Is Cartridge Recycling for you?

Mark Rowh

Look at any price lists for printer or copier cartridges, and one fact is readily apparent–you can save money by buying recycled products. But is cartridge recycling right for you? Ink and toner are not exactly cheap commodities, so this is a thought worth considering.

Over the past decade, the use of remanufactured cartridges has become increasingly popular. When first introduced, quality was frequently an issue. With many recycled cartridges, photoreceptive drums or other key components were not replaced, and premature failure was common. Recently, however, cartridge recyclers have improved quality significantly by following more thorough remanufacturing processes, including testing to ensure product quality. Some providers even tout their products as being better than the originals, with replacement components designed to outperform original parts. Longer life is also a possibility, with remanufacturers often adding more ink or toner than was provided in the original.

“Remanufactured laser cartridge quality may now be better than with new models from most manufacturers,” says Craig Muse, chief operating officer of in Riverside, Calif. “These cartridges offer harder, longer lasting drums and more toner than in the OEM products.” He adds the better ink jet cartridge manufacturers now buy their raw materials from the same suppliers utilized by the OEMs, and they performance-test all cartridges prior to shipment.

Users in a variety of office environments are finding that recycled products meet their needs while offering a number of advantages. The cost factor is definitely attractive, with recycled cartridges offering 30 to 50 percent savings. In addition, the need to overcome the reluctance of those unfamiliar with recent improvements has caused providers to develop strong customer service programs.

“Customers reap several benefits from remanufactured cartridges,” says Pam Adzima, president of The Laser Link in Boyertown, Pa., and president of the Imaging and Information Technology Association, Northeast. “Generally they are dealing with a local company that not only provides them with a needed supply at a reasonable price but also offers great service to the customer such as repairs, delivery, installation, and an array of other services.”

Cartridge Options

As with many products, things are not as clear-cut with cartridges as they might first appear. The easiest choice would simply be to stick with new products. But even brand new cartridges may contain some recycled components–and OEM cartridges sold under a printer or copier’s brand name may actually be generic products which are interchangeable with those sold under other brand names. The definition of recycled cartridges itself also varies. Some are simply recharged-meaning empty cartridges are refilled with ink or toner–but parts are not replaced. When you make a purchase, you are getting a used product with very little enhancement.

For ink jet printers, a related option is purchasing kits which allow you to refill spent cartridges. Kits come complete with tools, instructions, and ink. Once the process is mastered, multiple refillings are possible. This option of refilling your own ink jet cartridges may be of most interest to home offices where supply budgets are extremely limited. In larger office settings, it may not be practical.

Remanufactured cartridges result from a more complex process. Instead of simply replacing the toner or ink, remanufacturers completely rebuild the internal portion of each cartridge. Typically, this includes steps such as removing all remaining toner or ink and vacuuming the empty cartridge, disassembling the cartridge and inspecting parts, and adding new parts such as drums or wiper blades.

While results vary, remanufacturers are quick to cite pluses for their products. One is that recycled products may actually last longer than those provided by the original manufacturers. In many cases, remanufacturers add at least 10 percent more ink or toner than the cartridge originally held. A further consideration is that reuse of cartridges provides environmental benefits. In the first place, the plastic used to construct most cartridges is a petroleum-based product, so reuse of cartridges reduces the need for oil. At the same time, each recycled cartridge is one less addition to the local landfill. This type of conservation has its value not just in terms of corporate citizenship, but also in public relations. Employees, as well as environmentally conscious customers, tend to favor firms with active recycling programs, and reused cartridges fit well into such practices.

“Recycling saves valuable landfill space, raw materials, and the energy used to process a new cartridge from scratch,” says Muse. “If you think about it, with a laser cartridge you throw away four pounds of custom manufactured plastic and metal that is used one time to dispense several ounces of toner.”

