Printers push recycle button


Hewlett-Packard is embracing green thinking by tripling the use of recycled materials in its range of inkjet cartridges

PAPER DOESN’T refuse ink, but just what kind of ink you put on your page is something worth thinking about. As green thinking makes itself felt in consumer electronics, US corporation Hewlett-Packard (HP) is anxious to lead this new field.

HP, one of the world’s largest technology companies, has a long track record in the recycling business: in the 1970s it was recycling punch cards, in the 1990s it began recycling laser printer cartridges. Last month, Newsweek magazine dubbed HP the greenest of America’s top 500 companies.

As a company that manufactures 110,000 printers daily, it has taken a lead from the drinks industry to come up with its “Hit Print Responsibly” campaign.

The aim: to provide design and material innovation solutions to reduce the cost and environmental impact of its products. Anyone with a swipe card for networked office printers knows the deal.

Central to this green push is the “closed cycle” revolution taking place under the lid of HP inkjet printers.

Inkjet cartridges revolutionised home computing, allowing quick and easy printing of everything from reports to photographs. There were just a few problems with the technology: not only does it cost more per litre than crude oil or human blood; for occasional printer users, it had a habit of drying out just when you needed it.

While some users have switched to a new generation of cheaper laser printers, the majority of homes have stuck with the inkjet.

Now HP is anxious to wean itself, and, by extension, its customers, off the petroleum-based PET plastic needed for its printer cartridges. At a media event in Bavaria this week, its staff presented the company’s green credentials, including the fact that it has already reached its 2007 goal to triple its use of recycled materials by 2010.

Reusing the materials in its inkjet cartridges, a project now in its third year, is one of HP’s biggest and most complex undertakings.

The recycling process begins in two locations worldwide: Nashville, Tennessee, and the recycling company PDR in Thurnau in Frankonia, northern Bavaria.

Containers arrive in Thurnau from all over Europe and are emptied into wire bins: one seems to be from Ireland and is filled with an alarming number of cartridges marked “defective, not for resale”.

In the first hall, workers stand at a conveyor belt sorting out the cartridges and flicking them into various bins.

Anyone who’s ever stood in a shop, overwhelmed, before a wall of inkjet cartridges, in their seemingly infinite combinations, will never complain again.

The bins of sorted cartridges are brought next door to the shredder, a massive metal box inside a soundproof case. Cartridges travel up the conveyor belt and emerge, shredded coarsely and glittering with copper and gold.

Bulking up the mix is the shredded plastic and the ink-coated sponge from inside the cartridge.

The whole mix moves into the next stage in three layers: floating sponge on top, in the middle a soup of water and remainder ink and, at the bottom, the heavy plastic and metal.

The sponge is squeezed out, the plastic and metal is recovered in a centrifuge for reuse while the inky soup is reduced down to gloop and incinerated.

So how much ink is left in those cartridges? It’s a question posed by every inkjet user who has learned to ignore those insistent “replace my ink now” messages from the printer and carry on regardless. “It varies wildly with the ink levels,” says PDR plant director Hans Taubermann. “Some cartridges come in nearly full of ink, some half-empty.”

According to HP staff, an average of 2 per cent of total ink content remains in the cartridge sponge.

The journey of the recycled cartridges has only just begun: after shredding, the PET plastic is transported to the US for “refinement” – adding additional PET from plastic bottles as well as further additives to give the recycled PET the same properties as virgin plastic resin.

HP says this recycled PET (RPET) – 75 per cent old cartridges and 25 per cent new material – can be reused at least seven times without any deterioration in material quality.

The RPET is then shipped to cartridge manufacturing facilities around the world, including Ireland, where the new cartridges are manufactured. HP employees say the Thurnau recycling plant is just a first stage in its green inkjet revolution: they eventually hope to create a plant that can disassemble, refill and recycle the intact cartridge for further use in a field where image quality isn’t a primary concern, such as labelling boxes.

So will HP’s green strategy excite customers? Their thunder has been stolen this week in Europe, somewhat, by Kodak’s continental advertising campaign aimed squarely at HP.

It wants to break the existing business model – cheap printer/expensive ink – pioneered by HP and others with the promise of saving the average customer around €100 annually in print costs.

Its eye-catching claim – “Germans spend €650 million too much on ink each year” – screams the television advertising campaign.

Kodak claims the campaign boosted sales in Britain, but HP executives say they doubt the long-term potential of the programme, and put it down to a rival desperate for a reversal in its grim fortune.

“Of course every company will push whatever works for it,” admits Dean Miller, head of HP’s worldwide inkjet recycling programme.

With all HP’s effort to collect, shred, remould and redistribute cartridges, what about the elephant in the room: refilled inkjet cartridges? What could be more environmentally – not to mention bank-balance – friendly than getting your cartridges refilled in the shop down the road, as millions of people do each year?

It’s a process HP neither condones nor supports, although it says it doesn’t build into its cartridges the so-called “killer chips” that prevent the same cartridge being used twice in the same printer.

“We have looked at refilling and remanufacturing cartridges but we cannot achieve the quality consumers tell us they want,” says Bruno Zago of HP.

“It’s something we have looked at and will continue to look at again.”