The Vibrant World of Fabric Printing: Navigating Health and Eco-Friendly Choices

Today, let's dive into the colourful world of fabric printing and screen-printing! One question that often pops up when I showcase my hand-painted and hand-drawn designs on fabric is whether they've been screen-printed. While I adore screen-printed goods too, my personal preference for printing my own fabrics lies in the realm of digital printing. Why, you ask? Because digital printing offers a superior quality finish, preserving the intricate details of my original artwork without compromising the quality of brushstrokes or drawn lines.

Now, before we explore the importance of maintaining these hand-drawn elements from a wellbeing perspective in future posts, let's delve into the world of modern screen-printing processes.

While modern screen-printing processes with water-based inks and UV screen making are generally considered safer than older, more toxic alternatives, they still pose some health and environmental concerns which include:

Water-Based Inks:

  • Toxic Products in Pigments:
    • While water-based inks are less toxic than solvent-based counterparts, they may still contain pigments with potentially harmful chemicals. Some pigments may include heavy metals or other toxic compounds that can pose risks to human health and the environment.
  • VOCs and Additives:
    • Water-based inks often contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and additives. While the levels are lower compared to solvent-based inks, exposure to VOCs can still contribute to air pollution and may have health implications for those working in screen-printing environments.
  • Waste Disposal:
    • Disposing of waste from water-based inks requires careful consideration. Some water-based inks may contain elements that, when improperly disposed of, can leach into the environment, affecting soil and water quality.

UV Screen Making:

  • Chemicals in Emulsions:
    • UV screen making often involves the use of emulsions for coating screens. Some emulsions may contain chemicals that, while designed for UV exposure, can still have health risks upon prolonged exposure or inadequate protective measures.
  • Waste from Cleaning Solutions:
    • Cleaning solutions used in UV screen making may contain chemicals that are harmful if not handled properly. Disposal of these solutions requires adherence to environmental regulations to prevent pollution.
  • Energy Consumption:
    • UV curing processes require energy-intensive UV lamps. While this method reduces the need for drying time, the energy consumption associated with UV curing can contribute to a higher carbon footprint compared to other traditional screen-printing methods like stencil cutting. Not to mention what long-term exposure to UV lamps can cause to human health, especially with regards to the eyes in this situation.

The Environmental Impact:

  • Chemical Runoff:
    • Water runoff from screen-printing processes, especially if not managed properly, can introduce chemicals into the environment. Even water-based inks may contain elements that, when released into natural ecosystems, could have detrimental effects on aquatic life.
  • Resource Extraction:
    • The extraction of raw materials for inks and emulsions can contribute to environmental degradation. It involves the extraction of pigments, resins, and other components, impacting ecosystems and biodiversity.  This also applies more generally to most processes that use traditional inks, not just screen-printing.

The following are some of the mitigation measures that artists and printers can and often do have in place to minimise the health and environmental impacts mentioned above:

  • Safe Handling and Disposal:
    • Implementing proper safety measures, such as wearing protective gear and ensuring adequate ventilation, can minimise direct exposure. Additionally, proper disposal procedures and recycling efforts can reduce the environmental impact.
  • Use of Eco-Friendly Alternatives:
    • Choosing water-based inks with eco-friendly certifications and UV screen making materials with reduced environmental impact can be a proactive step toward sustainability.  Not all of these products are created equal – just because something is water based does not mean that it is environmentally or health friendly.
  • Waste Management Practices:
    • Implementing efficient waste management practices, such as recycling and proper disposal of chemicals, helps minimise the overall impact on the environment. 

So before committing to purchasing products from a screen-printer, it's essential for potential buyers to engage in a thoughtful dialogue to ensure the quality, safety, and sustainability of the items:

  • Firstly, inquire about the types of inks used in the screen printing process, focusing on whether they are water-based and if they contain any harmful pigments, chemicals or polymers.
  • Additionally, discuss the printer's waste disposal practices to gauge their commitment to environmental responsibility.
  • Asking about the screen-making process, specifically regarding the use of UV and any associated safety measures, provides insight into potential health impacts.
  • Seek information on the printer or artist's overall commitment to eco-friendly practices, including certifications for water-based inks and sustainable materials (they should be able to provide you with these if they have a serious commitment to sustainability).
  • Furthermore, understanding the printer's stance on waste management, recycling efforts, and their dedication to reducing environmental impact ensures alignment with conscientious consumer values.

By posing these inquiries, you as a buyer can make informed decisions, choosing products that not only meet your aesthetic preferences but also align with your values regarding health and environmental responsibility.

Rounding up, whilst modern screen-printing techniques have come a long way, continuous efforts to improve formulations, reduce waste, and enhance disposal methods are crucial. I hope this goes part of the way to answering people’s queries on why my preference is for digital printing.  Stay tuned for future posts where I'll delve deeper into why I've chosen digital printing for my fabrics from both an environmental and health perspective!

PS.  If you are interested in the images, the first three images in this post are hand coloured screen-prints on paper from my first ever screen-print attempts in 2006.  They were then printed onto fabric for t-shirts.  I later taught screen-printing as part of a regular semester series of printmaking at the BIA (Brisbane Institute of Art) in Brisbane for a number of years, and the last photo is of some of my proud fabric printing students and their introductory workshop output.  The cover photo is another screen-print on fabric of one of my lily sketches.

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