The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
December 15, 2009

Recycle vs. Refill: Conversations with HP, Cartridge World, & Silo Ink

HP Ink CartridgesAh, plastic ink jet cartridges. It’s an ongoing dilemma for someone trying to live with less plastic. My strategy: keep printing to a minimum to save ink and make the cartridges last longer. But after that… I used to have to buy new ones. New plastic. At $40 a pop. (I bought a monster of an HP printer 5 years ago requiring very expensive cartridges. My fault for not doing the research.)

Back then, when I attempted to take my empties to Cartridge World for refilling, I was told that my particular units could not be refilled due to a proprietary chip embedded in the cartridge itself. I would have to continue paying full price for new plastic cartridges and send my old ones back to HP for recycling.

So you can imagine how irritated I was last month to discover that not only were the cartridges not refillable, but the chips contain an expiration date, after which the cartridges will not work whether they still have ink in them or not.  After my diatribe on this blog regarding the  HP Ink Cartridge Expiration Dates and the hack I had found to get around the problem, two things happened:

First, I discovered that finally Cartridge World has reverse engineered the cartridges I use and figured out how to recondition them by installing a new chip. Hurray. $25 for a refilled cartridge (saving energy and materials) vs. $40 for a new one.  One of the cartridges above is refurbished.  Can you tell which one?

Second, a representative from HP, Thom Brown, left a comment on that post and offered to discuss HP’s printer developments and policies with me.  He spoke with me for about an hour on Friday, filling me in on many environmental measures that HP is taking, and assuring me that the company is not the Evil Empire.  (I didn’t really think it was.)  I followed up our conversation with a call to Ken Wong, long-time owner of the Oakland Cartridge World store, to hear that company’s views of the Recycling vs. Refilling debate.  And finally, I learned about a new cartridge system that might work even better for some people than even these two options.

To Refill or Not to Refill?

1)  Why not refill? HP maintains that the quality of refilled cartridges is not as high as new ones bought from HP.  And the company has resisted developing its own refill program because it can’t guarantee that the refilled cartridges will work dependably.  In fact, on their page, “Is A Printer Ink Refill Really A Bargain?“, HP claims that Independent  research has found that:

  • More than 33% of tested refilled ink cartridges failed during use or right out of the box.
  • More than 41% of the tested cartridges refilled by a refill service failed during use or right out of the box.
  • Only the tested Original HP ink cartridges worked every time with no failures.

Cartridge World, on the other hand, insists that through their own lifespan testing, they have found that their refilled cartridges will last as long, if not longer, than new HP cartridges.  What’s more, Mr. Wong offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee.  He says that if customer’s are not completely satisfied with the cartridge, for any reason, they can return it. Yes, he admits, there is trust involved.  But his business is part of the community and most of his traffic is repeat customers who rely on him to provide reliable ink replacements.

I guess the only way I’ll know for sure is to see for myself how long my Cartridge World refurbished yellow ink cartridge lasts.

2) Why do some HP cartridges expire before they are empty? Thom Brown forwarded me a link to HP’s explanation of ink expiration dates, which states that:

Air ingestion and water evaporation can cause ink to change over time. In printing systems where the printhead and ink supply are separate, older ink can adversely impact the printhead and the ink delivery components within the printer. With ink expiration, however, HP can prevent this from happening.

That said, Thom also let me know that HP’s newer printers all use cartridges that either don’t expire or have expiration dates that can easily be overridden with the push of a button.  The chart on the Ink Expiration Dates page shows which printers have cartridge dates which can be overridden and which ones don’t.  Mine, unfortunately, doesn’t.

3)  Why does my HP printer stop working when only one color has run out? This one really irks me.  Why can’t I print with only black when the yellow has run out?  Thom assured me that all of HP’s new printers will continue to work when one or more cartridges is empty.  And some models are able to create a composite from the remaining colors to approximate the missing color.  For example, if the black runs out, yellow, magenta, and cyan can be combined to replace it.  Of course, the result is probably not perfect, but who cares in a pinch?

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t help me since I’m stuck with a printer that won’t function if any of the cartridges are empty or missing.

What About Cartridge Recycling?

1)  What happens to HP printer cartridges that are returned for recycling? While I’m still of the mind that cartridges ought to be refilled as many times as possible before recycling in order to save materials and energy, I am impressed with HP’s closed-loop recycling program.  Instead of breaking down the materials and shipping them to 3rd parties for downcycling, HP recovers the material itself, and combining it with disposable plastic water bottles, incorporates the plastic and metals into new HP products.

