Printer companies reduce, reuse, recycle


Plastic printer parts forming small mountains in landfills. Toxic ink from old cartridges oozing into the ground. It’s not a pretty sight – and printer manufacturers are trying to do something about it.

A number of recycling initiatives are taking place to clean up the environment. But where is the line drawn between environmental concern and marketing clout?

One company has created solid ink technology, which is less harmful to the environment than liquid ink. “What’s really cool about the solid ink technology is that it basically doesn’t generate much waste in the first place. Reduce, reuse and recycle – what you want to do is reduce,” says Jim Rise, manager of product and solutions marketing with Tektronix Inc.’s Colour Printing and Imaging Division in Wilsonville, Ore. “It’s on the order of a couple hundred pounds of waste if you make 100,000 prints from a laser printer, versus just a few pounds from a solid ink printer,” he says. “You can print on recycled paper (with solid inks) and print on both sides so you use less paper,” he says, “and those prints are recyclable even with the ink on them.”

The solid ink sticks come in a simple cardboard box with a recyclable plastic tub, and there are no toner cartridges or bottles to deal with. The ink is consumed on the pages with little waste left over.

But other technologies such as laser and ink-jet printers have cartridges that create waste, and consumer responsiveness remains an issue when trying to tackle this problem. Even with cartridge recycling programs where postage is prepaid by the manufacturer, return rates are low. While Tektronix has set up a recycling program to reclaim toner cartridges for its other printer lines, Rise is skeptical about their effectiveness.

“I’ve definitely been to places where they have a program, but people don’t know about it and they just throw (the cartridges) in the garbage.”

Nevertheless, vendors continue to support “green” programs. In order to encourage consumers to recycle their cartridges, for example, Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. has teamed up with Friends of the Earth (see Profile, page 23), an environmental organization based in Ottawa. In a pilot project that ran from Earth Day, in April, to Sept. 1, HP donated $1 to Friends of the Earth for every cartridge returned to HP.

“Our plans are to really expand that throughout the year. It has been very successful so far to date and hopefully we can leverage the success of the pilot project to a full-year program,” says Sam Moncada, Canadian supplies marketing manager with Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd.

The company has a cartridge return rate of about 25 to 35 per cent. Its goal through its partnership with Friends of the Earth is to bring that number up to more than 40 per cent.

Moncada says HP is taking a “cradle to grave” approach where the company takes responsibility for the cartridges from the time they’re built to the time they’re disposed. HP offers its customers free shipping for used cartridges through Canada Post. It then sends these cartridges to the U.S., where the parts are reused or melted down to make other products.

Lexmark Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont., has a similarprogram. Hugh Dyke, product manager for Lexmark’s imaging solutions division, says the company includes a prepaid courier waybill on its cartridge boxes. The company then sends the used cartridges to Lexington, Ky., where they are taken apart and recycled into a variety of products. The Opportunity Workshop of Lexington (OWL) program is a structured work environment for the mentally and physically challenged, who dismantle the cartridges. OWL then sells the various parts and components to raw materials and manufacturing companies.

“One of the things our toner becomes is asphalt. Almost all of the cardboard is recycled – that goes back into corrugated materials,” says Dyke. “There’s also an area where we recycle cartridges – when they’re sent back to us, we remanufacture them ourselves and then they are resold.” He says typically, printer OEMs (including Lexmark) were getting back between five and 10 per cent of their cartridges. “Today, as a result of a new toner program, we’re at almost four times where we used to be, which is for the industry extremely high,” he adds.

Under this program, customers can buy a “prebate” cartridge for the company’s line of Optra S printers. “We offer two toner cartridges, one for about $40 cheaper than the other one on the condition the customer sends it back to us for recycling,” says Dyke.

However, one customer isn’t happy with this initiative. Jack Bonney, president of Smart-Text Solutions Inc. in Vancouver, points out that Lexmark’s se 3455 laser printer uses a toner cartridge with a chip that can disable the printer if it detects a refilled cartridge from a third party.

“This ‘black box’ technology is offered under the despicable marketing program of ‘saving our environment’ – in fact it does two things. It denies users the right to freedom of choice between using a Lexmark cartridge and one refilled by a third party, and it provides a two-tiered pricing arrangement that actually penalizes the ‘refillable’ cartridge (refillable by third parties), which common sense dictates should be the more environmentally friendly choice,” he says.

He suggests there’s a bigger issue than simply toner. “When the supplier can use ‘black box’ technology with the impunity to disable equipment upon detecting involvement by a third-party service even though the end-user has paid the full purchase price for the equipment, and they do so under the ‘holier than thou’ guise of ‘protecting our environment,’ this has to be an indication of the most arrogant and inappropriate use of marketing and technology – to the detriment of both users and third-party toner services together.”

In fact, the Canadian Imaging Products Remanufacturing Association has a committee that is fighting the prebate issue. And the King County Procurement Services Environmental Purchasing Program, a government agency responsible for ensuring the State of Washington undertakes ecologically sound decisions, has put Lexmark on notice that its products will not be recognized under the government agency’s marketing policy regarding ton-er cartridges.

Simon Giggs, director of the imaging solutions division for Lexmark Canada, says the company tries to convert customers to Lexmark-branded cartridges because “ultimately our concern is quality and we do rigourous tests on all of our cartridges.” He points out that in Canada, 85 to 90 per cent of the cartridges the company sells are of the prebate variety.

While there is a chip in the new cartridges that, if refilled by a third party, comes up with an “unauthorized use” message, Giggs says this is “a patented technology so it really is breaking the law.”

“I think the remanufacturers are trying to cause some confusion. Our take has always been simple: If you want to remanufacture a cartridge, here is the price. But if you would like to return it to Lexmark, we’re going to give you a rebate up front.,” he says.

“We’re not trying to stop people from using a third-party manufacturer, but it seems to have been twisted a little bit. It’s a different way of marketing and I think change has got some people worried and obviously got the remanufacturing industry very worried because it does affect their business – it’s their business that is losing ultimately.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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