Ah, 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.
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.
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?