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Inside HP's Ink Jet Cartridge Recycling Process

Paper recycling gets a lot of ink, if you'll pardon the expression. But while many offices and public places have bins for separating waste paper from trash, getting gunked up, empty ink jet cartridges back to the manufacturer is another story.

Paper recycling gets a lot of ink, if you'll pardon the expression. But while many offices and public places have bins for separating waste paper from trash, getting gunked up, empty ink jet cartridges back to the manufacturer is another story.The smaller volumes (compared to paper) and extra steps necessary to get cartridges back into the manufacturing stream are the chief reasons cartridges are overlooked by otherwise responsible recyclers.

Ink jet cartridges arrive at HP's recycling plant near Nashville.
(click for image gallery)

Hardware-maker HP is trying to mitigate the hassles while addressing a range of customer needs. Enterprises want to reduce their carbon footprint -- to meet corporate goals -- and costs, SMBs are motivated primarily by evaporating budgets, and (lazy) consumers just want the process to be a no-brainer.

For years HP has shipped envelopes with new ink jet cartridges for customers to mail their used cartridges directly to the company's recycling facility. Now they're being phased out in favor of retail collection centers, such as Staples. Larger-volume users can request postage-paid boxes from HP. The boxes hold 20 - 300 cartridges. And enterprise-volume users with 1,000 or more cartridges to recycle can request pallets, also at no charge.

HP won't disclose sales volume or say what percentage of ink jet cartridges are returned for recycling. But its recently expanded 80,000 square foot facility outside Nashville sorts, separates, and crushes, one million cartridges per month from consumers, factory scrap, and channel returns. (Toner cartridges from laser printers are handled at a separate facility.)

Ink jet cartridges are about 80% plastic; the rest is electrical circuits, labels, foam, metal, and residual ink. Once cartridges are sorted by type, destruction begins. Contaminants are removed; circuits, labels, foam, and ink bladders are stripped away. Spray cleaners dislodge any residual ink, and two powerful magnets remove ferrous and non-ferrous metals. Residual ink is harvested in barrels, and disposed of by an environmental services firm.

The remaining bits of plastic are crushed, mixed with other materials -- HP uses PET from recycled water bottles -- and reintroduced in the manufacturing process. While recycled materials are cheaper than virgin, there's no profit it in -- yet. In fact, HP's Nashville facility operates as a cost center. Company reps won't say, however, how much red ink is flowing.

HP aims to improve energy efficiency of its inkjet and laserjet printers 40% by 2011 and to triple its use of recycled material in inkjet products by 2011. Its grand goal is to be the "most environmentally responsible IT company" in terms of energy efficiency, resource conservation, and end of life programs.

It has taken many steps in that direction, but there is one initiative apparently not in the cards: making cartridges that can be used more than once before they need to be recycled or tossed.

HP cites low print quality as a primary barrier to the third-party practice of refilling, or remanufacturing ink jet cartridges. Printheads don't stand up to long-term wear and the print quality is so poor, that the net result is a higher environmental impact, the company says.

I'll buy the lower print quality argument (though as users, we could stand to relax our standards a bit), but from a company that has such deep roots in technology and innovation I'd like to see a better solution to the use-it-once-then-recycle-it plan.

Check out photos of the recycling process here.

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