What happens to old printer ink cartridges? Seeing HP recycling in action

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Erin Lawrence

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

A football field sized holding area for recyclables

Have you ever played that game where you have to guess how many jellybeans are in the jar? It’s virtually impossible. Imagine if that jelly bean jar was the size of a football stadium; think you could guess how many jellybeans are inside? That was what it was like trying to guess exactly how many printer cartridges were stored inside a massive recycling facility just outside Nashville Tennessee.

How are printer cartridges recycled?

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

Millions of old HP ink cartridges awaiting recycling

Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to your printer’s ink cartridges when you’re done with them? If you toss them in the garbage, that’s obviously bad, but if you recycle them, then what? I was invited to Nashville for a first hand look at how HP is putting your home office waste to better use.

All HP’s old ink and toner cartridges end up at this facility spread over two buildings in La Vergne, Tennessee.

When HP printer owners—who subscribe to HP’s Instant Ink program—are done with their ink cartridges, HP includes a little envelope for you to mail them back in for recycling. All these envelopes end up in in massive refrigerator-sized boxes at this facility. But then what?

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

A machine aligns ink cartridges and readies them for separation

I was invited to Nashville by HP to see what happens to your HP ink cartridges then once you pop them in the recycling bag and drop them in the mail.

Machines and humans take old products apart

First they’re poured into massive machines that sort them into different sizes and types. Some need to be hand disassembled, but others are taken apart by a machine. This machine sets batches of the same cartridges up so that another machine can remove the metals, and separate the ink sponges and the plastics.

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

A worker separates the parts of an old HP printer into pieces.

When they’ve been through this process, what’s left is batches of different materials waiting to be recycled or re-made into new products. About 40-50 million cartridges are recycled here every year. That’s an astounding number. But it’s also a lot of waste to keep out of landfills.

Similarly the recycling facilities also handle old printers and copiers. They’re painstakingly dismantled by hand, and broken up into their many parts. What can be reused is reused.

When it comes to the plastics, once it’s separated from all the other materials, it’s crushed up on this giant plastic shredder.

Plastic scrap becomes new printers & cartridges

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

What’s left once ink cartridges have been machine-separated; all the different parts

All this plastic scrap is eventually turned back into new plastics and yes, even back into new HP printers.

“The world is facing a crisis right now,” says Ellen Jackowski, HP Sustainability Strategy & Innovation. “Climate change is real, ocean plastic is real, and these problems continue to grow. If companies like HP don’t step up and take immediate action starting today and continue to solve problems.. we know this is our responsibility. We need to do it for ourselves, our customers and the planet.”

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

The massive two-storey plastic shredder

HP seems to be doing quite a bit to make its products less impactful on the environment, and they really want to share the news. That’s why they brought reporters, journalist and bloggers like me to Nashville for their sustainability summit. HP used the meeting to showcase what it’s doing for the environment. HP also announced a new printer that it says is the world’s first carbon neutral printer.

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

Huge bags of plastic shred await being turned to new plastics.

HP Announces Tango Terra : 1st carbon neutral printer

The printer is called the HP Tango Terra—Terra means earth—it’s an HP Tango printer, packed up with eco-friendly paper and HP’s Instant Ink, which delivers ink to your door, and and makes sure your cartridges are recycled. It’s also made with less plastic and packaged with less plastic. The Terra printer uses 30% recycled plastic and the company says it’s HP’s first carbon-neutral printer. While the Tango printer is for sale at Best Buy, the Tango Terra kit is not yet available in Canada, but HP hopes it will be soon.

HP, printer, recycling, how to, ink, cartridge

HP’s new Tango Terra printer kit

What we saw in the recycling facilities is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a football field’s worth of other recyclables on the day we visit, all waiting for their turn.

So next time you get a little postage paid return envelope with your new cartridges don’t ignore it. Pop your printer and cartridges inside and send them off so they too can have a chance at a new life.

For more info on HP’s Tango Terra printer kit, or on recycling and sustainability, you can visit HP’s website.

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