A walkthrough of the HP cartridge recycling center begins at the loading dock. Every day, countless boxes full of discarded printer cartridges arrive in Smyrna. Some are from business partners like Staples, where customers can drop off their used cartridges in exchange for new ones as well as shopping incentives. Others come from corporate clients that run HP printers throughout their offices.
Then there are the thousands of green and white envelopes that hold only one cartridge. HP no longer distributes those postage-paid small envelopes because the company prefers that consumers return batches of cartridges at a time in larger envelopes or boxes. Nevertheless, HP will not turn any of its old cartridges away.
The disassembly of the cartridges then begins. Cartridges in small envelopes are separated in a device that uses technology similar to machines on farms that tear corn out of husks. Those cartridges join others that have been dumped out of larger envelopes and boxes and then roll down a conveyor belt where laser technology sorts them into various bins based on their model number.
HP continues the process one batch, one printer cartridge model at a time. Any remaining ink is drained out of the cartridges. The foam containing that ink is removed, one color at a time, in the case of color printer cartridges. The gold and palladium are separated and melted down in a smelter at another facility.
And finally, the plastic is shredded, processed into pellets of plastic resin, and then sent to another facility outside of Montreal, Quebec. That factory mixes the recycled plastic with PET bottle flake to create new printer cartridges.
For HP, the key word is disassembly. For years, HP shredded the cartridges soon after they arrived in Smyrna. Disassembly, now occurring later during the process, requires more manpower, but the result is less plastic wasted and an increased recovery of other resources. The foam squares that held ink, for example, are sent to a waste-to-energy plant.
The resulting numbers are impressive. HP estimates that since the company started recycling its plastic cartridges, it has kept 511,000,000 objects out of landfills. Over 39,000,000 cartridges have been recycled.
Since 2007, 100,000,000 pounds of plastic has been reprocessed at the Smyrna plant.
Recycled materials are finding their way into more of HP’s product line. And at least 472,000,000 plastic bottles have been upcycled into new printer cartridges at the Montreal plant. In 2011 alone, HP estimates that 28,600,000 pounds of recycled plastic found their way into new products.
While HP has not been able to salvage all of the plastic used in its cartridges, the company estimates that some cartridges are in their ninth or tenth reiteration because of the success of its plastic recovery program.
The system is not exactly a true closed loop system yet, as there is still room for improvement by consumers to keep those valuable cartridges out of the trash.
Homepage Photo: Flickr/DBreg2007