We all want to be environmentally responsible. At the office, you probably already have a paper recycling process in place. Perhaps you also already recycle your ink & toner cartridges.

Recycling empty cartridges has numerous benefits. It reduces soil and water contamination and air emissions. Spent cartridges contain residual chemicals which, if simply tossed in the garbage and trucked to a landfill, can leech into the soil, water system and eventually get into our drinking water. Some of the most worrying toxic element chemicals include arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, dioxins, lead, mercury and nickel.

In some cases, landfills might choose to incinerate empty cartridges, which of course increases air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

And speaking of landfills – the fewer items that end up there, the better. The plastics typically used in printer cartridges are made of a polymer that has a very slow decomposition rate which ranges between 500 and 1000 years. That cartridge that you toss in the trash today, might still be around when your great, great, great, great, great, great, grandkids are entering the workforce.

Recycling, of course, can mean two different things. It can mean that the spent cartridges are deconstructed and used for other purposes. It can also mean that the cartridges might be kept largely intact and used for the same purpose, also known as remanufacturing.

The remanufacturing process is about much more than just refilling a cartridge. When recycling cartridges through a certified recycling program, cartridges are sent back to an equipment manufacturer for their remanufacturing or component recovery programs. The used cartridges are then taken apart, inspected, cleaned, and then repaired with new parts if needed. It’s only then that they are refilled with high-quality ink or toner.

Utilizing remanufactured cartridges dramatically reduces the amount of fuel and resources needed ink cartridge manufacturing and transportation. 97% of printer cartridge materials can be recycled or reused. Recycled toner and ink cartridges can be refilled, refurbished or remanufactured, which requires 80% less energy than making new plastic. The average laser printer cartridge can be remanufactured up to 4 times.

When cartridges are recycled for other purposes, their individual parts – which are essentially raw materials – have a variety of purposes.

Toner is a very fine, plastic powder used in photocopy machines and laser printers. During the recycling process, if there is enough of it remaining in the spent cartridge, it be removed or separated from the cartridge and other components. In some cases, once it is separated it may be reclaimed and used as an additive to asphalt roads and other bituminous products.

Steel, stainless steel, and other ferrous (iron-based) metals are separated from the cartridge and each other by magnets. Aluminum and other non-magnetic metals are separated by eddy current separator technologies. These metals then enter the same recycling chain as all other recycled metals.

A variety of different plastics, including polyolefins and engineering grade styrenics. As with metals, these plastics are then recycled in the same way that other items are recycled and used to make everything from pen caps to water bottles.

Both the recycled metals and plastics may end up back in the hands of the original equipment manufacturers for use in producing new cartridges.

Lastly, here are some interesting facts about cartridge recycling:

Just a few years ago, printer ink was priced higher per milliliter than the world’s finest champagne, gasoline and most luxury fragrances.
American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, “Inkjet Prices, Printing Costs and Consumer Welfare”, February 2009

Each discarded cartridge could add up to approximately 2.5 pounds of metal and plastic waste to our landfills.
International Imaging Technology Council, October 2008

The plastic in each new OEM cartridge can take up to 3.5 quarts of oil to produce.
Recharger Magazine.

The CO2 emissions created by manufacturing a new OEM cartridge were almost 2.5 times the emissions produced by remanufactured a cartridge.
From a 2008 independent study performed by Best Foot Forward and commissioned by Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse.

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