There are loads of different ways of transferring ink onto garments. Everything from embroidery, sublimation, screen-printing, to DTG printing, dyeing, and appliques! But how eco-friendly are these processes? Do you need to worry about dangerous chemicals, wasted water, or a high carbon footprint? In this article, we’re going to talk about sublimation specifically! Is sublimation eco-friendly? Let’s find out.
What is sublimation?
Before we get started talking about sublimation and whether it is eco-friendly, I wanted to take a minute to brush up on sublimation. This will help our talking points later.
If you are already intimately familiar with sublimation and the processes associated with it, then feel free to skip this section! Otherwise, read-on! You may learn something.
Dye-sublimation, or just sublimation, is a process to transfer ink onto different types of garments.
Sublimation uses a process, called sublimation (funny how it works out like that), wherein ink is transferred directly onto the garment. High levels of heat and pressure are applied to cause the ink to instantly vaporize into a gas, allowing it to permanently bond with the garment.
This sublimation process works specifically with a water-based ink, usually called sublimation ink, in order to work properly. The inks molecules in the water are what are permanently dyeing the garment.
Once the ink is vaporized into a gas form, it is able to bond with the garment. Sublimation ink will only bond with polymer molecules. So, in other words, sublimation only really works with specific types of fabrics and materials that have these polymer molecules in high enough supply. Typical fabrics are polyester, nylon, spandex, and more. Sublimation will also work with different types of aluminum and ceramics, if they are coated in a special type of plastic. You can read more about the common sublimation fabrics and materials here!
Because the sublimation ink bonds with the plastic, your garment becomes permanently colored. No amount of washes, rinses, or fabric cleaners will remove the ink from the fabric. This makes it a great option for customizing your garments!
The Sublimation Process
Okay, so you kinda get how sublimation works, right? Well if not, here’s a quick breakdown of a typical workflow for sublimation a garment or other material:
- Come up with a design.
- You need a design to transfer onto your substrate! You can read about some of our favorite design softwares here.
- Print out your design onto sublimation paper.
- Next you’ll need to print the design out. You need to make sure to use a specialized printer that can support sublimation ink as well as a specially coated paper to absorb the sublimation inks.
- Heat up and set up your heat press.
- Dial in your heat press settings. You’ll need to dial in your temperature, pressure, and timing values.
- Place your garment with the sublimation design, so that the transferrable surfaces are facing each other.
- You want to place your sublimation design and transfer material in your heat press. Make sure that the design you came up with and your material are setup so that the design and material are facing each other!
- Press for your recommended settings.
- Once finished, immediately and carefully remove your design from your material. Set your substrate off to the side to cool down.
- Once cool, you’re all finished. Your garment or material is good to go!
Hopefully this breakdown can clear up some of the confused people out there. We have plenty of other resources to learn more about sublimation if you are so inclined!
But is sublimation eco-friendly?
Okay, now that we’ve taken the time to brush up on the sublimation process, we can dig into the meat here. Is sublimation eco-friendly? Can I sublimate my t-shirts while making sure I’m staying environmentally friendly?
The answer is yes! Yes, sublimation is eco-friendly!
Easy as that! But before I let you go, why is sublimation eco-friendly? And how does sublimation compare to other, common dye transfer methods?
If you’re familiar with screen-printing, then you know screen-printing requires a ton of water. Like a lot of water really.
Screen printers need to constantly wash their screens to make sure that no contamination of colors ever occur. Because of this, they end up using a ton of water to constantly clean and maintain their screens!
But not sublimation!
Sublimation doesn’t require much, if any, water at all! The sublimation process uses heat and pressure to sublimate inks onto the garment or material. Because of this, there isn’t much of a risk of color contamination between different clothes or different substrates.
All the ink is transferred onto the sublimation paper. And all the ink is transferred onto the garment. There isn’t a ton of room for cross contamination between different batches, different designs, or even different garments! It’s a really self-contained process.
