Can the Lorax close the loop for printer cartridges?

Sensemaking / Can the Lorax close the loop for printer cartridges?

A blockbuster boosts efforts to promote sustainable printing and cut landfill waste.

By Roger East / 20 Jul 2012

A blockbuster boosts efforts to promote sustainable printing and cut landfill waste.

When it comes to making computer printers more sustainable, ‘closed loop recycling’ is a key concept. Sadly, it’s not the sexiest of phrases.

“Print like the Lorax!” on the other hand – now there’s a slogan to win young hearts and minds.

Sponsoring this year’s blockbuster 3D animated film, The Lorax – based on the story by Dr Seuss – gave electronics giant HP the opportunity to mount a campaign to promote sustainable printing. For 40 years, this wise forest-dwelling creature has urged children to look after the environment, speaking up for trees in particular. Now, says this campaign, the Lorax would surely pick an ultra-low-energy printer and smart print management software. He’d choose the right paper, avoid wasteful printing, use both sides, and recycle his used cartridges.

Jeff Waller, Director of Environmental Sustainability and Social Innovation for HP’s printing business, wants his customers to follow this example. Naturally, the greenest print option is not to print at all. But, says Waller, with these principles in place, people “can justifiably feel that if they need to print, they should”.

That’s partly down to HP’s closed loop recycling system – an industry first. The company has been taking back used printer ink and toner cartridges for over 20 years, and has manufactured over a billion new ones from recycled materials in that time, while the process has got ever more sophisticated.

Instead of shredding old cartridges, they’re now disassembled. Their plastic is supplemented with lower grade recyclate from used water bottles, which is ‘upcycled’ with special additives to yield suitable polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) resin for making new ones. The process is so finely tuned, and dependent on knowing exactly what’s in the mix, that only the company’s own components can be allowed back in. But there are HP cartridges out there whose materials have been round the loop six, seven, even eight times. And unlike the proverbial cat, nine’s not the limit. 

The resource efficiency of the closed loop process is key to the sustainable business case. Its carbon footprint is now one third lower than using ‘virgin’ plastic, with a 62% saving on petroleum, and 89% less water. Yes, it cost HP money in the investment phase. But the running costs are now broadly competitive – so, in a world of rising fossil fuel (and carbon) prices, there’s every prospect of future cost savings, boosting the economic bottom line too.

Some segments of the worldwide printer market are more alert than others to the language of ‘closed loop’. But the Lorax campaign is soon to spread beyond North America, as the film is launched worldwide. Already, the steps to make cartridge take-back effortless for customers are in place in over 50 countries, coordinated by the company’s Planet Partners programme. There are in-store collection points, and cartridge packs come with freepost envelopes inside to send the old one back at no cost. Some HP partnership programmes will even give a customer a direct reward for recycling – in the form of Staples Reward Dollars to spend in that company’s stores, for instance. And the yield? Nearly half a billion cartridges recycled since 1991, and 39 million in 2011 alone – or about three quarters of its sales that year.

So what’s not to like? Would it be more environmentally virtuous to re-use the cartridge directly, rather than remanufacture it? Emphatically not, says Waller. Although there are plenty of companies out there who’ll take used cartridges and re-fill them for resale, he explains, this isn’t how they’re designed to work, and one in three will fail when put to the test – a wasted effort, and wasting ink. Worse, these companies don’t recycle those they can’t re-use: they send them to landfill. A carefully closed loop may seem a round-about route, but it’s a far better one, he says. – Roger East

Hewlett-Packard is a Forum for the Future partner.

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