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HP's Printer Cartridges Are an E-Waste Disaster -- Does the Company Really Care?

There are ways to clean up our massive e-waste mess. The industry giant Hewlett-Packard needs to do much more.
 
 
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We live in a technology-addicted culture, and the race for the latest electronics is taking its toll on the environment. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is now the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream.

But as people become more conscious of their "carbon footprints" or their environmental impact, programs are cropping up to recycling common e-waste like cell phones and computers. However, when it comes to printer cartridges, there is a lot of work to be done. Especially when it comes to industry leader Hewlett-Packard, which is trying to wipe its carbon footprint clean.

HP dominates the printer cartridge market. According to Andy Lippman, an industry analyst at Lyra Research, HP produces more than half of the 500 million ink-jet and 75 million laser cartridges sold annually in North America alone. Considering that about half of the empties those ink-jet cartridges replace are simply thrown away, it's no wonder HP seeks to clean up the e-waste mess it perpetuates.

HP has an e-cycling (or electronic recycling) process that is convenient and astonishingly simple, given HP's global reach. Here's how it works: Most of its new cartridges come equipped with a postage-paid shipping label or green mailer envelope for customers to drop their empties in the mail, free of charge. Those empties have already added up to 143 million recycled cartridges worldwide. It's the kind of environmental stewardship that led Fortune Magazine to call HP a "green giant" this year.

But there are cracks in HP's e-cycling façade, wide enough for environmental watchdogs like Greenpeace to be concerned and for recycling alternatives to emerge.

This past July, HP met its goal for recycling one billion pounds of electronic products six months ahead of schedule. According to Jean Gingras, HP's environmental marketing manager for North America, recycled ink-jet and laser cartridges comprised more than 25 percent of that total -- some 260 million pounds. The company anticipates similar numbers for its next billion pounds of e-waste, which it intends to collect by 2010. "HP designs with the environment in mind," Gingras said. While these numbers seem laudable at first glance, Greenpeace is holding its applause.

In September, Greenpeace released the latest installment of its quarterly "Guide to Greener Electronics," in which HP ranked among the bottom of 15 companies on the quest to go green. The report contended that among HP's more heinous crimes against the planet is its failure to eliminate vinyl plastics (PVCs) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from its products. These hazardous materials are virtually impossible to recycle and wreak havoc on our environment. PVCs and BFRs that end up in incinerators, smelters or landfill fires release dioxins and other carcinogens into the air. The materials can also leach into the soil and wind up in our food chain.

Both PVCs and BFRs can be found in printers and printer cartridges. Iza Kruszewska, a Greenpeace International Toxics Campaigner, said that BFRs can be found in the green circuit boards on cartridges. While BFRs and PVCs can certainly be found in the cartridges of other companies as well, HP bears the burden of producing the largest number of cartridges currently available. To date, HP has no products available that are PVC-free or BFR-free, nor has HP issued a timetable for eliminating all uses of PVCs or BFRs from its products.

Gingras claimed that, over the past decade, HP has removed 95 percent of BFRs and PVCs from its products. She also insisted that no components of its recycled cartridges end up in landfills. But others, like Rick Hind, the legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxic Campaign, disagree. "Those materials have to go somewhere. There's no safe disposal of PVCs or BFRs, in the same way you can't dispose of radioactive material," he said.

While to some, removing 95 percent of BFRs and PVCs is impressive, the sheer volume of cartridges HP produces means that there are still too many products out there containing these hazardous materials. In North America alone, that remaining 5 percent of HP cartridges containing BFRs and PVCs is equal to 12.5 million ink-jet and another 3.75 million laser cartridges. This staggering number is why Greenpeace has demanded HP set a timetable for eliminating BFRs and PVCs.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

It is not just the chemicals in HP's products that are of concern -- but also their recycling.

Recycling printer cartridges consists of reducing the empty cartridges down to raw materials that are then used to manufacture new plastic or metal products. HP uses these materials to create auto body parts, clothes hangers, roof tiles, spools, and serving trays, along with a slew of other products. HP even sells a scanner made from 25 percent recycled ink-jet cartridge plastic and 75 percent recycled plastic bottles. Yet despite these innovative endeavors, HP has turned recycling into a business in highly dubious ways.

For starters, HP refuses to remanufacture printer cartridges. Remanufacturing takes empty cartridges, cleans and refills them with high-quality toner and resells them at a fraction of the cost of buying a new cartridge. Above all, remanufacturing ensures that empty cartridges won't wind up in landfills. Gingras said that HP's concern over remanufactured cartridges lies in their reusability. She pointed to a study (commissioned by HP) in which the print quality is degraded using refurbished cartridges. "What we've seen is that there's more waste generated during reuse," Gingras said, "since there's a need to reprint pages with poor quality and use more ink and paper."

HP's stats are debatable considering remanufactured cartridges can last longer and contain up to 20 percent more ink than new cartridges. Either way, HP's decision not to remanufacture cartridges seems more like a business move than an environmental concern.

Andy Lippman of Lyra Research explained, "It doesn't make sense for [HP] to remanufacture cartridges because, logistically, it would be very expensive for them." Lippman referred to the "razor and blades" business model for selling ink-jet printers. Printers are sold at low or below cost (many are bundled for "free" in computer sales) because companies like HP make up their costs on cartridges. Since remanufactured cartridges can be upwards of 40 percent to 60 percent cheaper than the original manufacturer's, HP is merely watching out for its profit margins by designing cartridges for one-time usage.

HP has created a recycling Catch-22. It has made recycling easy, but by not offering remanufactured printer cartridges, customers have no choice but to buy new cartridges at full price. In March, Recharger Magazine , a trade publication, reported that Staples discontinued the sale of all HP-compatible store-brand printer cartridges. Other industry leaders like Dell, Canon and Lexmark allow companies like Staples to offer cheaper store-brand cartridges that are compatible with their printers.

HP also has some products, such as its 90 series of ink-jet cartridges, that will not work outside of the United States. This maneuver, assessed Rick Hind, "undermines the company's global takeback policy," since it limits the global market of empty cartridges and overseas recycling. In other words, while HP is recycling millions of printer cartridges, it has created a system that guarantees the production of millions more.

The alternatives

Greenpeace alleges that in general, HP has recently weakened its stance on individual producer responsibility. "Polluters should pay," Hind explained. "Companies should be financially and mechanically fully responsible for taking back all their waste globally." Unlike in the European Union, there is no federal legislation in the United States or China regarding individual producer responsibility, meaning that recycling is left up to the states, and HP is left largely off the hook.

There are alternatives to recycling with HP, some of which are financially rewarding for customers. Staples, for instance, gives customers $3 off their next printer cartridge purchase for each empty cartridge they bring in, regardless of brand. Then there are independent chains that have cropped up across the country in recent years, like the Cartridge Recycling Center, which offers even more cash for cartridges.

Tom Dougherty of Cartridge Recycling said his company will send a business or school collection boxes with prepaid postage, paying up to $4 per cartridge. The center in turn sells these empties back to companies that remanufacture, and they currently process 20,000 cartridges a month.

As Jean Gingras said, HP has no qualms with its recycling competitors, which is understandable given the monopoly they have created over their products. Gingras did say that customers ought to make sure materials are recycled properly and that nothing goes to landfills. Now the only question that remains is whether HP will do the same.

For more information about e-cycling alternatives, E-cycling Central provides links to local recycling companies in your area.

Zack Pelta-Heller is an AlterNet contributor .

 
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