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The great cartridge hereafter

Close the Loop's SA arm should soon begin the cartridge collection process, says eWASA chairman Keith Anderson.

The print industry has an interesting name for the product that makes up the bulk of its profits: consumables. With printer prices having dropped substantially, cartridges have become the cash cow for manufacturers. Yet, cartridges are not consumed at all, in the sense that they're still very much there when users are done with them. Millions of these 'consumed' units end up in landfills, where they can sit for up to 1 000 years, leaching toxic chemicals into their surroundings.

Despite all the talk about the paperless office, printing isn't exactly diminishing. According to the IDC's quarterly tracker, the worldwide hardcopy-peripherals market for 2011 experienced year-over-year growth of 0.7%, with shipments approaching 126 million. Even with modest growth, over 350 million cartridges are being thrown out every year, says print management company Preton, and by end 2012, some 500 million laser cartridges and 1.8 billion ink cartridges will be dumped in landfills.

A major problem is that even when original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) re-use cartridges, they're still likely to end up on a dump. Figures vary, but it's estimated only 10% to 30% of cartridges are recycled. “In SA, approximately 35, 40-foot containers of print cartridges are going into landfill every month,” says Gary Pickford, MD of local distributor Advanced Channel Technologies (ACT). He adds that re-using cartridges doesn't solve the problem.

“Recycling is not happening at all. What is happening in SA is 'remanufacturing' – a printer cartridge is re-loaded with toner and resold as a remanufactured printer cartridge. This can be done two or three times before a cartridge is disposed of into our landfill.”

Pickford notes that remanufacturing may delay the process, but that the cartridge is still ultimately thrown away. He quotes figures from the IDC showing approximately 11 million cartridges are thrown into SA's landfills each year.

Delaying the inevitable

Recycling is not happening at all. What is happening in SA is 'remanufacturing.

A recent US study by InfoTrends found 94% of remanufactured toner cartridges and 92% of remanufactured ink cartridges sold will ultimately be thrown away. In addition, 65% of unusable toner cartridges and replacement parts and 40% of the unusable ink cartridges and replacement parts go to landfill.

The main hazard, apart from the fact that the world is quickly running out of landfill space, is that the residual inks and powders in print cartridges release hazardous substances into the air, soil and water. Cartridges vary in size and type, but the majority are made of non-biodegradable plastics and can contain heavy metals like lead and mercury. It also takes around 1.6kg of resources to make a new cartridge, so this amount of raw materials can be saved via recycling.

Legal lag

It is critical that manufacturers look at ways in which to recycle products when they come to end-of-life, says Samsung's Michelle Potgieter.

Other countries, especially those in Europe, have much more stringent regulations for OEMs when it comes to taking responsibility for their products' end of life. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, for example, was introduced by the EU in 2003 and compels electronics producers, manufacturers and retailers to ensure equipment is re-used or recycled at its endpoint. The directive is aimed at conserving the raw materials and energy used in the manufacturing of the new products, by getting as much as possible out of old ones.

In SA, there aren't explicit guidelines governing the recycling and disposal of print cartridges, with e-waste being only briefly mentioned in the National Waste Management Strategy. However, one of the strategy's goals is to promote the minimisation, reuse, recycling and recovery of waste, with 25% of recyclables diverted from landfill sites for these purposes.

The strategy also mentions extended producer responsibility, which calls on industry to ensure the product is disposed of responsibly beyond the point of sale, for products that have toxic constituents or pose waste management challenges.

“The private sector must take responsibility for their products throughout the products' life cycles, institute cleaner technology practices and minimise waste generation,” says the document. They must also establish take-back systems and develop waste management technologies to ensure waste can be properly managed, it adds.

The strategy forms part of the process of implementing the Waste Act, and sets a goal date of 2013/2014 for investigating the feasibility of industry waste management plans for e-waste.

Pickford notes that very little pressure is being applied to print vendors in SA when it comes to the recycling versus the remanufacturing of cartridges, and that lack of legislation is a contributing factor. Many of the major print players in SA have cartridge take-back programmes of their own, but only around 6% to 7% of cartridges ultimately go the recycling route.

Full circle

Part of the problem is infrastructure, as SA is sorely lacking in e-waste recycling and processing facilities. This could soon change, however, as specialist electronic materials recovery company Close the Loop could soon arrive on South African shores. Local company Kamm Holdings has acquired the rights to represent the company in SA, making it only the third country worldwide where Close the Loop is active. The Australian operation has collected and recycled toner and ink jet cartridges for over 10 years, and now provides several recovery products and services.

Kamm Holdings executive director Keith Anderson, who is also chairman of the E-waste Association of SA (eWASA), says he travelled to Australia three years ago to see Close the Loop's operations and meet with its management. Kamm Holdings is now close to putting phase one of the local operation in place.

