MONTREAL -- Recycling isn't usually much fun to watch. Those blue bins aren't too animated. And don't we all suspect that as soon as the truck turns the corner it all gets thrown in the landfill anyway? That has actually happened in some places when the value of recycled material went into the toilet.
In some cases, we're going backwards in recycling. Take just the case of plastic water bottles. We produce 29 billion of them a year, and only 30 percent get recycled, which means an escalating amount of waste (expressed in millions of tons).
But plastic water bottles are eminently recyclable, and earlier this week, in Montreal, I saw them put to good use. Hewlett-Packard, which makes the printer cartridges we all pay dearly for, isn't content to let them go to landfills. These days, they're being dismantled instead of shredded -- a much cleaner process.
The company started recycling cartridges in 1991 (taking back more than 300 million from inkjet and laser printers), and is getting much better at figuring out how to reuse the plastic. Today, a pilot project in a French-Canadian factory is no longer shredding the cartridges (a process that leaves a contaminated mix of plastic, metal and paper), it's dismantling them for 50 percent greater yields in recovered plastic. Here's how it works, according to HP's Dean Miller:
You can send your cartridges back to their maker in a number of ways (there are programs in 50 countries) and the options include mailing them back in pre-paid envelopes and returning them for credit to Staples stores. Either way, they end up at industrial facilities like the one I visited in Montreal.
But they don't get crushed. In 2005, after five years of work, HP developed a closed-loop system for recycling printer cartridges that, at the Lavergne Group facility I visited alone, handles a million pounds of plastic every month. Closed loop means the plastic lives again as new cartridges. HP has made more than 500 million printer-ready cartridges through the closed-loop process since 2005.
The closed-loop process is like something out of the movie Brazil -- a combination of retro mechanical and high tech. Dismantling (especially in this pilot scale) is much slower than crushing cartridges, of course. The dismantler handles 15 cartridge a minute, and the shredder thousands per hour. But the result is much cleaner: The robot arms scrape off the label, lop off the plastic lid, remove the electronic guts and the foam pad, then toss the remaining plastic bucket into a hopper.
Once shredded, the cartridge material is mixed with 75 to 80 percent plastic bottle waste and then (they wouldn't let us see this part) combined with special chemical additives to make it strong and pliable -- in effect, basically the same as virgin plastic again.
Until recently, the process handled only easy-to-recycle PET plastic, but last year polypropylene (PP) was added and almost two million cartridges with PP have been processed.
After having received some flak on the issue, HP has also considerably reduced the packaging going into its ink cartridges. There's no U.S. law mandating that kind of waste reduction, but so-called Green Dot laws in Europe and Asia give impetus to that kind of reform. Green Dot makes manufacturers responsible for their packaging, which in effect gives them huge motivation to reduce the amount they include with products. Buy toothpaste in the U.S. and it comes in the box; buy the identical brand in Europe and it stands on its cap.
Strong corporate lobbies discourage the European approach here, but on March 25 Maine became the first state in the U.S. to enact an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law. And some 19 states have rules requiring takeback of electronic equipment. A national law would tie all of this together, and it will be a brave legislator who shepherds a bill through to passage.
As a car writer, I'm always looking for an auto angle, and I found it in a Lavergne Group office displaying a number of auto parts, including a taillight assembly. They're all made from plastic recycled in the plant. Lavergne has a contract with Ford to provide plastic for Econoline van front ends, and because of the strong European end-of-life vehicle laws it's looking at setting up a branch to serve carmakers in Germany.
Knowing about all this should stay your hand when hit by the impulse to throw away that spent printer cartridge. Not only is there money in it (get thee to the nearest Staples story) but properly recycled it will again dispense ink.
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