The End Game: Recycling Useless Cartridges

RECHARGE asia Magazine – October 2007

The End Game: Recycling Useless Cartridges
by Art Diamond, DRC, and Alwin Morgenstern, freerecycling.com

THE PROBLEM
The End Game: Recycling Useless Cartridges Page 1Environmentalists advocate three basic rules: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In the toner and ink jet cartridge remanufacturing industry, however, compliance with the third “R” varies from country to country, from region to region and from original equipment makers (OEMs) to rechargers and aftermarket suppliers.

After one or more end-user cycles, some cartridges cannot be effectively remanufactured and put back into service. In some cases, parts can be cannibalized, sorted, and re-used when needed in the remanufacturing of “virgin” (used one time), or usable, cartridge cores. This reuse depends upon the set-up and capabilities of a particular remanufacturing operation.

However, many spent cartridges are damaged or broken and cannot be remanufactured. Others, especially ink jet cartridges, are often glued or welded together by the OEM. These, too, are useless as they cannot be disassembled without serious damage. It is estimated that 30% to 40% of all returned or collected toner cartridge cores fall into the category of being at an “end-of-life” condition.

There is also a huge oversupply of collected cartridges that have been overstocked for certain machine models (e.g., the HP LaserJet IIISi) that will likely never be sold.

The recharging industry must find a solution for the disposal of these waste cartridges before it becomes a target for environmentalists and possible government regulation. While partial solutions abound, none of them—incineration, landfill, or recycling—completely solves the problem. Although heroic attempts by Australia’s Corporate Recycling have led to an effective collection and reuse of mixed waste from plastic bottles, bags, toys, pipe, etc., they fall short of a scheme to dispose of useless toner and ink jet cartridges.

This article provides a brief overview of the options and opportunities for pre-emptive action by the cartridge remanufacturing industry to come to grips with the problem.

 

CARTRIDGE COMPONENTS
In 2006, some 257 million toner cartridges were shipped to end-users worldwide, according to estimates by Lyra Research, Inc. a market research and consulting firm headquartered in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Of this total, 188 million were monochrome and the rest color (the color category includes all CMYK cartridges for color laser printers, copiers, and MFPs). Approximately 32% of the monochrome (roughly 60 million) and 10% of the color cartridges (some 7 million) were remanufactured by aftermarket sources. Therefore, the total number of recharged toner cartridges sold in 2006 is estimated at 67 million.

Figure 1 lists the components of an SX cartridge by estimated weight. Aftermarket drums weigh about 65 grams while OEM drums range from 25 to 30 grams. The significant difference in weight is due to the need for a heavier drum to ensure that it spins true without wobbling or runout due to poor circularity. OEM drums, as a rule, use thinner walled aluminum substrate tubing, hence the lighter weight.

Using the Figure 1 estimates, the total weight of a remanufactured SX cartridge is then 1,401 grams or 3.09 pounds. Based upon the Lyra figures, this gives us a rough estimate of at least 207 million pounds of end-of-life cartridges to be generated this year. This new waste is separate and apart from the untold thousands of cartridges currently stored in plants, warehouses, offices, and recharge shops.
SX cartridges are comprised of at least three different plastics: polypropylene, styrene-butadiene, and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). In addition, a minor amount of nylon and certain acetal resins are found in the gears that drive these assemblies.

Figure 1
Estimated Component Breakdown
For an SX Cartridge

COMPONENT Weight, Grams
Black Poly Bag 17
Shipping Carton & Pkg. 293
Magnet 125
Mag Roller 28
Misc. Metal 382
OPC Drum (Aftermarket) 65
Paper Instruction Sheets 11
Shell & Triangle 196
Shutter 20
Shutter Covers (2) 13
Toner Hopper 63
Toner Hopper Cover 58
Waste Hopper 130
TOTAL WEIGHT 1,401 grams

Disassembling, or dismantling, and sorting cartridge components, a process called “downcycling,” is a labor intensive task that is being practiced in China, Vietnam, and certain other countries where low cost labor is readily available. But, without the resources to accumulate truckload quantities by an individual recharger, and without any viable, sustainable collection network, many independent rechargers might stop at the removal and recycling of the OPC drum. That component is worth from 10 to 15 cents, depending upon the scrap price of aluminum metal.

