Ink waste: the environmental impact of printer cartridges

Contributed by Bob Gorman

Printer cartridgesEverything that humans do has an impact on the environment. Manufacturing and using printer cartridges can have serious repercussions, no matter how insignificant those cartridges may seem.

Fortunately, you can take simple steps to reduce the harm they can inflict on nature.

Manufacturing of printer cartridges

Ink cartridges comprise mostly steel inside a plastic shell. Creating that shell consumes fossil fuels, both to make the plastic and to power production. Harvesting the oil pollutes the environment while consuming a very limited resource. Iron mining and refining it into steel to create the metal components create their own environmental hazards.

Steel used for printer cartridges includes

  • manganese and silicon (for de-oxidation), nickel (for anti-corrosion)
  • chromium (for resistance to temperature, general wear, and corrosion)
  • zinc (for galvanization)
  • tin (for the creation of a protective coating)
  • molybdenum (for weldability as well as resistance to heat and corrosion)
  • vanadium (for hardness)
  • tungsten (also for hardness)

Cartridges also have a piezoelectric crystal, which contains lead, and a hydrophobic foam, which is a kind of plastic.

Filling a cartridge with ink is also dangerous. The ink is made up of a mix or organic and inorganic chemicals. Creating and combining them creates chemical waste. Improper disposal of it can easily give it a chance to leech into the environment.

Disposal of printer cartridges

The danger does not end after production has finished. Most people simply throw their old ink cartridges into the garbage once they are empty.

Since the cartridges are made of plastic, they need hundreds of years to decay. In the meantime, they take up valuable space in landfills. Which encourages people to destroy more natural environments to make bigger garbage dumps.

Remnants of the ink inside the cartridges and other chemicals will leak out fairly quickly. Volatile organic compounds and heavy metals become part of the leachate landfills have to manage.

Leachates that escape into the ground will kill plants in the surrounding area. If they get into the water supply, they can kill both plants and areas in a much larger region. Cleaning the contamination is difficult and expensive, so the toxins will usually stay in the ecosystem for a long time after they are released.

What people can do

The good news is that it’s easy to solve this problem. You can do a lot of good by reducing your ink usage. Use your printer as little as possible. Save documents document to your computer, phone, or the cloud instead of printing them out for future use.

If you the information in tangible form, try to scribble the important details on a scrap of paper instead of printing out the full document.

Once you’ve emptied a cartridge, don’t throw it in the trash. Take it to a recycling program. Most office supply stores will collect old printer cartridges for recycling, and those that don’t can tell you where to take them.

A few components will be replaced or repaired, and then the cartridge will get refilled with ink. Ink cartridge recycling cuts out all the environmental costs except for ink manufacturing.

All the technology to reduce ink use and recycle cartridges exists and is widely available. Ink cartridges are only a serious environmental problem when people don’t use those technologies.

The world throws away millions of ink cartridges every year, and that waste is destroying the natural world. This is a tragedy not only because it hurts nature, but because it’s so easy to prevent. All you need to do to make the problem a little smaller is to put in the extra effort to recycle your cartridges instead of throwing them away, and to encourage other people to do the same. A little extra effort from a large number of people will make a huge difference.

Editor’s note: Unfortunately, some printer manufacturers actively subvert consumers’ attempts to use refilled or remanufactured cartridges. If you’re in the market for a new printer, prefer a brand that doesn’t play these games.

Image source: Flickr via Creative Commons

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