HP squares the circle

29th September 2014


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Brendan Antony Rouse

Lucie Ponting discovers how HP is transforming discarded printer cartridges into new ones

Hewlett-Packard's sustainability plan at an event in New York in September 2013, the company's president and chief executive, Meg Whitman, warned the audience "business as usual is not an option for anyone".

ork, which promises to drive human, economic and environmental progress, is the latest example of HP's pioneering approach to social responsibility and the environment.

ong before corporate citizenship became a fashionable phrase, the company's founder, David Packard, stated: "The betterment of our society is not a job to be left to the few. It is a responsibility to be shared by all."

orts to reduce both its own and its customers' environmental impact is HP's "closed loop" recycling process, which uses plastic from recycled HP printer cartridges and other post-consumer sources to create new cartridges.

014, the company's planet partners return and recycling programme, which started in 1991 and covers more than 50 countries, had taken back and reprocessed 566 million ink and toner cartridges. No part of a returned HP cartridge is sent to landfill, with every piece recycled or used in energy recovery.

Half again

cled plastic from returned HP cartridges together with plastic from other post-consumer sources, including bottles and clothes hangers, to create new ink cartridges began in 2005 with a recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) initiative.

s took five years to develop and refine. In 2010, work started on a second initiative involving recycled polypropylene (rPP). This process started full commercial production earlier this year.

HP announced that the rPP programme, combined with the existing rPET initiative, had led to more than 75% (by sales volume) of its ink cartridges now containing recycled plastic, a rise of 50% over the previous year.

n, 24% of HP laserjet toner cartridges, which are also part of a closed-loop process, now contain recycled plastic. Individually, the ink cartridges with recycled content have 50-70% recycled plastic, while the laserjet toner cartridges contain 10-20%.

et cartridges use only recycled plastic from returned HP cartridges and virgin material; no other recycled plastic is added.

that its inkjet rPET plastic has a 33% lower carbon footprint, uses 75% less water and has a 54% lower fossil fuel consumption in its production than virgin plastic, even taking into account the environmental impacts associated with collecting, transporting and processing used cartridges and plastic bottles.

mmer, environmental marketing manager of printing supplies at HP, says that, in 2013 alone, manufacturing ink cartridges with rPET instead of virgin plastic reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 6,900 tonnes and saved more than 26 billion litres of water. It also conserved more than 42,000 barrels of oil.

of HP's efforts is on developing recycled plastic to produce new cartridges. It never refills or reuses its cartridges because it does not believe this delivers the quality and reliability customers expect.

to Zimmer, HP-commissioned research has highlighted particular problems with wasted pages generated by poor quality remanufactured cartridges.

Magic in the mix

-loop process begins when customers return printer cartridges through the planet partners programme. Customers can return used cartridges by taking them to one of 9,000 dropoff locations worldwide or directly to HP using freepost.

mme is constantly expanding, recently adding Morocco to the list of participant countries. But Bruno Zago, HP's environment manager for UK and Ireland, says it is "not as easy as people might imagine" to bring a programme to life in a particular country.

no individual return available in Italy [for example] because by law you are not allowed to put waste into the postal system," he notes, "and as you are returning cartridges to HP to be recycled, they are deemed waste."

oxes of returned cartridges are received at regional recycling plants (for ink cartridges in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, this is at Thurnau in Germany), they are sorted and prepared for recycling.

ing is also recycled. Returned ink cartridges are either disassembled or shredded. Disassembly is a relatively new process at HP in which labels, lids, foam, metal and bodies are separated first, rather than being shredded together and then separated.

s are smelted and reused, while the plastic lids and bodies go to provide raw material for new cartridges. HP is working on finding new ways of disposing of waste ink, but most of it, together with foam, is processed through energy recovery.

covered waste plastic then goes to a Lavergne group site in Montreal, which specialises in producing high-quality engineered resins from post-consumer and post-industrial recyclable materials.

to Zimmer, this is "where the magic takes place". Under the rPET programme, the returned polyethylene is blended with flaked material from post-consumer plastic bottles (together with specialist additives), compounded and extruded into plastic strands that are cut into pellets and tested to ensure they meet HP's quality standards.

HP's key suppliers are co-located at the company's Liffey Park technology campus just outside Dublin, and it is here that the closed-loop process enters the next stage. Plastics specialists MGS provides injection moulding of the cartridges, using the formulations provided by Lavergne, while manufacturer Celestica assembles the new products.