THE RECHARGER SOLUTION
“More and more companies are learning to extract value from spent cartridges, “ says Charlie Brewer, managing editor of Lyra Research’s Hard Copy Supplies Journal. “Beyond harvesting OPC drums, OEMs and remanufacturers are learning techniques for salvaging useful components and other materials from used cartridges. I recently toured a factory in China, for example, where virtually all of the waste toner retrieved from cartridges is recycled into usable toner. Both OEMs and remanufacturers are actively exploring how they can wring more out of spent SKUs. However, plenty more can be done to prevent unusable waste from going to the landfill.”

Assisting rechargers in finding a solution, Static Control Components, Inc. supplies more than 12,000 laser printer cartridge components. These new parts can be used to restore, rebuild, repair, or rehabilitate waste, damaged, or broken cartridges. Is this a practical solution? We asked Chad Golden, Marketing/Strategic Planning Director at SCC, “Do you think it is reasonable to put new parts into a waste cartridge to bring it back to life?”

“It’s primarily a matter of economics,” answered Golden “and it is being done more frequently today for certain waste cartridges, especially those that are extremely scarce. In the past, rechargers would use nothing but a virgin OEM core, but today the largest remanufacturers are setting up unique production lines for specific models. It makes economic sense for them to do so when the availability of cores is limited, or core prices are too high.”

Explaining further, Golden said “What they do is use a broader component set to achieve a performance level of the cartridge that they need in order to sell a quality product. In the past, they might not have replaced a doctor blade, a wiper blade, a developer roller, or some other component, but a more costly cartridge will justify higher parts utilization. The benefit of SCC’s vast storehouse of components for the mainstream, high volume cartridges is that rechargers now have virtually every part and piece they need to sustain the operability and performance of most cartridges for multiple cycles.”

THE OEM SOLUTION
Here’s what we know about how OEMs are dealing with this dilemma. HP, for one, claims that in their Planet Partners Program© they disassemble and sort each returned cartridge in recycling facilities located “within the same region/country” of collection. This statement implies that with low cost labor, robotic dismantling equipment, the economies of scale, and a waste stream limited to cartridges that they originally built, it is possible to retrieve metal and plastic parts economically and make them available for sale or reuse.

Discussing the dismantling of returned laser cartridges, HP claims most materials are recycled and some are also used in energy recovery, offsetting fossil fuel consumption. This certainly sounds like the perfect solution. The implication here is that some portion of the shredded plastic and paper materials are incinerated by HP contractors to recover their energy value, a “waste-to-energy” conversion.

INCINERATION
There was a time, many years ago, when burning was the common solution to trash disposal. Up until the mid-1900s or thereabouts, many homes had an incinerator in the backyard. That practice was eventually outlawed as it brought fire dangerously close to every home, the smoke was a neighborhood nuisance, and the public became more concerned with air quality and the toxic substances those incinerators were capable of discharging.

Today, commercial and industrial incinerators are the subject of contention, controversy and close regulation. Environmental groups have succeeded in having laws enacted that govern what can and cannot be burned. Global warming is a major issue driving the battle against carbon dioxide generation. In compliance with the necessary controls, instruments and equipment, operating incinerators now charge a fee for the disposal of acceptable trash that is typically from $25 to $40 per short ton (2,000 pounds).

Combustion of waste materials as a fuel, however, creates energy in a state-of-the-art incinerator at a time when oil prices are soaring and alternative fuels are being sought. Also, if the effluent stack gases are passed through a scrubbing tower, incineration serves as a safe, efficient means of waste disposal.

If a sustained waste stream is of sufficient volume, if the material has a reasonably high heating value (coal, for example is rated between 8,000 and 16,000 Btu/lb. compared to wood at 6,500, and hydrogen at 61,100 Btu/lb.), and if the combustion products are non-toxic, the waste becomes valuable as a fuel for energy generation. If these conditions are satisfied, it is possible to negotiate disposal under attractive economic terms, such as swapping fuel for electrical energy from a nearby power plant.

Incineration of waste toner by a power plant is a rare but viable solution, especially if the plant is nearby, coal-fired, and equipped with slurry-fed burners. These devices consume a slurry of finely pulverized coal suspended in water—a feedstock that can easily be combined with waste toner.