Check out this interesting video which shows the full process by which the cartridges are collected and recycled.  HP was one of the first American companies to engage in Extended Producer Responsibility before the idea of manufacturer’s taking back their products for recycling had reached public awareness in the U.S.  In fact, during the Take Back The Filter campaign that I spearheaded last year, supporters cited time and again HP’s ink/toner cartridge recycling program as a model that Brita should follow to deal with its water filter cartridges.

2) What about worn out cartridges returned to Cartridge World? Realizing that no ink cartridge has an unlimited life span, and considering HP’s closed-loop recycling program, I asked Cartridge World what happens to cartridges they receive that are too worn or damaged to be refilled and resold.  Shannon from the corporate office explained that the owner of each franchise is responsible for seeing that the materials are recycled properly and that the company does not dictate how it should be done.

Hmm…

Ken Wong in Oakland, at least, seems to be doing it right.  The first step is Reuse.  He keeps old cartridges for the parts that can be reused to refurbish newer cartridges.  Recycling is the very last option after reusing parts.  Materials that can be recycled are removed and taken to appropriate recycling centers.  Any other material is sent back to the original manufacturer.  Finally, Ken declared:

Disposal into the waste stream is not an option.

Since all Cartridge World locations are franchised to individual owners, you might want to call your own local store and ask the question I did:  What exactly do you do with cartridges that are too old or damaged to be refurbished?

A Third Refill Option

At this year’s Green Festival, I met Tik Yip, whose company Silo Ink provides a system for easily refilling our own cartridges for much less money than either HP or Cartridge World, depending on how much we print.  The system provides refillable cartridges for HP, Epson, Canon, and Brother printers with storage reservoirs that automatically refill the cartridges as they run down.  Once the reservoirs are empty, you refill from a bottle that holds approximately 9 cartridges worth of ink.  The ink bottles are plastic, but they come with a pre-paid return label for the Silo Ink Bottle Recycling Program.

I have not tried this option myself.  A complete system plus four bottles of ink would cost me $162.00, which would be a significant savings over ink cartridges, even refurbished ones, if I printed a lot.  The thing is, I really don’t print much at all.  So I’m not keen to shell out that kind of money up front.  Those who do have a large print volume might consider this option.

About HP’s Newest Printers

Planned Obsolescence? Thom Brown told me that my printer is a dinosaur at this point.  But it’s only five years old and works fine.  In the world of computers, it’s obsolete.  But why should this be?  Why is there no way to upgrade the current machine to the newest technology so it uses less energy and ink?

I’ve checked HP’s Buy Back Recycling Program (If your equipment has residual value, you could get paid for it) as well as its Charitable Donation Program.  Both of these calculators tell me my printer has no value.  It works fine, but it has no value.  *Sigh*  So I will continue to use it until it’s worn out.  I print so little at this point, the difference in energy rating between my printer and a more efficient one would not outweigh the environmental cost of replacing it.

However, if I were in the market for a new HP printer, I could compare the Eco Highlights labels on each one to determine which are the most efficient, incorporate recycled materials, or have other eco features like automatic two-sided printing to save paper.  Of course, I’d also compare with other brands to find out if HP printers are actually the best eco choice.  But since I’m not in the market, I’ll leave those comparisons for those who are.

My Conclusion

HP is working on developing greener technologies.  It has improved its printers to use less ink, allow units to function when individual colors run out,  use less energy, allow double-sided printing, incorporate recycled materials, and it has created a closed-loop recycling system so that materials recovered are used in new HP products.  However, while Thom Brown said that the idea of refilling cartridges is always on the table, it sounds like an option that HP will not be pursuing any time soon.

Cartridge World takes the mantra Reduce, Reuse, Recycle seriously, providing a way for us to reuse our printer cartridges as many times as possible before they are recycled.  However, since individual franchisees are responsible for finding ways to deal with the cartridges at the end of their useful lives, there is no standard program for ensuring that the materials are recycled properly.  Calling our local stores to ask is necessary.

Silo Ink provides a system that can be used over and over again and costs less per ml of ink than the other options.  However, the large quantities of ink provided might be overkill for those of us who don’t print much.  And since I haven’t actually tried the system myself, I can’t vouch for its performance.

Right now, I’m going to continue taking my cartridges back to Oakland Cartridge World where I think Ken Wong is truly committed to providing the most environmentally-friendly way to replace my printer cartridges without using any new plastic or other materials.

What’s your opinion?

21 comments
EdeaKrammer
EdeaKrammer

It’s a matter of individual preference… In the event that

you decide to do-it-yourself refilling your own particular cartridges might be

honestly clear and can assist you to save some cash. In any case, toner and ink

cartridges can just be refilled a predetermined number of times.

http://www.doubleinks.com/

JCG
JCG

Hp has been one of few to favor refills. They don't lag behind in bitching or suing people. Make your own pick. HP help has been told to claim anything but them is the reason you have a problem. Nobody is quoting the MossMagg act that they agree to. They always say its somebody else. Do your homework, use your own smarts.

