Ink and toner cartridges are used daily in offices with photocopiers, fax machines and printers. Most people are not aware if, or how, recycling of the cartridges is taking place.
A cursory look at the printing industry does not reveal any visible environmental disaster. Most printer equipment manufacturers report that they run recycling programs, and work with their distributors and sales points to exchange out cartridges and other non-degradable materials. However, lets look closer. There are almost no obligations by law to recycle, so it is not really known whether manufacturers are meeting any of their self-proclaimed sustainability goals.
For example, Hewlett Packard, claims that it is “reinventing how products are designed, manufactured, used and recovered” as they shift their business model toward a circular and low-carbon economy. Yet, in the same breath, they also report that 75% of their ink cartridges and 24% of toner cartridges are manufactured with “closed loop” recycled plastic. We assume the rest of the product ends up in the landfill.
The Energy Collective has been researching this loop of waste and estimates that 11 in cartridges are sold per second and 1 million cartridges are thrown away each day. Not-so-fun fact: if a stack of used toner cartridges were piled up one on top of the other for one year, the stack would be as large as the Burj Al Arab, the worlds tallest building. Another not-so-fun fact: for a printer cartridge to decompose in a landfill takes 1000 years.
The cost of this collective laziness to the environment is high. It is estimated that printer cartridges create millions of tonnes of waste, including non-biodegradable plastic, ferrous metal, aluminium and precious metal waste. There are volatile organic compounds in ink that can take thousands of years to degrade.
Taking a closer look, we can actually name these chemical culprits, including butyl urea, which prevents paper from curling; cyclohexanone, which helps ink adhere to polymers; several dyes including active red 23 dye, acid yellow dye and direct blue 199 dye, which contain sulphur; ethoxylated acetylenic diols, which modify surface tension of water and colors, while ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is full of contaiminants and ethylene glycol. The combination of these elements together is considered a problematic toxic waste that is linked to destruction of ground water, environmental contamination and even species extinction.
A dangerous trend emerging in the last ten years is the establishment of legal and illegal electronic waste (e-waste) dumping sites in developing countries to intake waste fro industrialised nations. In Agbogbloshie, near Accra Ghana, a “digital dumping ground” has developed where 540,000 tons of e-waste are processed each year. Some of the waste is burned, which emits toxic chemicals into the air, land and water, exposing children to hazardous toxins that inhibit the development of their nervous system, reproductive system and brain. The world’s largest e-waste site is in Guiyu, China, where 80% of children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
It is clear that the problems posed by printer cartridge waste are larger than any inconvenience to the customer. Therefore, printer cartridge recycling businesses should be encouraged and even subsidised by governments, with illegal dumping punished by law.
Recycling printer cartridges could conserve energy and natural resources, including petroleum resources and reducing waste to only 3%. Energy Collective estimates that recycling can help save 640,000 kg of monthly CO2 emissions per factory output.
Despite these benefits, recycling printer cartridges is not as widespread as it should be. Toner replacement is a specialised business that requires physical collection, trading cartridges and support services. Most companies prefer to buy new cartridges because this supply chain is easier to manage.
But slowly, things are also improving. In the United States, there is an aftermarket consumable industry that employs 40,000 workers. The average re-manufacturer restores 400 cartridges per month, thus making a energy savings of 300 gallons of oil and almost a thousand tons of solid waste in landfills.
Within a typical re-manufacturing process loop, cartridges can be re-used for two or three printing cycles. When a cartridge is returned, it goes through a simple process. Used toner cartridges are first sorted out to separate reusable cartridges from those that are totally damaged and can no longer be used. Damaged cartridges are melted down and the plastic is used to manufacture plastic chairs, or integrated into paving materials. The cartridges that can be salvaged are dismantled and worn out imaging components are replaced, re-assembled and refilled with a fresh shot of toner. Then all other excesses are totally recycled and every piece of the empty toner is reused.
I think it’s time to find out which local business in your area runs a printer cartridge recycling program! Or better yet, learn how to refill your cartridges yourself, and be a part of the solution to a generational effort to save the planet.
Monbiot, George (September 21, 2009). “From toxic waste to toxic assets, the same people always get dumped on”. The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
Who knew domestic, organic waste could be turned into [...]
Every year, close to one trillion plastic bags are used [...]
All these fancy terms: reduce, upcycle, zero-waste… but what [...]
Technology is always progressing no matter which sector you take [...]
If you take waste management, the world’s biggest issue, [...]
The concept of recycling needs to be adopted on community [...]