Today, incineration using state-of-the-art burners, effective stack gas scrubbers and effluent monitoring instruments and controls is the most desirable solution for waste management.

Incineration creates steam for electricity to power homes, business and factories, and for space heating. While incineration is also an important solution to waste disposal in China and India, effluent monitoring and control seriously lags US and European standards, we have been told.

In summary, the choice of a proper destination for useless cartridges as a mixed plastic regrind for recycling, versus a waste-to-energy fuel for incineration, or as solid waste for landfill, must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

Incinerator operators, as a rule, will not deal with individual sources but prefer organized groups that can guarantee a sustained flow of material. Further, they require assurance that the waste substances will not produce a toxic effluent.

Perhaps the single, most important issue is whether an effective cartridge collection network can be put in place to ensure the steady delivery of a sustainable stream of waste cartridges. At present, OEMs are the only collectors who can meet this requirement. Past experience demonstrates that collection efforts among independent rechargers is, at best, a rag tag program.

LANDFILL
Environmentally speaking, dumping and burying waste in landfills is the least desirable means of waste management. It creates the risk of ground water pollution, and in the case of toner and ink jet cartridges, the waste material does not readily decompose. A closed landfill may be deemed unsuitable for construction, farming, or recreation for as long as 50 years!

For many independent rechargers, sending end-of-life cartridges to a landfill is an undesirable solution to freeing up plant and warehouse space. Rates are still reasonable, but the stigma of compromising the land does not sit well with any responsible citizen.
In Southern California, solid waste disposal rates range from about $25 to $60 per short ton (2,000 pounds), or about 3.5 to 9.0 cents per cartridge.

A common practice is moving waste from state to state, but new laws will likely ban shipping waste across state lines to a more receptive location.

REGULATION AHEAD?
What is looming on the horizon is regulation, rules that are similar to what is already in place for electronic waste. This means a periodic waste material balance around each plant operation. Documents will likely be required to show the input, out-put and accumulation of waste plastic, cardboard, and metallic materials at each installation.

In European Union countries, tight recycling and waste stream regulations are in place. In some American states, such as California, there are laws that ban the dumping into landfills of electronic waste materials, household appliances, consumer electronics and batteries.

A SOLUTION FOR ALL
Let’s look at existing conditions:

  1. Collection networks among rechargers and cartridge core brokers are seriously flawed
  2. Reports indicate the best of these programs, one managed by Corporate Recycling in Carrum Downs, Victoria, Australia, is doing better with consumer and industrial plastic waste than with scrap laser and ink jet cartridges. Plastic is recycled and made into a range of innovative products. For more details, visit their website: (www.corporaterecycling.com.au)
  3. Viable recycling programs are currently in place by HP and other leading OEMs (i.e., Canon, Lexmark, Ricoh)
  4. European lawmakers and environmentalists are leaning toward the principle that whoever built a product should also be responsible for its ultimate disposal
  5. Such a takeback program is in place for used electronic products and would logically fit the used cartridge industry as well
  6. OEMs are in favor of controlling the collection of used toner and ink jet cartridges because it thwarts competition by keeping refillable virgin cores out of the hands of refillers
  7. Some independent rechargers are already using OEM furnished ARS labels to send end-of-life cartridges back to their maker. This may be in violation of HP’s Planet Partners takeback program
  8. Costly warehouse space held by rechargers and core brokers is overloaded with useless cartridges awaiting a solution to the disposal problem
  9. Downcycling is not a viable solution without low cost labor, automated disassembly equipment, and a homogeneous (same or similar machine models) waste cartridge stream
  10. Shredding, or granulating, plastic parts to be sold as regrind is not a viable solution unless performed on a large scale with a sustained output

SHORT TERM: TAKEBACK
Considering these 10 conditions, the ARS label packed with every new cartridge, or available from HP by ordering online, is the best short term solution. In our view, this takeback program should be expanded, if HP would permit. Nobody—recharger, core broker, or end-user—wants to hold onto a useless cartridge. They are a nuisance today that could turn into a liability tomorrow. The big question is whether rechargers will be permitted to take advantage of the OEM’s established disassembly and recycling operations.
More specifically, HP’s Planet Partners program clearly states that they will only accept cartridges that, 1) were originally built by HP for its own printer models, and 2) cartridges that were not remanufactured by aftermarket rechargers.