Ramona Goodman
Ramona Goodman

"Only the tested Original HP ink cartridges worked every time with no failures." Well I take exception to this comment: Straight out of the box (August 2011 exp. date) the inkjet cartridge had a piece of the flexible circuit that had disengaged from the plastic housing preventing full contact with printer. It took me a while to figure this out and leaves me thinking that nothing is ever perfect. I'm having the empties refilled. Thank you for the informative post.

Carnival of the Green #207 | Lighter Footstep
Carnival of the Green #207 | Lighter Footstep

[...] don’t refill them. Don’t worry, the buccaneers at HP feel your pain. Beth Terry has an objective interview with the poor HP representative tasked with defending the undefendable at her Fake [...]

laser toners
laser toners

Great info. You need to be extra careful while you’re purchasing a brand name computer printer ink for a significantly reduced price.

indoor kitty
indoor kitty

A teacher tip: when you aren't going to use your inkjet cartridges for a while, place them in an airtight container or bag so the ink doesn't dry out. Washed out ziplock bags rescued from the office trash cans work great. Try to get as much air out as you can. I was able to keep a black cartridge good over summer break one year. Also, if you see a working old school HP laserjet on craigslist, jump on it. I'm still using the 15 year old laserjet from my FIL's old law office. Color is generally unnecessary and laser cartridges last for years.

Crafty Green poet
Crafty Green poet

Excellent post, very informative. I print very little at home or at work. We have refilled cartridges in the past but not been happy with their performance afterwards. Apparently though the performance is improving, our local Cartridge World claims to be always working on this.... .-= Crafty Green poet´s last blog ..Goldfinches are Charming =-.

Tik Yip
Tik Yip

Hi Beth, Great analysis! One point that I'd like to make is that a 4 color Silo Ink System costs $101.99, and that contains about 9x more ink per color, or about 36x more ink than a normal set of cartridges. If you are refilling or purchasing your cartridges about once a month, you don't have to worry about buying more ink for half a year, and when you do, will cost you only $15 per color for approximately 10 cartridges worth of ink. .-= Tik Yip´s last blog ..Silo Ink A Hit at Green Festival San Francisco =-.

Tik Yip
Tik Yip

Hi Beth,

Great analysis! One point that I'd like to make is that a 4 color Silo Ink System costs $101.99, and that contains about 9x more ink per color, or about 36x more ink than a normal set of cartridges. If you are refilling or purchasing your cartridges about once a month, you don't have to worry about buying more ink for half a year, and when you do, will cost you only $15 per color for approximately 10 cartridges worth of ink.

.-= Tik Yip´s last blog ..Silo Ink A Hit at Green Festival San Francisco =-.

Clif
Clif

I used to do color photos but they just don't last - fading in ordinary room light. The special photo ink carts are even MORE pricey, so I always go to the local drug store and do my photos there. The result is only my black ink cart is used and I'm able to fill it over and over again with a tank and syringe. The only thing that "wears out" is the inkjet mechanism itself that propels the droplets to the page. The rest of the cart is just a dumb tank of ink. The smart idea would be to make only the small mechanism replaceable and allow folks to use the tank forever and ever. As for the quality of black ink - phooey. I've never had any problems with any black ink fading. Black ink quality is a subject in search of a problem. About the only real money saving feature HP provides in my printer is double-sided printing, allowing you to cut your paper consumption in half. One other paper and ink saver tip. Don't print anything directly from a webpage. Instead copy the text you want and put it into your favorite word processor or even good old Notepad or Wordpad. Then downsize the print and dump any un-needed graphics to suit yourself. The result prints in much less space with less ink. It sounds time-consuming but it's a snap when you get into the habit.

Clif
Clif

I used to do color photos but they just don't last - fading in ordinary room light. The special photo ink carts are even MORE pricey, so I always go to the local drug store and do my photos there. The result is only my black ink cart is used and I'm able to fill it over and over again with a tank and syringe.

The only thing that "wears out" is the inkjet mechanism itself that propels the droplets to the page. The rest of the cart is just a dumb tank of ink. The smart idea would be to make only the small mechanism replaceable and allow folks to use the tank forever and ever.

As for the quality of black ink - phooey. I've never had any problems with any black ink fading. Black ink quality is a subject in search of a problem. About the only real money saving feature HP provides in my printer is double-sided printing, allowing you to cut your paper consumption in half.

One other paper and ink saver tip. Don't print anything directly from a webpage. Instead copy the text you want and put it into your favorite word processor or even good old Notepad or Wordpad. Then downsize the print and dump any un-needed graphics to suit yourself. The result prints in much less space with less ink. It sounds time-consuming but it's a snap when you get into the habit.

