Recycling Mystery: Should You Refill or Recycle Ink Cartridges?

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From an environmental standpoint, reusing a product is almost always preferable to recycling it because reuse gives products a second life without consuming additional manufacturing resources. However, companies have been promoting recycling over reuse of one consumer product for years. That product: printer cartridges.

Ink cartridge recycling is big business. You can actually make (or save) a significant amount of money by recycling the cartridges rather than reusing them. Consider:

  • The largest mail-in cartridge recycling company, Funding Factory, pays up to $2 per cartridge depending on the manufacturer.
  • Staples, Best Buy, and Office Depot give you $2 in-store credit for every cartridge you bring to the store, regardless of brand.

But why can you make more per pound recycling ink cartridges than aluminum cans? One reason: If you recycle your ink cartridges the manufacturer can be sure you’ll purchase new ones.

Manufacturer-Led Recycling

In most industries, manufacturers don’t get involved in end-of-life solutions unless legislation forces their hand (for example, bottle bills and e-waste laws). In the printer cartridge market, every major manufacturer offers free take-back programs and even covers the postage. They also partner with the retailers mentioned above to make it easy to drop off used cartridges.

One of the largest cartridge manufacturers, Hewlett Packard, touts that it uses 75 percent closed-loop recycled plastic in its cartridges, and not all of that material is from old cartridges. The company also uses plastic from bottles and plastic hangers in its cartridges, they they are among the more difficult-to-recycle plastics.

But what if you want to pursue re-manufactured cartridges, or refill them yourself? Here’s HP’s official stance:

“37% of tested refilled ink cartridges failed during use or right out of the box. Original HP ink cartridges worked every time … When tested, refilled ink cartridges offer no cost per page advantage over Original HP ink.”

The statement was based on a study commissioned by HP in 2014.

What it doesn’t mention is that re-manufactured cartridges are up to 50 percent cheaper. You could also refill your existing cartridge at Costco or Cartridge World for as little as $7. So, reuse is a viable, even money-saving alternative to cartridge recycling.

The Environmentally-Preferred Choice

Reuse your ink cartridges: You can refill a cartridge up to four times. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you aren’t buying original equipment manufacturer (OEM) cartridges:

  • Some printer manufacturers, such as Epson and Lexmark, will void your printer warranty if you use non-OEM ink in their cartridges.
  • Some Lexmark cartridges can’t be refilled at all, something the Supreme Court ruled illegal in 2017.
  • The best way to ensure your cartridges have a long life (regardless of the manufacturer) is to print somewhat regularly so they don’t dry out.

If You Decide to Recycle

You should know that most ink cartridges that are accepted via a non-manufacturer mail-back program will be turned into re-manufactured cartridges. So, if you want to make money by recycling, you may want to buy re-manufactured ink cartridges to ensure a strong market.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger