Apparel decorating while... Saving the Earth!

Earth Day is here and large companies around the world—and in our little industry—are doing more than planting a couple of trees. New products are growing from the ground up to provide brighter, cleaner alternatives for apparel decorators. There are new laws in the United States as well as in Europe that are requiring manufacturers to take a second look at their products. As a result of this—along with their senses of eco-responsibility—many ink- and chemical-manufacturing companies are creating products that are safer to use and more eco-friendly.

Proposition 65 and other legal stuff

Proposition 65—“Prop 65” or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986—was enacted as a ballot initiative in November 1986, and several amendments were made in 2003. The proposition was intended by its authors to protect California’s drinking-water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals. Prop 65 requires the state’s governor to publish, at least annually, a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, according to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

So how has Prop 65 changed commerce in California? Businesses cannot knowingly discharge or release chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity into drinking water, or onto land where such chemicals will probably pass into a source of drinking water. Businesses must provide MSDSs to employees, and make sure they understand possible exposure to toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.

“In San Francisco, it’s not unusual for the fire department or the environmental people to come around and take a waste stream sample,” says Frank Sliney, president and founder of Franmar Chemical Inc. “So they go around and find out what is going into your sinks and toilets, and they analyze it.”

California lawmakers are not the only folks looking for more environmentally-friendly solutions. Nike, in cooperation with Greenpeace and other large corporations, is said to have long been pushing for eco-friendly apparel and apparel-decorating methods. It’s the drive of supply-and-demand that is making manufacturers take a second look at their product lines and how they do business on a global scale.

Earth-friendly inks

Apparel decorators are finding more eco-friendly options in terms of inks and cleaning products. “Many of the recent changes in plastisol inks are due to market demand driven by large brand names and the green movement in Europe,” says Jim Challis president of Lancer Group Int’l. “We have eliminated the use of solvents, heavy metals, organatins—which suppress the immune system and disrupt the endocrine system—and formaldehydes in our manufacturing.”
But how do the eco-friendly inks compare with what you may be used to? “Traditional plastisol is made from PVC and phthalate plasticizer,” Challis explains. “Phthalates are now restricted in Europe, so many of the newer inks are water-based or plastisol that is formulated with no phthalates or PVC. The quality is similar in printability to conventional inks and, in some cases, our PVC-free inks have a softer hand. Tests have revealed no real differences between the two inks.”

In fact, most of our industry’s major plastisol manufacturers either offer or are developing PVC-free plastisol lines: “We offer a new eco-friendly ink line called Liberty,” says Union Ink’s Jeff Proctor. “We have worked with John Mason, a polymer-chemist in England, to create the new line of inks which are PVC-free and phthalate-free.” Mason indicates that such PVC-free inks tend to dry in the screens a bit more than standard plastisol, causing potential clogging problems which, in turn, can damage screens over an extended period of use (similar to issues arising from the use of water-based inks). But the quality of printing, he says, is still good.

Earth-friendly chemicals

Our industry’s cleaning products are also going eco-friendly. Many such products currently available are derived from soy beans, but are not exactly new technology. By way of historical perspective, consider that Henry Ford wore the first soy-silk suit back in 1940, and created various soy-based fuels to propel his automobiles. Today, soy beans are cleaning and reclaiming screens while protecting the environment.

Franmar’s Frank Sliney’s concern about the need for safety in screen-printing plants includes screen-cleaning and -reclaiming products. “The volatile organic compounds [VOCs] found in solvents create problems for the environment,” he explains, “in that they combine with the nitrogen found in the earth’s atmosphere, and smog forms when these two gasses combine. But when reclaiming, you can use a drop of [a soy-based] product, put screens with emulsion and ink in a dip tank, let them sit for a couple of minutes, and spray them clean. By eliminating the VOCs, you greatly reduce the air pollution that California and other states experience.”

Sliney says printers should consider three things when buying products for their plants: “The first is performance. No matter what you use, it has to work, it has to be effective. The second is that you have to be able to afford it. If it’s cost-prohibitive then you’ll probably consider a substitution. Lastly, if it is safe for me and the world and doesn’t have an odor so I can breathe it, I’d probably buy it.” In closing, Sliney notes the difference between walking into a plant and noticing strong smells emitting from the work area, and walking into a similar plant and not smelling such odors. It can be a business-buster if your customer has a sensitive nose. 

Earth-friendly apparel?

There are many eco-friendly decorating products coming available to apparel decorators . . . but what’s new in eco-friendly apparel? Naturally-grown products and recyclables such as those that follow are becoming more popular as they emerge in various clothing lines:

  • Corn is an abundant natural raw material that can be easily and efficiently produced year after year. Products from a company known as Ingeo made from 100 percent corn are said to use 68 percent less energy to make than polyester or nylon.
  • “Bamboo naturally provides performance benefits like softness and breath-ability, and inhibits the growth of bacteria,” says Matthew Waterman of Outer Banks.
  • “The hemp plant is naturally resistant to pests and weeds, so the farmer doesn’t need to dump toxic pesticides and herbicides on the land. Hemp also requires about one-twentieth as much water to grow and process as cotton, and the hemp fiber is up to four times stronger than cotton,” says Alex DiVito of Fair Hemp.
  • Coconut husks are suspended in a river, or water-filled pit, and beaten in a process known as retting. Segments of the husk are then beaten by hand to separate out the long fibers which are subsequently dried and cleaned. Cleaned fiber is ready for spinning into yarn using a simple one-handed system or a spinning wheel.
  • “Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, insecticides or defoliants. About 23 percent of the world's insecticides and more than 10 percent of the world's pesticides are said to be used on conventional cotton,” according to Dale Denkensohn of Econscious.
  • Soy fiber is made from the hulls of soy beans used in food production. It can be grown organically and is naturally biodegradable. It requires no pesticides to grow and is often used to sow fields to replenish nutrients in the soil. Soy fibers have natural wicking properties and are generally combined with other cellulose fibers due to their rarity in the current marketplace.