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We live in a technology-addicted culture, and the race for the latest electronics is taking its toll on the environment. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is now the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream.
But as people become more conscious of their "carbon footprints" or their environmental impact, programs are cropping up to recycling common e-waste like cell phones and computers. However, when it comes to printer cartridges, there is a lot of work to be done. Especially when it comes to industry leader Hewlett-Packard, which is trying to wipe its carbon footprint clean.
HP dominates the printer cartridge market. According to Andy Lippman, an industry analyst at Lyra Research, HP produces more than half of the 500 million ink-jet and 75 million laser cartridges sold annually in North America alone. Considering that about half of the empties those ink-jet cartridges replace are simply thrown away, it's no wonder HP seeks to clean up the e-waste mess it perpetuates.
HP has an e-cycling (or electronic recycling) process that is convenient and astonishingly simple, given HP's global reach. Here's how it works: Most of its new cartridges come equipped with a postage-paid shipping label or green mailer envelope for customers to drop their empties in the mail, free of charge. Those empties have already added up to 143 million recycled cartridges worldwide. It's the kind of environmental stewardship that led Fortune Magazine to call HP a "green giant" this year.
But there are cracks in HP's e-cycling façade, wide enough for environmental watchdogs like Greenpeace to be concerned and for recycling alternatives to emerge.
This past July, HP met its goal for recycling one billion pounds of electronic products six months ahead of schedule. According to Jean Gingras, HP's environmental marketing manager for North America, recycled ink-jet and laser cartridges comprised more than 25 percent of that total -- some 260 million pounds. The company anticipates similar numbers for its next billion pounds of e-waste, which it intends to collect by 2010. "HP designs with the environment in mind," Gingras said. While these numbers seem laudable at first glance, Greenpeace is holding its applause.
In September, Greenpeace released the latest installment of its quarterly "Guide to Greener Electronics," in which HP ranked among the bottom of 15 companies on the quest to go green. The report contended that among HP's more heinous crimes against the planet is its failure to eliminate vinyl plastics (PVCs) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from its products. These hazardous materials are virtually impossible to recycle and wreak havoc on our environment. PVCs and BFRs that end up in incinerators, smelters or landfill fires release dioxins and other carcinogens into the air. The materials can also leach into the soil and wind up in our food chain.
Both PVCs and BFRs can be found in printers and printer cartridges. Iza Kruszewska, a Greenpeace International Toxics Campaigner, said that BFRs can be found in the green circuit boards on cartridges. While BFRs and PVCs can certainly be found in the cartridges of other companies as well, HP bears the burden of producing the largest number of cartridges currently available. To date, HP has no products available that are PVC-free or BFR-free, nor has HP issued a timetable for eliminating all uses of PVCs or BFRs from its products.
Gingras claimed that, over the past decade, HP has removed 95 percent of BFRs and PVCs from its products. She also insisted that no components of its recycled cartridges end up in landfills. But others, like Rick Hind, the legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxic Campaign, disagree. "Those materials have to go somewhere. There's no safe disposal of PVCs or BFRs, in the same way you can't dispose of radioactive material," he said.
While to some, removing 95 percent of BFRs and PVCs is impressive, the sheer volume of cartridges HP produces means that there are still too many products out there containing these hazardous materials. In North America alone, that remaining 5 percent of HP cartridges containing BFRs and PVCs is equal to 12.5 million ink-jet and another 3.75 million laser cartridges. This staggering number is why Greenpeace has demanded HP set a timetable for eliminating BFRs and PVCs.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
It is not just the chemicals in HP's products that are of concern -- but also their recycling.
Recycling printer cartridges consists of reducing the empty cartridges down to raw materials that are then used to manufacture new plastic or metal products. HP uses these materials to create auto body parts, clothes hangers, roof tiles, spools, and serving trays, along with a slew of other products. HP even sells a scanner made from 25 percent recycled ink-jet cartridge plastic and 75 percent recycled plastic bottles. Yet despite these innovative endeavors, HP has turned recycling into a business in highly dubious ways.
Zack Pelta-Heller is an AlterNet contributor.