“Close the Loop has come up with a technology that is still the best around for treating cartridges and ink bottles, so nothing goes to landfill,” says Anderson. One example is Close the Loop's eWood product, a wood substitute comprised of plastics generated from recycled printer consumables. It can be used in everything from cat scratching poles to outdoor furniture.

In February, eWASA organised a meeting with most of the major printing vendors to discuss the issue of cartridge end-of-life treatment, and the arrival of Close the Loop.

According to Anderson, some of the OEMs attending the meeting were already signatories to Close the Loop's programmes in Australia and the US, and the majority were positive about the service coming to SA. Anderson says he has since conducted one-on-one meetings with the various OEMs, and hopes to wrap up the last few follow-up sessions soon.

He says the plan is to start the cartridge collection process in the next three months, noting there have been delays as the earmarked site in Wadeville is undergoing an environmental impact assessment. Close the Loop processes e-waste products and uses the different output materials as building blocks for new items. These include goods like felt-tip pens made from inkjet plastics and inks, as well as steel and aluminium ingots made from recovered metals.

The level of awareness of recycling in SA is still relatively low, says Lexmark country GM Mark Hiller.

“Close the Loop will be a recycler in the true sense of the word, ie, taking the cartridge and using the components for other purposes,” says Pickford. “This is the cradle-to-grave process that they will follow so no part of the original product will end up in landfill.”

He adds that the OEMs will decide for themselves how to cover the costs if they choose to use Close the Loop's services. “Recycling does cost money, but this has to be weighed against the alternative, which is sending the cartridges back to the parent OEM overseas, and all the transport and storage costs involved.”

While many print companies have made great strides in implementing cartridge recycling programmes, these often don't extend to local operations. HP's Planet Partners programme, for example, uses recycled plastics from cartridges and other sources like recycled water bottles to produce new HP ink cartridges. No HP print cartridges or cartridge parts returned through the programme are sent to landfill. In SA, the programme is available for small and medium businesses, enterprise and public sector users, but not consumers or home office users.

Isabella Daly, environmental manager at Canon SA, says while Canon's European operation takes care of end-of-life recycling of cartridges, SA lacks the infrastructure to enable this. At present, it has a partnership with ACT and Incredible Connection whereby consumers can drop off their cartridges countrywide, but these are then taken to landfill. Daly adds that Canon SA is in discussions with its European counterparts to potentially make use of Close the Loop's services.

Michelle Potgieter, head of corporate marketing and communications at Samsung Electronics SA, says the company works through electronics recycler Desco, which recycles products on its behalf and also assists in the removal and responsible disposal of faulty or obsolete products from service outlets. Consumers and companies can dispose of their e-waste by depositing it in various container bins found at Makro and Incredible Connection stores.

At Epson, there's a toner cartridge collection programme that involves using a box that can be filled with up to 40 cartridges. Users can register on the Web site to participate.

Lexmark runs a recycling programme called Crib (Cartridge Recycling Initiative for Babies), with a donation made to Cotlands children's charity for every cartridge returned. Consumers can use a postage paid-for envelope provided in the box of every ink cartridge while corporates can join Lexmark's Cartridge Collection Programme for toner cartridges.

Mark Hiller, country GM for Lexmark SA, says that while 50% of Lexmark's cartridges are collected and 100% of these are reused or recycled globally, this figure is slightly less than 10% in SA. “One of our challenges locally is the logistics of a reliable, easy and efficient way of moving items around. This often becomes a hurdle and discourages people from going to the trouble of recycling. The level of environmental awareness in SA is also not at the level we see in Europe, but I do believe it is increasing, as are the number of initiatives in place, and this should result in more recycling in future.”  

Lexmark also has a zero landfill policy, and aims to recycle 100% of the components of every cartridge, and thereafter ensure the safe treatment of any toxic or hazardous materials, says Hiller. He adds that Lexmark is aware of Close the Loop's arrival, and will monitor its ramp-up and once established will assess whether it would be more effective to switch to its programme or continue with Lexmark's existing initiatives.

“We also work closely with our customers and provide them with detailed reports on how they are meeting their own recycling initiatives,” says Hiller, who adds that more enterprises are asking about this service.

Brother, Océ and OKI declined to comment about their recycling policies.

As increasing emphasis is placed not only on how goods are made, but their final destination, IT equipment manufacturers will have to find innovative ways to turn their linear model into a circular one. It's a trend touched on during a recent green computing conference in Johannesburg, where Kevin Dees, technology director for Adapt IT Solutions, pointed to the evolution of the manufacturing paradigm.

Citing research from the University of Berkeley, he tracked progress from a mass production model to a small lot production paradigm. “The next paradigm shift must be towards sustainable manufacturing...which takes the entire product life cycle into consideration from the point of origin through to disposal,” he explained. “As a manufacturer, I need to consider the fact that the customer will not only buy the product from me, but at some point that same customer will be seeking to dispose of that commodity.”


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