Close the Loop: Materials Recovery From Printer Cartridges
Too good to throw away
Sometime in the mid-1990s Steve Morriss removed an empty cartridge from his inkjet printer and thought “That’s too good to throw away” and it wasn’t long before he was in the business of refilling cartridges to give them a new lease on life.
Faced with stiff competition from large multi-national office supplies companies, Steve looked for a unique selling proposition. He promised his customers that he would take back and recycle everything he sold, a novel idea back then. This “zero waste to landfill” proposition proved very successful. Steve soon had a warehouse full of discarded inkjet and laser printer cartridges, so began to investigate materials recovery solutions. This called for a new business and Close the Loop (CtL) was established in 1999. It has since grown to employ more than 50 people in Australia and 125 in the United States.
“We started perhaps the first product stewardship program in Australia, based on the assumption that the major printer and copier companies would be interested in taking responsibility for what happened to their product at the end of life,” says Steve, “and fortunately, some of them were.” Now 13 major companies, including Canon, Lexmark, Fuji Xerox, Toshiba, Brother and Epson, pay CtL to manage the “end of life” of their consumable products. This can include full product recovery and reuse, materials recovery for recycling or, at worst (and applying to less than 5% of material), waste to energy conversion. Nothing goes to landfill.
The program is voluntary but companies benefit in a number of ways. They demonstrate their commitment to product stewardship principles and they recover valuable materials. “We also provide our partners with accurate data including how many of each of their products have been retrieved from specific locations. This is even more valuable in the new carbon economy” says Steve. “With 35,000 collection points around Australia, that’s very valuable, detailed market information.”
Steve also cites the relationship with Planet Ark as another reason for CtL’s success. “They already had a profile in the recycling area and having them as our branding partner made it much easier to establish our collection network.”
It was going to take a substantial investment to get CtL up and running so Steve structured the business as an unlisted public company. “We talked to a few people initially and there was strong interest. Word got around and we now have 500 shareholders.”
A perfect closed loop would see cartridges refilled and reused or providing replacement parts and toner powder for new cartridges. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of cartridges are suitable for refilling to the standards required by modern copiers and printers, and even then they cannot be refilled indefinately. Second best is if the recovered plastic and metal are recycled into new cartridges, but the mix of incompatible plastics that most cartridges are made from, plus contamination from ink and toner often makes this impractical. The upshot is that many cartridges end up as chips of low value mixed plastic.
To extract additional value from this material, Steve has helped to develop new products. The first, eWood®, is a recycled plastic alternative to timber that can be used in a wide range of applications. And work with AusPen has created Enviroliner™ felt-tipped pens. Even the ink in these pens comes from recycled printer cartridges. In keeping with Steve’s philosophy of zero waste to landfill, the pens can be recycled at the end of their life by dropping them in one of the Planet Ark cartridge recycling bins.
Steve isn’t giving up on either the reuse or cartridge-to-cartridge recycling ambitions. CtL is helping manufacturers design their products with “end of life” and fully closed loops in mind, but it will take time for these new products to dominate the market. CtL currently cleans up and returns around 15 tonnes of plastic per month for reuse in the injection moulding of new cartridges, a figure set to grow rapidly in coming years.
Tomorrow, the world
Just six years after its establishment, CtL set up shop in the United States. “A big population that uses a lot of printer consumables,” notes Steve. A new facility on the west coast to complement the current plant in Kentucky is on the cards. “Reducing carbon emissions is a major goal of ours. A second US operation will significantly reduce transport-related emissions.” European and Asian markets are also on the list for possible future expansion.
And when it comes to emissions, CtL is making a significant contribution. Life cycle analysis indicates that for each tonne of cartridges recycled into new product, up to ten tonnes of carbon emissions are saved.
A natural inclination
So where does Steve’s sustainability streak come from? “I’ve always had a strong affinity for nature, and feel really uncomfortable about our unsustainable way of life,” says Steve. “It’s pretty clear that long-term sustainable materials use can only happen with closed loop systems.”
Employees tend to take the company’s philosophy on board. “Many of our jobs are manual and to begin with our staff may just see it as a job,” says Steve. “But they soon become proud of what we are doing and stick around for the long term.”
Low staff turnover could also be because CtL provides career pathways for interested employees. Steve mentions their US Operations Manager. “He joined us straight from school, disassembling cartridges by hand. Now he is in Kentucky supervising 100 people.”
Steve has much to be proud of: the business he has developed, the technology it has invented, the environmental bonus it’s delivering and his recent placing as a finalist in the Entrepreneur of the Year award. And it all began when he looked at an inkjet cartridge he was supposed to throw away and thought “Maybe there’s a better option…”
To see what happens to some of the cartridges Close the Loop process, jump to our article on eWood.