Saturday, September 02, 2006

Media - Presstime Mag - Newspaper Inks

Published in Presstime, August 2006

Ink: Oil or Soy?

By John Bryan

MOST PEOPLE IN the newspaper industry don’t think much about ink—other than when they get some on their shoes walking through the pressroom.

Back in the day, ink companies mixed a little lampblack in with kerosene, and pressroom foremen bought the concoction and threw it into the press. Today, however, the world of newspaper ink is increasingly complex—and expensive.

inkNewspapers want the blacker blacks they’re used to getting, but they also now have to contend with air quality, thinner newsprint, the gyrations of the global oil market, and the continuing demand from readers for ink that stays on the page, not on their hands.

As a result, the new trend favors soy. To understand why, you need to understand the manufacture of newspaper ink itself.

Oil-based ink—particularly black ink—is still king in the newspaper industry, but it’s made with a special kind of oil called naphthenic. In global oil terms, it’s a niche product, and niche products tend to come with their own sets of supply fluctuations.

“Most of our naphthenic comes from the North Sea,” says Norman Harbin, vice president for business and technical development of Flint Ink’s news ink division ( “There used to be some coming out of Texas and California—there still is some in California—but the rest of it comes from either the North Sea or Venezuela.”

Beyond the relatively limited supply lies a larger problem: facilities to process it. Only three U.S. refineries—in Louisiana, Texas and Bakersfield, Calif.—are processing naphthenic oil, Harbin says, and the Louisiana site is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina last year. “We’re normally able to build up inventories to allow for shutdowns, but there aren’t any more refineries coming on line, and if anything goes wrong we have
a supply disruption.”

Refining shortfalls make that already-expensive naphthenic oil even more so. Those blacker blacks from oil-based inks are now getting pricey.

Worse yet, oil-based inks are rich in volatile organic compounds, or VOC. They love to take to the air and settle all over the place, including inside people. Many states have recently tightened their VOC requirements, creating a regulatory headache for many newspapers.

“Because of the things going on in Los Angeles with regard to air quality emissions, we needed to do something,” recalls Russ Christensen, operations project manager at the Los Angeles Times.

The Times switched from oil-based ink, which has a VOC content of about 14 percent, to soy-based ink, with a VOC content of 1 percent, in 1991. The paper has been 100 percent soy ink ever since, and it’s a good thing: The Times’ newsprint stock has gotten thinner—too thin to use oil-based inks without print-through or set-off problems, Christensen says.

“With soy, you can run a thinner film,” he adds, “and when you do that, you don’t have as much absorption into the paper. Any paper going to thinner newsprint is going to have to go to soy ink if you want to avoid quality problems.”

But soy ink is somewhat more expensive to make than its oil-based counterpart. Soy must be processed and thickened to work with black pigment, and that process costs money, says John R. Whalen, vice president of Kerley Ink (

Then, to keep the ink from rubbing off, resin must be added to make the pigment-laden soy stick to the paper and get absorbed by the fibers. Some ink manufacturers, Whalen observes, substitute clay, a cheaper additive, for resin.

However it’s done, the ink manufacturers agree that soy is the greasy wave of the future. What they don’t agree on is whether it’s ever going to be cheaper than oil-based inks, even if the soy-based black ink can be made to look as good.

“Soy oil prices remain higher than petroleum-based oils,” says Todd Wheeler, marketing manager for US Ink Corp. ( “Vegetable oils can and have been used as fuels, providing a floor for their pricing. Therefore, US Ink does not view soy oil as a way to insulate them from petroleum oil prices.”
But Flint’s Harbin, whose company is heavily invested in soy-based inks, says it’s not that cut and dry. “The United States is the Saudi Arabia of soy oil,” he says. “It’s used in the food industry and it’s in abundant supply.”

[ Presstime Magazine ]

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.