David Leonhardt
David Leonhardt

I saw the SiloInk booth at the GF and ordered online when I got home. They answer the phone and are very helpful. (big plus in my book) Shipping was fast. The system was easy to install on our Epson R380 and we've been using it for about a month now with no problems. We do a fair amount of printing, so this really will save us $$ and the recycle aspect is perfect. So far I am very impressed.

Rob
Rob

IMHO, I think the printer makers are evil. Pure and and simple evil. I had one of those older HP's that had an expiration date on the cartridges. LOL You should have heard the language around here when it would not print. Like you I am not a big printer. I still have that HP, but opted for a new epson do everything printer. Hopefully the HP can print form my laptop. Of course I could just get a program to have all my computers print to one netwroked computer. .-= Rob´s last blog ..Snowmen trio =-.

Lacey
Lacey

Beth, I'm impressed with the wealth of information you've complied! In fact, I'm starting to wonder if you are still working at your job! I too have an HP printer, a cast off from my mom's office when they upgraded to printer/scanner/fax combo. It works fine and is probably 5+ years old and does everything I need it to do. I'm glad to hear HP's recycling program is a model for sustainability and will keep it in mind when my cartridges wear out. I would love to see a FPF comparison of different computer brands' recycling programs! I remember working on a campaign when I was involved with Students for Environmental Action to get Dell to accept their machines back and recycle them, which they now do...but what happens to them? Thanks, Lacey .-= Lacey´s last blog ..A potato as a meal =-.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Diane. Forgot to mention that the new Hp printers and multi function machines are energy star compliant as well. I know you've already bought yours. Just adding this info for anyone looking into it. Also, I think I forgot to mention that you can take HP cartridges back to Staples and get a $3 off coupon for your next staples purchase. I'm not pushing HP. Just adding info.

Diane
Diane

The chip thing was one of the reasons I hated our old HP printer. I then switched to a Canon with individual cartridges and loved it. Then I moved onto Epson and am loving those too! Epson actually has a new energy star line of printers Artisan 810 and it looks great. THey are doing a recycling program direct back to them for printers, toners, scanners and cartridges etc. Wouldn't be without my multi purpose unit now, Printer, scanner, copier and fax machine all in one. I love the ability to scan to a PDF file (instead of printing saves paper). I've used the refills before and they really aren't as good for photo printing. Ok for regular document printing but not so much the photo quality stuff. I guess like you said it depends on how much you are going to use the printer. I use mine almost daily unfortunately (we have a home office) so getting a new energy star efficient printer would be better for us, and we can donate the old one to a local charity or school or something. If we didn't use the printer much then I'd just keep the old one. This new Espon 810 we're looking at is reported to use just $2 of electricity a year !

Steph
Steph

Thanks so much for this information! I have a pile of old cartridges waiting to be recycled and have not had time to do the research myself. I appreciate such a thorough post... love your site.

ejwm
ejwm

I have always had a printer at work, but never at home. I try never to use any printers, though for work sometimes I have to. I scribble stuff down on scrap papers when I *need* the information, but I'm pretty blessed to find virtually no need for a printer for personal use. I think not having one except through work has kept me from developing a habit - everyone I know with a printer says they just need it sometimes. I don't. I also don't make up personalized christmas cards, or scrap book, or pre-print boarding passes, or anything else like that. I'd like to claim environmental virtuosity, but in reality I live like this due to a perverse combination of abject laziness (I'd have to actually figure out what kind of printer I want), cheapness (and spend $ - the horror), and an inherent ability to destroy computers and peripherals simply by looking at them (my first computer lasted 22 days - I swear all I did was defrag to see it work!). Beth, you've managed to make owning a printer look like even MORE of a pain than I'd ever suspected - thank you for putting the nail in the coffin of that idea! I will no longer feel guilty about my lack of printer laziness!

Nexyoo
Nexyoo

Thanks for sharing all of this info! I wonder what the future of printers will be. I don't own a printer anymore, and I'm surprised by how rarely I have to go to the local copy shop to print something out. I'm curious if most people are printing less these days than they used to.

Anna @Green Talk
Anna @Green Talk

I use refurbished print cartridges for my HPs and they work great. Then I take them back to Staples to get Staples money for my school. I too have a HP printer ink issue since my printer is probably at least 10 years old and works great. I like it better than my newer 3 year HP printer. I like the silo option but need to see if they are cheaper than my refurbished ones. I try to not print as much too. .-= Anna @Green Talk´s last blog ..NJ Citizens, Say No to Fluoride in Your Water! =-.

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