Last week I visited an HP service provider’s facility in Thurnau, Germany where plastic inkjet cartridges are collected and where they take the first step toward reentering the materials stream for HP recycled plastic cartridges.

Located amid green rolling hills and an almost tangible spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation among the many small and medium businesses in Bavaria, the PDR Recycling plant (PDR is a German acronym for “products from recycled material”) sorts the cartridges for HP, removes any residual ink, and shreds them. The cartridges come from three sources:

  • Manufacturing waste
  • Non-salable units from re-sellers or returned and unused products
  • Post-consumer units that have been returned through retail stores or through bulk pick-ups from business customer sites

The shredding process creates small pieces of plastic, steel, copper and foam (depending on the type of cartridge), which is then sorted and shipped to secondary processing facilities. Some of the materials (the foam and ink residue) are fed into waste-to-energy incinerators to generate electricity and some are sold on the scrap metal market. The plastic goes to a secondary facility where it is joined with plastic from water bottles and other additives to restore the properties of the original plastic and to be used in new cartridges.

As of 2011, 1 billion HP ink and LaserJet print cartridges have been returned and recycled worldwide since the HP Planet Partners Return and Recycling program began in 1991. Those cartridges could fill more than 900 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Recycled plastic in original HP ink cartridges has up to a 22 percent smaller carbon footprint than virgin plastic, reduces fossil fuels by 50 percent and the water consumption by 69 percent (based on lifecycle assessment studies conducted by the company).HP is also re-vamping the recycling process to make it more efficient by separating components before shredding, effectively “de-manufacturing” the product for recycling.

The main takeaways for me following this visit were:

  • We lack a common vocabulary to accurately and precisely describe the complexity of recycling and closed loop systems, e.g. “recycling” could cover the entire HP closed loop cartridge process, or just the re-filling and re-use of cartridges (which HP doesn’t do for quality reasons);
  • As companies begin to explore this area, it’s necessary to start with relatively simple products over which companies have a great deal of control throughout their lifecycles;
  • Certain materials hold the key to a radically more efficient economy for their capacity to be “upcycled”, i.e. returned to a state equivalent to virgin materials in terms of functional or aesthetic properties;
  • There are wide-reaching social and economic ramifications to closed loop systems, and these are largely unknown and unexplored. For example, how will employment be affected by using recycled rather than virgin materials? Will closed loop systems offer an opportunity for economic inclusion of the developing world in global trade? Or does it represent a competitive edge for developed, rich economies? These are largely unasked questions from a company point of view.