Printing is not particularly environmentally friendly. It is not just the hardware that requires raw materials and energy to manufacture and operate. The hunger for ink and toner creates additional stresses from production, shipping and lots of waste.
So it’s about how you can improve a rather poor environmental balance of consumables. A fundamental approach is first of all to make the packaging more environmentally friendly. “Plastic packaging materials are being replaced by pulp forms and corrugated cardboard with a high proportion of recycled content in order to ensure that resources are used effectively,” says Jörg-Stefan Schmitt, Head of Corporate Communications at Brother International, describing the procedure.
Other manufacturers also rely on environmentally friendly packaging. However, they have to protect at least as well as conventional packaging. Or they are designed in such a way that they do not need any additional boxes for shipping: “The cardboard packaging made from recycled cardboard for our toners has passed the ‘dropping test’ so that no additional packaging is required for shipping,” reports Daniela Matysiak, CSR Manager at Kyocera.
Ink and toner containers are actually disposable items that are not designed to be used repeatedly. Currently, most manufacturers limit themselves to using recycled raw materials in their production. However, Brother makes an exception among the original manufacturers: “Since 2007, we have been operating as the only manufacturer in the industry in Krupina, Slovakia, a plant for the reconditioning of our laser cartridges,” says Brother spokesman Schmitt. In the 2019/2020 financial year, 1.6 million cartridges were reprocessed there. According to Brother, a remanufactured cartridge saves over a third of the amount of CO2 compared to a newly manufactured product.
Suppliers of compatible consumables are taking a similar approach by refilling and refurbishing empty containers. The differences in quality, however, are great. Katun was one of the first aftermarket suppliers to introduce its OEM refill cartridges back in 2008. “This is the perfect choice for specialist dealers who want to reduce their environmental impact and promote sustainability,” emphasizes Katun Sales Director Marcus Hammann.
At HP, too, people are now thinking about reprocessing. Until now, the manufacturer had exclusively relied on the recovery of raw materials from empty cartridges and cassettes, as there were concerns about ensuring the quality standards also for refurbished products. A pilot project with reprocessed ink cartridges has now been started in Germany. “It is crucial that these remanufactured ink cartridges also meet both the high customer requirements for print quality and the necessary requirements of the certification authorities,” said Siegfried Dewald, Manager Sustainability DACH at HP, describing the challenge. For example, the unit consisting of printer and consumables is certified for the “Blue Angel” environmental label. “In both cases, there must be no discernible difference between the new and the refurbished cartridge,” explains Dewald.
In addition, the “Neverstop” laser printing system originally announced for use in emerging countries at the global partner conference in 2019 is now also available in Germany. With Neverstop, the printer can be filled with toner powder without having to replace any other components. However, the Neverstop devices do not yet play a prominent role in the HP product mix.
If only ink or toner is refilled, the use of raw materials is considerably reduced. In particular, no electronic and mechanical components have to be built into the refill containers. In the ink sector, for example, Epson and Canon also rely on this principle for some of their products. “If you use our RIPS systems as a comparison, which have particularly voluminous, replaceable ink bags, you get the same printing performance with just nine ink bags as with over 40 toner cartridges of a laser printer of comparable performance,” calculates Leonie Sterk, Sustainability Manager at Epson.
The majority of the devices currently sold are still based on conventional ink and toner systems. After all, most manufacturers use recycled materials in the production of the containers. In order to facilitate this process, manufacturers use as few different materials as possible during production in order to facilitate the separation of different types. “On average, with this process we achieve a recycling rate of up to 95 percent of all collected material,” reports the Epson sustainability expert. Kyocera relies on toner containers made from only one single type of plastic.
In addition to the refilled products, the toner specialist Katun also offers compatible, newly manufactured cartridges for Konica-Minolta, Canon and Kyocera devices, which, according to Hammann, also consist of up to 95 percent recycled plastic. He wants to continue to give customers the choice of buying a new toner cartridge made from recycled plastic or refilled and remanufactured toner cartridges. “Regardless of which option is chosen, customers always make a positive decision for the environment,” he says.
In order to obtain the reusable materials for the production of new consumables, the old containers have to be collected and, in some cases, returned to the recovery process using complex processes. Almost all manufacturers usually offer free take-back systems for this. However, this sometimes leads to the paradoxical situation that empty cartridges are transported across Europe several times, first to central collection points and from there to the recycling facility. “Appropriate recycling streams must be concentrated for proper disposal,” says HP environmental expert Dewald. In his opinion, decentralized processing in local and small plants makes sense “neither economically nor ecologically”. For this purpose, HP operates a central recycling plant for ink cartridges in Thurnau, Franconia, together with the recycling specialist PDR.
The manufacturers are aware of this transport problem and are therefore working on optimizing the transport chains. “By using collection boxes in different sizes, we can optimize the collection cycles and logistics routes tailored to the customer and thus keep the environmental impact as low as possible,” explains Kyocera manager Matysiak.
With additional measures such as CO2 compensation, technical improvements to the printer and the associated supplies and the use of FSC-certified paper, printer manufacturers are continuously working to make printing less harmful to the environment. The most environmentally friendly paper side remains the one that is not even printed.
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