When it comes to toxic chemicals that might be lurking in your home, the ink on your packages may figure fairly low on your list of worries, particularly when everything from menstrual underwear to sofas reportedly contain toxins. But the ink that is printed on mailing labels and cardboard boxes might be more harmful than you think.
Over the past two decades, as consumers have increasingly shopped online rather than in-store, they’ve started receiving boxes filled with products delivered to their home. Companies often cover their boxes with logos, images, and other designs to reinforce their aesthetic throughout the unboxing experience. It allows them to distinguish themselves, since many of them don’t have storefronts where they can interact with customers. This means that many of us are now surrounded by more boxes—and more ink—than ever. This packaging is a significant branding mechanism, but it comes at a cost.
Ink typically makes up only about 1% of the total weight of packaging, according to Lumi, a company that creates packaging and manages supply chain logistics for brands. (Lumi sometimes receives questions about possible toxins in ink, and recently published a comprehensive, well-researched blog post written by staffer Ian Montgomery about the subject.) But even though inks are tiny in terms of volume, they often contains high concentrations of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are bad for both the environment and human health.
To be clear, the risk to customers who shop online and interact with packages directly is relatively low. But that risk goes up for people at warehouses, post offices, and fulfillment centers who come into contact with larger volumes of ink every day. More disturbingly, these toxins accumulate in the environment, which creates smog and adds to the ozone layer, contributing to global warming.
To better understand inks, it helps to get down to basics. Ink gets its color from concentrated powders, known as pigments, which have been used throughout history. Early humans used pigments from flowers and animals to create cave drawings. But in the modern era, we’ve found ways to create inks synthetically, from chemicals. As Montgomery’s post points out, in the early 1900s many pigments in inks had high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, mercury, antimony, lead, and selenium.
Exposure to these inks themselves aren’t immediately dangerous, but they become harmful when they leak into ground water, where they harm both humans and animals who ingest them. These heavy metals can cause neurological damage in humans, and have also been found to be carcinogenic and contribute to birth defects. So starting in the 1970s, regulators like the Coalition of Northeastern Governers’ Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse and Europe’s packaging waste directive 94/62/EC forced companies to remove these heavy metals from inks. (Still, heavy metals have been found in recycled cardboard that may be harmful.)
The ink we use today is roughly made up of 35% resins and modifiers, 15% pigment, and 50% water or solvents. These solvents contain chemicals that allow the inks to dry quickly, including ethanol, methanol, and hexane, among others. But some solvents also contain VOCs, which can lead to a wide range of health problems according to the EPA, including eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches and nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and the central nervous system; and cancer. The average consumer is unlikely to be exposed to high enough quantities of these VOCs from the packages they receive at home, but people who interact with larger quantities of ink—like ink manufacturers, postal workers, and those working in warehouses—may find themselves at higher risk. The EPA says that the printing industry ranks fifth in VOC emissions. (The automotive industry ranks sixth.) And yet, unlike heavy metals, there are no regulations in the United States that force companies to eliminate VOCs from their inks.
There are alternatives, like low-VOC inks. According to Montgomery, whose company works with many ink providers, low-VOC inks use water-based, soy-based, or vegetable solvents. The chemicals in these inks are safer, but they tend to work best with paper, and they aren’t as effective on plastic and other nonporous surfaces, where they might not bond, absorb, or dry as quickly. And unfortunately a lot of packaging—from bubble mailers to labels—contain plastic. What’s more, the “soy ink” label can be misleading. Montgomery notes that a brand only needs 7% of soy ink to be considered soy-based according to the American Soy Association. Low-VOC inks are also more expensive than the more common inks used today.
Another alternative is to go with ultraviolet-cured inks, which use UV rays rather than the air to dry. These don’t require any solvents, but use another type of liquid chemical consisting of monomers, ligomers, and photoinitiators and create a photochemical reaction that instantly dries the ink. These chemicals are not known toxins, but they can be very energy-intensive since the UV light must be powered with electricity.
Finally, there are new ink technologies emerging that appear to be less toxic, but are also largely untested. Algae-based inks are one possible new option. In addition to being safer, algae ink is free of petroleum and sequesters carbon, which means it won’t contribute as much to climate change.
According to Lumi, all of these non-toxic alternatives are more expensive than the traditional kind, costing up to twice as much per gallon. But since the gallon of ink will be used on thousands of packaging unites, the cost increase is actually very small when broken down into the overall unit cost.
Right now, there are no standard certifications on the market that allow brands and consumers to verify the safety of ink. So concerned citizens and companies could lobby the government to better regulate inks, much like beauty brands like Beautycounter are urging Congress to pass bills that make it illegal to use known toxins in cosmetics. But until there is better enforcement in place, a rule of thumb is that the less ink there is on a package, the better. As consumers, we can ask brands to use less packaging in their products—which uses fewer resources—and urge them not to plaster their boxes in ink.