The Environment

Our backyardAn opinion on why we need to be concerned about the environmental impact of our industry is the staggering amount of printer cartridges being thrown away each year.

There are several sources of estimates on the amount of printer cartridges being discarded into landfill each year. Some sources put that figure at more than 650 million printer cartridges in the USA and around the world, with 450 million being discarded in the USA alone. Some sources have them as high as 750 million worldwide. The amount is increasing annually. The value of the printer cart market is estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. It is not difficult to estimate the impact on our environment when this amount of material which is purchased, is simply thrown away. The present inkjet consumables market is designed to encourage a tremendous amount of stuff heading out to landfill. Stuff made of plastic, electronics, semiconductor chips, and containing proprietary dyes and pigments. None of this is particularly good for the environment.

Cartridges are mostly made of plastic. Oil is required to make plastic.

One source cites that 10% of all foreign oil is imported into the USA in the form of plastics in printer carts. 90% of this oil is therefore put back into the ground in the USA in the form of landfill. How much oil? It is estimated that it takes about 2.5 ounces of oil to make a single inkjet cartridge and more than 3.5 quarts of oil to make a single laser printer cartridge. Reusing a cartridge saves oil and reduces our dependence upon foreign oil. The amount of energy required to convert oil into plastic that is then discarded into landfill also affects the atmosphere. The amount of energy required to get these millions of cartridges from your home or business to the landfill has probably seldom been pondered. This is without a doubt, an industry that consumes huge amounts of energy in manufacturing something that can be reused if consumers are given that choice. There really is no compelling reason why an inkjet cartridge cannot be reused. They could be refilled with ink and used many times should the printer manufacturer desire that. But printer carts as made by the printer manufacturers are difficult to refill by the consumer and most are simply impossible to refill. The printer manufacturer benefits when a consumer throws away a printer cartridge, because the ability to reuse it with a different choice of ink is eliminated. The environment suffers as a result.

Refilling is one way to reduce this unnecessary environmental impact.

It has become routine for printer manufacturers to actively sue companies that provide refilling to its customers. These refilling companies consider their activity as recycling, and I would have to agree with that. When I think of recycling cartridges, I do not think of incineration and turning the plastics into gas and carbon and other waste materials. I think of it in terms of sustainability. Yet printer manufacturers actively defend patent rights to their cartridges, a practice which also prevents competition and choice. An important recent judicial ruling declared that certain patents involving a clip which holds a cartridge into a printer to be a valid enough reason to prevent any other cartridges from being imported into the United States. Many of the cartridges that had been imported prior to this ruling were designed for refilling by the consumer.

In January of 2009, the ITC has passed a new ruling that prevents the import of refilled Epson cartridges into the USA by any other company other than Epson. However, Epson's own recycling program does not include reusing the cart nor refilling it. Epson claims it "allows schools and nonprofits nationwide to return ink cartridges for rewards that can boost fundraising efforts and help the environment. Educational and nonprofit organizations can earn points by collecting genuine Epson ink cartridges and sending them to FundingFactory for recycling. The cartridges will be converted to energy through an environmentally sound incineration process at a licensed waste-to-energy recycling facility."

My opinion is that ink cartridges can and should be designed for reuse and/or refilling. There is no technically convincing argument that ReUse or refilling is impossible from a business point of view - other than it opens the market to competition. The incineration of a semi-conductor chip and a plastic ink cartridge produces heat but it is not environmentally the best choice when a product can easily be designed for ReUse. It also produces ashes that no one would want to spread on their vegetable garden or above their water source.

If the choice is between two diametrically opposed options such as economics or ecology, only the choice of ecology can actually preserve both options. If we choose a business model that involves consuming as much as possible in order to make as much profit as possible, we consciously turn on our backs on sustainability of this Earth. Yet if we focus on the ecology, we consciously turn towards models of sustainability of our businesses as well as the Earth.

Can inkjet be sustainable? is it possible to own a printer designed to consume inks and papers, yet leave a small footprint on the environment? Certainly, the present model is anything but sustainable. The manufacturer expects the user to buy small amounts of ink in plastic cartridges, use the ink, and throw the cartridges away. There may be a recycle program available that incinerates the cartridges, but there is no reusable program in place that is encouraged and nourished. Incinerated cartridges produces toxic material for landfill. The material takes up less space. However, the solution is not to discard in the first place.

Being green is a universal concept. Every individual can have the choice of leaving a small footprint on this Earth if they are given the correct choice of products, or if they choose the correct products. The most powerful source is the customer, and when the customer begins questioning how their consumables are packaged, that question works its way up stream to effect powerful changes.

The ecological footprint is defined by how much air, soil and water is required to sustain us.

Piezography brand inks have shaped in many ways the relationship black and white photographers have had to digital photography as they transitioned from traditional chemical photography. While I preserved the ways of the old through alternative choices made available to printmakers, I did not conceive of the vast amount of cartridges which I was manufacturing and which were ending up in landfill.

My hope is to provide a catalyst for change in this industry, by providing a high-standard, alternative choice. Bringing a high-quality, color ink in a perpetual, reusable cartridge system is a first step that will have an immediate environmental impact on an individual basis. To transition from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution is a tremendous challenge that somehow feels natural because of the end-result produced by the effort.

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