Friday, April 24, 2009

The Trouble with Tribbles.... er... Inkjet Cartridges!

Those pesky empty inkjet cartridges multiply on my desk like tribbles.. I know better than to toss them into the trash, but I'm not completely sure of the alternatives. By the way, if you're too young to remember the Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles," you can watch it all Isn't William Shatner a baby-face in that picture??

So first, let's get something off the table. Do not even suggest that I learn to refill inkjet cartridges myself. I don't care how much I can save. Going to the office supply store, searching for refill ink, struggling through poorly-written directions, balancing pouring aparatus and cartridges. NOT happening. Mess, mess, mess. This blog is about feel-good alternatives, not stress-inducers.
Last year, I bought a new multi-function HP printer, and was thrilled to discover that HP inkjet cartridges came with postage-paid recycle envelopes. And, if you need more envelopes, you can go order them free from the HP website. Then, I learned that "recycle" can be a fudge word for "disposes of" and doesn't necessarily mean reuse or recycle. Webzine writer Niall Roche had the low-down on ill fated old cartridges returned to the printer manufacturer. Though I had imagined steady-fingered HP refillers wrestling with old cartridges, according to Roche, HP actually disassembles the cartridges, uses some parts to make new products, while "other components are used to generate energy or are disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner."

What about other printers? Epson incinerates returned cartridges. Canon collects cartridges but has no recycling program in place, according to Roche. Of the printers Roche investigated, only Lexmark has a program in place to make sure every collected cartridge is remanufactured or recycled! What gives with using the word "recycle" if they really mean "disposal"??

Does it matter whether Epson incinerates cartridges or HP disposes of them otherwise, if they do it in an environmentally responsible manner?

WELL YES. Because for every destroyed cartridge, a new one must replace it. Cartridge World, a company that bills itself as the "world's largest printer cartridge refiller and remanufacturer," commissioned a study a couple of years ago to compare carbon emissions associated with overseas cartridge manufacture and transport to stateside refill/remanufacture operations. The study, performed by Brown & Wilmanns Environmental, LLC, looked at CO2 numbers associated with transporting three makes of cartridge from their countries of origin to three U.S. cities, and the transport impact of similar Cartridge World products to the same three cities. The results suggest that local refill and remanufacture can emit less than half the carbon dioxide than that associated with new cartridges, and over 70% for toners. I couldn't find the original study. The press release is here:

So what's a tribble to do? Well, check the small print on your printer manufacturer's "recycle" program carefully to make sure it really is one. If so, use online ordering option to have recycle containers shipped directly to your home.

If not, consider using a company like Cartridge World. Store locator here:

OR, if you're lucky enough to live in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles or San Diego, the US Postal Service has a 1500 store pilot recycling program going. You can pick up, fill and mail recycle envelopes, no postage required! PDAs, Blackberries, digital cameras, iPods and MP3 players can also be recycled this way. Find out what happens to these items here:

Unfortunately for lazy recyclers like myself, Cartridge World and the Post Office are both walk-in services. There are a host of erstwhile services on the web that will let you mail your cartridges in, but be sure to read the fine print, because these, too, seem to fudge on the word "recycle." If you see fine print that says something like "proper disposal," just move on. Here is a list of online recycle providers that I found on the City of Alexandria, VA's website:

and my favorite, Recycle for Breast Cancer:
Here's some other factoids from Cartridge World about the enviro impacts of cartridge production:

• It takes about a gallon of oil to make one new laser cartridge.
• Almost 8 cartridges are thrown away per second in the United States alone!
• In North America alone, over 350 million cartridges per year are discarded in our landfills, and that number increases by 12 percent annually!
• A laser cartridge thrown into landfill can take up to 450 years to decompose. Some components made of industrial grade plastics will take over a thousand years to decompose.
• Every remanufactured cartridge saves nearly 3 and 1/2 pounds of solid waste from being deposited in landfills.
• 70 percent of used printer cartridges throughout the world are currently being thrown out.
• In one year, if the world’s discarded cartridges were stacked end-to-end, they would circle the earth over three times.

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