So if you live in a drought heavy state, or even if you are just concerned about the environmental impact your water usage can have, then you should be able to rest easy knowing that sublimation is very water conservative! Especially when compared to other processes like screen printing!
So sublimation is great on water usage, huh? But what about paper usage?
Well, this might be a knock against sublimation's eco-friendliness. Sublimation does use quite a bit of paper. But don’t worry! If you are still interested in sublimation, there are recycled options out there for you!
Sublimation requires a special type of paper, coated in chemicals, to absorb and hold the sublimation ink. Since you need a paper for every design you transfer, and every time you transfer a design, you can end up using a lot of paper!
But there are options for you eco-friendly people!
You can recycle your sublimation paper. You can do this by either making sure you are using as much of the paper as possible, not allowing much unused paper to go to waste. There are other ways of reusing and recycling your paper, such as reusing the paper for packaging filler, recycling the paper, or even finding other uses for your paper!
If you’re familiar with sublimation, then chances are you’ve used Kraft paper before. I mean, I regularly use kraft paper to protect both my heat press and my substrates while pressing.
There are tons of resources for either getting recycled kraft paper or recycling your kraft paper after you’ve finished using it!
There are plenty of brands that sell their eco-friendly kraft paper on Amazon, and I’d highly recommend them if you need to restock on kraft paper!
You can also recycle kraft paper along with your other recyclables. This way, you can rest easy knowing your sublimation process is eco-friendly.
Does sublimation produce a ton of fumes? Are the fumes made by sublimation eco-friendly?
Well, does sublimation produce fumes? Yes. Does sublimation produce a lot of fumes, or any dangerous fumes? Probably not.
That sounds sketchy, but don’t worry, it really isn’t! Sublimation is a fairly safe process, and while it does produce fumes, there are no safety regulations or safety concerns when pressing your substrates.
So long as you’re working in a well ventilated area, you shouldn’t have many concerns when it comes to the fumes produced by the sublimation process!
Now, there aren’t a ton of ways to dance around this part. Sublimation does require a lot of energy and electricity.
The heat press will require the most energy and electricity during the sublimation process, and may turn you off to the whole sublimation is eco-friendly idea.
Depending on the size of your heat press, the energy use will vary. Obviously, smaller heat presses will require less energy will larger heat presses require more. It’s not the most surprising thing in the world.
Typically, a heat press will range from 1kW to 2kW in energy used. To give a specific example, my most commonly used heat press, which is a 16x24, runs at 1.8kW. For comparison's sake, a modern, energy efficient refrigerator will use in the range of 100 to 400 W. That’s a lot less than a heat press! The difference comes when you consider how long your heat press is in operation versus your fridge.
You run your fridge 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Your heat press should only be running for a few hours a day!
So long as you make sure to run your heat press only when you need to, you can help cut back on the amount of energy you need to run your sublimation business!
What about the garments you’re printing onto? Are those eco-friendly?
Well yes, and no.
Most polyester garments aren’t particularly famous for how eco-friendly they are. So if you just buy the cheap polyester t-shirts and hoodies from Alibaba or Amazon, you likely aren’t using something that is eco-friendly.
But there are lots of ways to source eco-friendly garments for your sublimation business! One of my favorites are the eco-friendly, polyester shirts made from recycled materials! There are lots of companies that specialize turning old plastic into different types of clothing. Toad and Co is a great option you can check out!
So is sublimation eco-friendly?
Yes! Sublimation is eco-friendly!
It doesn’t require a ton of water compared to other dye transfer methods. There are a lot of options when it comes to recyclable materials to use in your sublimation process. Sublimation doesn’t require any major machinery to be running all day. You can even source your substrates and garments from recyclable sources! T-shirt companies are popping up all the time that specialize in turning old plastic bottles into polyester t-shirts!
Whether you’re looking to use eco-friendly and vegan sources as a marketing approach to set yourself apart, or if you’re looking to run a business in a sustainable way, then sublimation is a great approach for you! You can really make sure your sublimation is eco-friendly!