Upcycling value

is an innovation," says Zimmer, adding that HP had to find another post-consumer product it could use as a source for recycled PP cartridges. More than a dozen potential candidates were tested, including Starbucks cups and American Airline's coffee cups, before Lavergne decided clothes hangers were the most suitable.

ve the added advantage that they are already returned in large numbers by clothes retailers, so the supply is relatively secure. HP is not working with any specific retailer or other partners in sourcing either the bottles or hangers; Lavergne makes these decisions further down the supply chain.

he waste bottles and hangers, "we're actually upcycling", says Zimmer. This is in effect turning commodity grade into engineering grade plastic, so increasing the value. "We're turning hangers into more valuable and technical materials," she explains.

economic and social argument for HP's programmes is that they help support wider recycling infrastructures, which cannot exist if there is no customer for returned waste. "Companies have to create a demand," says Zimmer, "and through using water bottles [for example], we're helping support the municipal infrastructures."

mplex process to develop recycled plastic formulations that work for each type of cartridge that can be successfully and commercially moulded, and which meet the necessary technical and quality standards.

idenced by the fact that the rPET initiative took five years to come to fruition and the rPP three years. HP's experience so far of developing these solutions has helped identify several key factors it believes are key to success:

  • creativity and invention - there are few precedents and no roadmap to follow;
  • patience and persistence through the development process - senior management must provide the development team with the time and resources; and
  • partnering with innovative suppliers - collaboration with expert supplier partners produces comprehensive solutions.

several challenges during the most recent rPP development programme - mainly due to the specific properties of the material and design of the cartridge.

uded overcoming moulding problems with the initial resin, which entailed refinements and tweaks, so that it could be moulded across HP's manufacturing facilities, and issues with the laser marks on the cartridge, which could not be read initially, so the resin had to go back to Lavergne for adjusting.

d to develop new tests to identify chemical contaminants to ensure inks do not react with the recycled plastic, which could have a detrimental effect on print quality or damage printers. In addition, it created a new plastic and foam separation process.

P does not have a specific goal to reach a point where every cartridge contains some recycled material, it is working on developing new plastic compounds or cartridge designs to bring in the 25% of ink cartridges that still only contain virgin plastic.

t types of cartridge use different plastic, so we need find ways to develop the right formulations," explains Zimmer. She adds, however, that the breakthrough with rPP allows HP to focus on its other cartridges that contain PP.

we've already figured out how to develop rPP, it's now a matter of adjusting it for the cartridge design."

Hedging costs

, an HP engineer responsible for the plastics recycling programme, says the company is using the lessons learned and technical expertise gained from the rPET and rPP initiatives to bring other inkjet cartridges into the closed-loop process.

P is also transferring knowledge to the hardware side of its business, so that recycled plastic can be used in more printers and computers. Ongoing technical barriers to expanding recycled plastic in hardware include finding consistent sources and meeting stringent functional and cosmetic quality standards.

nowledges that the work HP is doing on the closed-loop programme represents a cost that so far is not offset by the raw material cost savings. But she emphasises that "we're doing it because it is the right thing to do".

uggests that the economic argument is likely to become stronger in future as resources become increasingly scarce and costs rise. "There is an economic argument for using recycled plastic in our materials," she says, referring to a 2013 paper by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which argued that sourcing from waste can help to "create a hedge for future raw material prices".

"For us, it's really about making sure we've always got a supply of material, whether that is virgin or recycled," stresses Zago. "Given the volume of products we make, we need to ensure a stream of supply - that there is enough plastic in the marketplace - so the more we can get back, the better it is for us."

Closing the loop in numbers

engineered plastic and other materials, HP has contributed to the "circular economy" by:

  • keeping 566 million returned HP cartridges out of landfills since 1991;
  • using 2.5 billion post-consumer plastic bottles to manufacture new HP ink cartridges since 2005;
  • incorporating 499,000kg of recycled clothes hangers into the most recent expansion of its recycling process - since October 2013;
  • manufacturing more than 2 billion original HP cartridges made with recycled content, as of the first three months of 2014; and
  • delivering recycled plastic from HP's PET "closed loop" recycling process for ink cartridges with a 33% lower carbon footprint and 54% lower fossil fuel consumption in its production than new plastic.

Data and assumptions drawn from a 2014 lifecycle assessment performed by Four Elements Consulting and commissioned by HP.

HP takes back computers and printing supplies

ffers hardware reuse and recycling, and ink and toner cartridge recycling programmes, including through its planet partners return and recycling programme. There are take-back schemes in 70 countries and territories, including in developing regions.

inception of its hardware take-back scheme in 1987 (and the launch of the planet partners programme in 1991), the company claims to have recovered a combined 1,525,000 tonnes of computer hardware (for reuse and recycling) and printing supplies (for recycling).

and commercial customers can return used HP ink and laserjet toner cartridges to authorised retail and other collection sites through planet partners at 9,000 dropoff points in around 50 countries. For some products and in selected countries, HP offers free return options, including postage-paid printable labels, shipping envelopes and collection boxes, as well as pickup of bulk supplies.

P collaborated with the German Investment and Development Corporation and East African Compliant Recycling Company to open a recycling facility in Nairobi, Kenya. This is the first large-scale recycling facility in East Africa and the first take-back system for end-of-life products in Kenya. It dismantles and separates used electronic equipment into parts, including plastics and metals. As of April 2014, there were four collection points across the country.


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