If it can be worked out with HP and other OEMs, the takeback approach would benefit the rechargers by clearing out valuable storage space. It will benefit the OEMs by providing a significant increase in the volume of cartridge waste they can add to their existing processing operations. It will benefit the small package delivery firms—notably UPS and FedEx—who would welcome the surge in business nationwide, and, it will benefit the environment by a secondary reduction in landfill waste. The first reduction came, of course, as a result of the recharging industry’s remanufacture of virgin cartridges.

One question is how will a takeback program affect core brokers? Recognizing that the program applies not to virgin spent cartridges (apart from those that are overstocked), hence it should have no effect. Core brokers make a market in reusable, not useless, cartridges. Therefore, all takeback cores fall outside the domain of the core brokers.

LONG TERM: RECYCLING
A long term solution is less obvious owing to the complexity of core collection, disassembly, sorting, and recycling certain components. One of the key problems lies in automating the disassembly and sorting tasks for products from not a single OEM, but a variety of cartridge makes and models. Another is the difficulty of organizing a collection network based upon the fragmented nature of the recharging community.

The incentive to create a central collection unit equipped with automatic disassembly machines and staffed with minimum wage workers, is profit, if it exists. Ideally, such an operation should yield enough profit to compensate contributors for each cartridge they return.

Focusing on the disassembly operation, Uninet President Nestor Saporiti said, “This step is labor intensive and therefore expensive if performed in the United States. Perhaps it should be done in Mexico or in Asia. Someone asked me how many times can a cartridge be recycled. I said “Many times, because we have all of the necessary parts. The problem is that price of a cartridge core is typically so low that it does not seem worthwhile to replace a mag roller, a PCR, or other costly key component.”

“Nevertheless,” Saporiti added, “I think it’s a good idea to have a company serving our industry that is able to profitably disassemble, sort, and recycle waste cartridges.”

One interesting suggestion, by Terry Mehan of Cartridge Conservation (Soldiers Point, NSW, Australia) is that rechargers and toner bottlers switch from paper to plastic film labels on their products. This avoids contaminating the plastic material with paper. “Waste plastics, when pure, can be sold in the same manner as waste metal,” Mehan said, “and for some types of plastic you can realise as much as $400 per metric tonne (18 cents per pound).”

Indeed, as the world grows greener, government regulation (federal, state, local) is inevitable. Rechargers have already contributed heavily to the greening process by keeping millions of pounds of laser and copier cartridges from burial in landfills around the world. Nevertheless, both short and long term plans are needed to avoid the possibility of having their businesses shut down on short notice.
Perhaps the recharging community can form a committee to study short and long term solutions with recommendations for the ecologically acceptable disposal of waste toner, ink jet inks, and useless cartridges.

CAPTIONS
Photo 1. BULLDOZER BURYING PLANET EARTH
Waste toner and ink jet cartridges sent to landfills are starting to bury Planet Earth

Photo 2. CUTTING WASTE CARTRIDGES DOWN TO SIZE
As an alternative to landfill burial, plastic cartridges can be granulated for use in extrusion molding operations for toys, plastic lumber, fuel for power generating plants, appliance housings, and many other applications

Photo 3. NEW USES FOR OLD PLASTIC
Granulated toner cartridge plastic is used to mold gears and other products, such as the correction tape dispenser pictured here

Photo 4. RETURNED CARTRIDGES—A MIXED BAG
Returned cartridges typically include a variety of makes and models for copiers and printers, many of which are now obsolete

Photo 5. RECEIVING LINE
Warehouse workers separate and sort returned toner and ink jet cartridges

Photo 6. CLEANING LINE
Workers remove toner from waste cartridges prior to the disassembly operation

One thought on “The End Game: Recycling Useless Cartridges”

  1. I was a retailer of toner cartridges, now i have started an another business. I have a stock of toner cartridges which are useless like they are expired, some of them are damaged, some of them have now no demand so now i want them to be sold, so if your company can purchase those cartridges from us then i am ready to sell the in lower prices.
    I hope that you may revert me for the same.

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