Is ink environmentally friendly?

According to energy central (TL;DR after quote):

Ink printers and their ink are made up of several ingredients, most of them chemicals that have the potential to be damaging to you and the environment. Some of these include butyl urea, which prevents your paper from curling; cyclohexanone, which helps ink adhere to polymers; several dyes including reactive red 23 dye, acid yellow 23 dye and direct blue 199 dye, which contains sulphur; ethoxylated acetylenic diols which modify the surface tension of the water and colours; Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) which is full of contaminants and ethylene glycol.

The harmful environmental factors of ink cartridges can be felt since they are manufactured. When you produce a new laser cartridge, you consume more than three quarts of oil. For inkjet cartridges, you require about three ounces of oil.

There are many adverse effects of just throwing away an old ink or toner cartridge as the volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and heavy metals present will pollute the soil and water when they reach landfills.

Unfortunately, more than 375 million empty ink and toner cartridges are thrown out every year, and end most of them end up in landfills. To get some perspective on that fact, this means that 11 cartridges per second and 1 million cartridges per day are thrown away. For a print cartridge to fully decompose in a landfill site, it takes 1000 years, which gives you an extent of how damaging these cartridges can be to the environment.

Another damaging effect of not properly disposing of ink cartridges is that the toner (carbon black) has been classified as a potential carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.


Ink printer cartridges and their ink contain harmful chemicals, most of which are bad for the environment.

Ink cartridges are made from oil. The oil and heavy metals present in the ink help contribute to water and soil pollution when spent ink cartridges are disposed of in the trash and end up in the landfill.

Three hundred seventy-five million ink cartridges are thrown away each year and it takes 1000 years for a print cartridge to fully decompose in a landfill.

To add insult to injury, printer toner (carbon black) is a classified potential carcinogen.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, proper disposal  (recycling) of printer cartridges can help negate these dangerous statistics.

Can I Recycle printer cartridges?

Yes, please do! As energy central explains:

If you recycle your printer cartridges, you conserve energy and natural resources, as you reduce the energy needed for the materials.

By recycling, around 11 millions gallons of oil can be saved in just seven months.

Since 97% of the materials used in printer cartridges can be recycled, this means the waste is reduced to only 3%.

petroleum rig

Are Petroleum based ink biodegradable?

No. Petroleum-based inks contain inorganic compounds and heavy metals and minerals which render them unable to biodegrade. 

Even soy and vegetable-based inks contain some petroleum-based compounds.

Are water-based inks environmentally friendly?

Yes, when properly disposed of.  Water based inks do not contain the toxic chemicals that petroleum based inks contain.

However, water based inks are only ecofriendly if you dispose of them correctly.

water based ink

How do you properly dispose of water based inks?


Water based inks, despite their eco-friendly name, may also require special handling. The pigment or binders in some of these inks may contain formaldehyde, oil or alcohol as well as other chemical solvents.

Depending on concentration, these chemicals are often classified as hazardous. Some localities may accept an amount of disposable volume after a period of evaporation, as in an almost empty container of water based ink (formaldehyde would likely not be included).

The same disposal considerations must be taken when disposing of any ancillary items that have come in direct contact with your ink, including mixing sticks and cleaning cloths.

This disposal method is designed for industrial use, such as screen printing, but it’s also important to be aware of the fact that water based inks might contain chemicals for at-home use as well. Take the time to pick out chemical-free inks when using them as a hobby or with your kids. If you’re unsure how to dispose of inks in your municipality, I’m sure google can help you out.

Is soy ink sustainable?

According to

What may come as a surprise to many people is that most veggie inks contain substantial amounts of petroleum.

“In order for an ink to use the American Soy Association’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,” explains Jones.

“For example, in order for a heatset web offset lithographic paste ink to be considered a ‘soy ink,’ it must have 7 percent soy oil content. Therefore, a heatset litho ink that contains 7 percent soy oil and 93 percent of other ingredients such as methyl ethyl death would be considered a ‘soy ink’ and can carry the Soy Seal logo.”

Depending on the type of ink and its intended use, an ink’s oil content must be a minimum of 6 percent to 40 percent soy in order to qualify for the Soy Seal logo. The most common use of soy oil in ink occurs in offset lithographic ink – the kind most commonly used in commercial printing. Black offset litho ink must have at least 40 percent soy oil content to qualify as a soy ink.

