Most used printer cartridges are thrown away with less than half re-used or even recycled, according to a new report from InfoTrends.
The printer supplies industry is failing to support environmental goals with OEMs and focusing on new cartridge sales and printer supply profit mountains. Meanwhile, some appear to see recycling - where the whole cartridge is broken down - as a neat way to avoid cartridge re-filling, which hurts profits.
It also appears that the WEEE directive is making it more difficult to re-use printer cartridges, an example perhaps of the law of unintended consequences.
In the report, "2007 Supplies Recycling: US and Europe," it is clear that original printer manufacturers (OEMs) and re-manufacturers - 3rd party suppliers of refilled toner and ink cartridges - are competing to collect used cartridges. The OEMs will recycle them; have them broken down into component materials, while the re-manufacturers will try to profitably refill and resell cartridges, at lower prices than brand new cartridges."
Like a milk bottle, a printer cartridge contains a consumable. Once used up the cartridge could be used again, re-filled with ink or toner, and supplied to customers. A combination of re-use-unfriendly product design and printer OEM reluctance to support re-use is leading to most used cartridges either being thrown away or recycled into components.
Third-party supplies companies collect 70 percent more empty OEM toner cartridges and 700 percent more empty OEM inkjet cartridges than the OEMs themselves.
Collection is difficult as customers may be expected to post used cartridges back to a recycler or re-manufacturer. The cost of the postage can exceed the value of a returned empty cartridge to a re-manufacturer. The recently introduced WEEE directive will not help re-manufacturers as empty cartridges will go to local authority or other recycling centres - effectively out of reach of the re-manufacturers.
Recycling appears to be endorsed by printer OEMs as a way of stopping used cartridges getting into the hands of re-manufacturers who could then undercut the OEM's printer cartridge prices. The report finds that 'Through re-manufacturing, 3rd party supplies companies are able, on average, to reduce overall demand for new cartridges by about 20 percent.' It suggests that some printer manufacturers, such as Xerox and Lexmark, are beginning to realise that re-use is better than recycling.
Re-use of toner and ink cartridges is made more difficult by the profusion of different types. If there were only a few standard sizes and type of cartridge, such as batteries with AA standard sizes, then re-use would be much easier. Cartridges are also not designed for re-use. That is why re-manufacturers prefer so-called virgin empties, cartridges used once only. Each use cycle lessens the likelihood that the cartridge can be profitably used again.
The report finds that '80 percent of re-manufactured toner cartridges and 86 percent of re-manufactured inkjet cartridges are thrown away' because it is uneconomic to refill them again.
While printer manufacturers sell printers as loss leaders and make the bulk of their profit on brand new cartridge sales, this is just not likely to happen. Wouldn't it be nice if HP stopped trumpeting about the amount of material it was recycling and instead put effort, with other printer manufacturers, into having cartridges designed for re-use and supporting a re-use infrastructure. Now that really would show commitment to the environment.
The report does find that, in general, the printer supplies industry is helping to reduce the amount of cartridges ending up in landfill, but with more than half of the billions of cartridges bought new every year being thrown away when empty, that is faint praise.