you can almost guarantee it’ll get opened.  Just make sure you have a killer headline to draw them in once they’ve ripped it open!

Balloons (biodegradable) – If you’re sending birthday greetings to your customers, good for you!  Make them even more special by including balloons.  Or use the balloons to spread the news of your company’s “birthday” or the birthday of a famous person related to your industry (link it to a sale or promotion, of course.)

Candle – Could be a great involvement device, especially for a nonprofit.  For example, you could ask them to light the candle on a certain night to show their support for a cause – then visit your website to pledge that they’ll do so (and hopefully make a donation, too!)

Switchplate – If you offer energy-saving services, consider printing up switchplates with your logo and a “Turn out the lights to save energy” message for your customers to use at the workplace or in their garage, basement or attic.  You could include them as a courtesy gift with your direct mail promotion, or send them as a thank-you to recent customers, along with a survey for gathering feedback and testimonials.

Book – Who would throw away a book? Especially one that addresses their needs or interests.  Books make terrific lumpy mail additions.  For maximum impact, send them one you’ve authored (or co-authored) yourself.  Best if you can subtly weave persuasion into your book along with useful information – and include a bio page with your contact information at the end.   This could well be the most powerful sales tool you ever lay hands on. (If you’re not into writing, no worries. Just hand your ideas over to a ghostwriter – like yours truly!) 🙂

As with any promotion, when you send a 3-D mailing just make sure to keep it targeted, relevant, clear and focused.  And if you’re planning a large mailing, be sure to test it on a small portion of your list first (500 names is ideal for a test run.) Good luck, and have fun!

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3 Rules for Sustainable 3-D Mail

acornFinding objects to include in your lumpy mail promotions is easy.  Companies such as Oriental Trading Company and offer many options for inexpensive and interesting mailable items to spice up your promotions.  However, the vast majority of these objects are unacceptable from a sustainability point of view.  Most are made from plastic or other unsustainable materials. They are not compostable or biodegradable, and therefore pose a waste disposal problem and threaten the integrity of our environment. And many of them serve no real purpose other than boosting your open rate, so are not likely to be reused.

Clearly, if we wish to honor our own values and avoid alienating our eco-conscious customers, we need to avoid such objects.  Ideally, the 3-D objects we include in our mailings need to fall within these guidelines:

  1. They should be made of materials whose production places minimal stress on the environment.
  2. Their disposal should not degrade the environment: they should be compostable, recyclable, and/or reusable.
  3. They should offer enough value to their recipients that they will be used or passed along.  (An exception might be natural objects such as acorns which can simply be returned to Nature.)

It’s a little harder than just opening a novelty toy catalog.  But following these guidelines will help you come up with sustainable direct mail ideas that will not only attract interest from your prospects, but admiration.  And, sales!

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Creating an effective lumpy mail campaign for your green business

direct mail packageEver open your mail over the recycling bin?  You’re not alone.  Nationwide, about 44% of sales letters sent through the mail never get opened.

So if you’re trying to minimize your impact on the environment, should you avoid direct mail at all costs?

Perhaps.  But if you’re marketing a product or service that ‘s truly sustainable, you have to keep in mind that you won’t help the planet at all by going out of business.  And the fact is that direct mail creams email not only in terms of open rates (approximately 80%  of commercial emails are clicked out of existence without ever being opened) but also in overall response or conversion rates (DM scores on average at about twice the rate of email.)  When you send a real letter you’re less likely to annoy people and more likely to catch them in a mood to pay attention to what you have to offer.

Direct mail has a higher upfront cost, but many savvy businesspeople swear by it as one of the most effective tools in their marketing arsenals.  So you may want to at least try adding direct mail to your marketing mix, especially if the product you’re selling is on the pricey side.

Using 3-D objects to increase your open rates – and sales

Including a three dimensional, or “lumpy” object in your direct mail package helps boost response in several ways.

  • Including dimensional objects in your mailing is a sure way to pique your prospects’ curiosity and increase your open rates.  This is important, because just getting the darn envelope opened is your biggest obstacle to the sale!
  • 3-D mailings get the prospect involved.  They give him something to touch, puzzle over, listen to, and sometimes even smell or taste.  They may have symbolism that gets him emotionally involved as well.  And they may prompt him to take action in a way that he wouldn’t otherwise.
  • If the object has value to your prospect, it works like a gift – making him psychologically indebted to you.  This can prompt him to give more time and attention to what you have to say.
  • Lumpy mailings are out-of-the-ordinary, and thus are more likely to be remembered and talked about.  This can be a real advantage if you’re using your direct mail sales letter as part of an orchestrated marketing campaign.  For instance, if you’re following up with a sales call, referring to the unusual object you sent them can be a great way to break the ice and engage your prospect.