Soy is one of the major crops used in conventional agriculture’s monoculture system, which severely limits biodiversity and inhibits ecosystem resiliency. Over 90 percent of U.S. soy fields are planted in genetically modified soy; GMO’s present a range of environmental concerns. And, the increase in global demand for soy products contributes to large scale deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and elsewhere.

Soy may be a renewable resource. But it does take diesel to grow soy, so thinking that each drop of soy ink used is a drop of petroleum saved is a fallacy. (For comparison, one reliable estimate for biodiesel production is about 2.5 gallons of soy biodiesel per gallon input of standard diesel fuel.)

On the other hand, soy beans require minimal chemical input compared to many other crops. There’s no denying that even vegetable inks containing mineral components are usually far less toxic than conventional inks. And, veggie inks are proving to be more biodegradable as well.

So are soy and other veggie based inks really better for the environment?

Nearly all sustainability experts say, “Yes!”

But perhaps Jones puts it best: “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.”


Just because it says soy ink on the package, doesn’t mean that no petroleum products are used in its production. In fact, it is most likely that petroleum products are used.

Increased soy production is leading to rainforest deforestration. As well it takes fuel to grow soy and that has its own environmental implications.

While soy based inks are less toxic than traditional petroleum-based inks, based on these facts, soy ink is NOT sustainable. 

Don’t get me wrong,vegetable based inks are a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make soy and other vegetable based inks sustainable in the long run.


As far as your ordinary, at home printer cartridges go, there are no biodegradable printer inks that I could find. Even soy and vegetable based inks contain some petroleum products, so they are effectively not biodegradable.

The only biodegradable commercial printer ink available that I could find is the algae ink mentioned below. 

If you know of more advanced biodegradable ink technology that I don’t currently know about, please let me know in the comments below so I can update this article.

Biodegradable and VOC free Ink

There are not a lot of fully biodegradable inks on the market, even vegetable-based inks as many of these are mixed with petroleum-based products. However, I was able to find one biodegradable ink to tell you about.

Algae Inks by Living Ink Technologies

Features include:

  • Pigments are renewable (with algae cells)
  • Easy to grow
  • Do not require fertilizers, herbicides, or GMO’s
  • Algae ink consists of:
    • 16% algae cells
    • 63% water
    • 21% VOC free and 100% biodegradable ingredients
  • Can safely be dumped down the drain
  • Compostable

I hope I answered your environmentally friendly ink questions to your satisfaction. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any more questions or if you have anything to add!

Cheers, and have an awesome day!




  1. Oyinkan bello

    Hello, thank you for this great article it was amazing, in terms of the algae ink, is it available for at home use or just commercial printing ?

    • Kathy

      Hi! Thank you for your kind comment! The algae ink by living ink ( is just for commercial printing, unfortunately.

  2. David West

    This is all very interesting and useful and I’d like to make my next printer more environmentally friendly, however I’m struggling to find any companies which sell vegetable or water based inks or anywhere where I can quickly check if a printer would take such inks.
    Would you be able to share some links, preferably for UK companies, if possible.

    Many thanks,

  3. Chris R

    Hi Kathy, thank you for this very useful and prescient article.
    I wondered if you found water or soy-based inks for home printers?
    HP seem to have invested heavily in water-based ink but I’m not sure whether these inks are for their home printers.

  4. Heather A.

    Hi Kathy,

    This article is very appreciated and exactly the information I was seeking. I’m starting a business, GAIA Cookies, an allergy-friendly cookie and it’s important to me that while making a product that requires packaging, I want to keep my carbon footprint as small as possible.

    My packaging is a recycled material that’s biodegradable and recyclable, the labels I just ordered are vegetable ink on recycled material from After reading your article, even though I thought I was winning with these labels, there are being shipped from overseas which I found out after ordering not to mention learning that the vegetable ink could still contain petroleum. So…did I just order something that is literally traveling(huge carbon footprint) across the world to be eco-friendly? What a loss…

    I did stumble upon the algae ink and have submitted a quote request. I’m literally just starting this business so budget is a huge factor.

    Thank you again for this article. I too hope that we’ll see a change in ink and the ability to print from home and business with an earth-friendly option.


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