Making sure your 3-D mail objects make sense

It’s a good idea to choose objects that have high perceived value or ones that your prospect is likely to use or pass on.  (Stay tuned – in my next post I’ll detail some good picks that are also easy on the Earth.)

It’s also best to tie your objects in to your direct mail promotion in some way that makes sense. For instance, if you’re having a promotion centered around a holiday, you might want to include objects associated with that holiday.  (Say, a small dreidel for a  Hannukah promotion.)

Telling a story about your object and why you’re sending it to your prospect is also a great way to engage their interest. Or you can treat the object like a coupon that can be exchanged for an offer or reward.

Integrating lumpy mail into your marketing campaign

Don’t feel you have to sell directly with your lumpy sales letter.  Depending on your product, you may want to use it to offer an information kit or other lead generation device.  You can also use lumpy mail to drive people to your website (be sure to offer a juicy incentive for going there) or as an invitation to an event such as a workshop, teleseminar or webinar.

Often, 3-D direct mail works best as part of a sequence.  Try sending a lumpy sales letter to your list, then following up with a couple post cards and then a sales call.  Or send a sequence of three related lumpy mail pieces for maximum impact.

Another idea is to use dimensional mail to reinforce a recent sale, raise perceived value and prevent buyer’s remorse – especially if your product is relatively intangible.  A good example of this is the elegant package American Express sends  their new Business Platinum cardholders in lieu of an ordinary letter, along with their new charge card.  This could be a good strategy to allow you to realize some benefit from the power of direct mail while minimizing the resources involved.

To mail, or not to mail

Direct mail isn’t necessarily for everyone.  As a green marketer, you may not feel comfortable sending direct mail, especially if you’ve ever been vocal about “junk mail.”

If your business is doing fine without it, by all means carry on. More power to you!  But if you’re struggling, or just have the nagging feeling you could be doing better, why not give direct mail a try?  And if you do, why not consider including a lumpy object (a sustainable one of course)?  You just might surprise yourself with how well it does for you!

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Increase your open rate – and decrease waste – with lumpy mail

packageDirect mail can be an excellent way to promote your business because it it highly targeted, trackable, is more likely to command your prospect’s undivided attention than many other forms of advertising, and can be relatively inexpensive to implement.  Done right, it can also be extremely effective, especially when mailed to customers you’ve already established a relationship with.

Some Green marketers are hesitant to use direct mail because of the solid waste involved.  Fortunately, there are ways to make direct mail more sustainable.  I will highlight some of these in future posts.  Today, though, I want to discuss one direct mail trick that pretty consistently increases response rates – and profits – from direct mail campaigns.

Overcoming the “First Big Challenge” in direct mail


Unless you are using postcards, one of the biggest hurdles you are likely to face when using direct mail is simply getting your mailing opened.

Even the best sales letter in the world won’t have a chance of working if it never makes it in front of the prospect’s face.  On the other hand, even if the prospect doesn’t respond to a mailing, the act of opening it up and reading the contents at least exposes him to your message. This may influence a later decision to purchase from you.  If so, it’s still valuable as advertising.

Increase your open rate with lumpy mail

There are many things you can do to encourage your prospect to open your piece.  Some of these include using unusual envelope sizes or colors, hand-addressing the envelopes, using “live” stamps instead of bulk insignias, and using “teaser” copy on the envelope to encourage your prospect to open it.  But one of the most effective techniques is known as “lumpy,” “dimensional,” or “3D” mail.

Have you ever received a piece of mail that had some sort of object in the envelope?  It’s pretty hard not to open, isn’t it?  Three dimensional objects (including packages as well as lumpy items sealed in envelopes) pique the prospect’s curiosity and increase open rates.  Another advantage is that other envelopes also tend to slide off them, so they are likely to end up on top of your prospect’s pile of mail.

Of course, exciting your prospect’s curiosity with lumpy mail won’t guarantee a great ROI for your mailing.  You will still need a promising list, a captivating headline, persuasive copy, and a tempting offer.  But adding a 3-D element to your mailing is quite capable of turning losers into winners, and winners into superstars.

And of course, that’s not just good for your bottom line, but for the environmental impact of your mailing as well.  Because anything you can do to increase your open rate not only increases your chances for immediate profit, it also decreases the waste factor represented by unopened mail.

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