Significant Cost Savings

With savings of one-third to one-half, any business can realize significant reductions in office expenses by using recycled products. Of course the larger the volume of copying or printing, the greater the potential savings. In King County, Wash., county agencies use remanufactured toner cartridges exclusively for laser printers through a contract stipulating that cartridges meet OEM standards and provide full performance guarantees. Last year the county purchased more than 4,000 cartridges at a cost of about $180,000. Estimated savings were $350,000.

While government purchasing practices may have limited applications for businesses, the success of the King County program is revealing. The program has been in operation for a number of years, and managers find it well worth continuing. “I continue to think that remanufactured cartridges are a good idea,” says Karen Hamilton, an environmental purchasing analyst for King County. “They are usually good quality.”

Regardless of organizational size, success in using recycled products rests on identifying the right provider. Since cartridge recycling has become something of a cottage industry, almost anyone can be a provider. With little more than an empty garage and a Website, virtually any small business–or individual–can get into the recycling game. This may be great for small business development, but it also means you can expect a wide divergence in areas such as logistics and customer service.

“Finding the right company is important,” says Adzima. “Some offer very low prices that promise quality but don’t deliver. Misconceptions and bad experiences are what our industry is trying to overcome.” At the same time, many providers have worked hard to overcome problems and earn customer confidence.

“Quality has always been just a word, but now it’s a reality,” Adzima says. “With the introduction of standardized test methods adopted by our industry, remanufacturers can make honest claims of quality. We now have the equipment and methods to test our cartridges for yield and density so we can measure ourselves against the OEMs.”

For those leery of poor quality, a major consideration is how extensively cartridge providers guarantee their products. Some remanufacturers offer impressive guarantees, promising first that all their cartridges meet or exceed OEM standards of quality and performance, and also offering to replace defective cartridges. Some also guarantee to repair equipment if damaged.

“The industry has made major leaps forward and now has generally accepted testing standards,” Muse says. “The marketplace has weeded out many of the poor quality manufacturers.” The formation of an international professional association for the cartridge recycling industry has also contributed to greater awareness of quality issues.

“This council will work together to promote, protect, and educate our members and the public,” Adzima says. “We’ve come a long way since the early 1980s.”

Given the improvements in processing and reusing cartridges, taking advantage of recycled products seems a solid bet for most organizations. Care should be exercised, however, in selecting the right provider (see sidebar). Because just about anyone can get into this business with a minimal investment, you might want to give the “buyer beware” factor greater consideration than with some other types of purchases. Poor-quality cartridges will produce inferior documents, not to mention the potential for damaging sensitive equipment.

“There are still some ‘drill and fill’ manufacturers and some overseas or garage manufactured products,” Muse says. “The reputable manufacturers stand behind their claim of 100 percent satisfaction guaranteed. The quality levels both for the OEMs and reputable remanufacturers run at a 1-3 percent defect level. When you find a good supplier, stay with them and spread the word.”

One approach is to start small and conduct a low-risk experiment. Buy a small quantity of recycled cartridges and use them with just one or two machines. If the results are lacking, switch to a different provider. Once you’re satisfied with both quality and reliability, you can expand to large-scale use of recycled products.

Mark Rowh is a freelance business writer and OfficeSolutions contributing editor. Based in Dublin, Va., he may be reached at

Choosing a Cartridge Provider

In choosing a provider of recycled cartridges, take care when you select a company–remanufacturers abound and you can find many providers with a quick search on the Internet. Once you locate potential suppliers, one strategy is to choose a company in your local area. Ask for the names of some of their regular customers, and then make a call or two to verify satisfaction.

In reviewing Websites or talking directly with providers, consider these questions:

1. Are they a member of their trade association?

2. What type of quality control is in place? Does the company perform standardized testing on a regular basis?

3. Do they guarantee their product? What actions will be taken if a cartridge fails? Does the guarantee include coverage of equipment damage? If an explicit guarantee is not made, don’t do business with that company. Also, stay away from any firm that fails to make clear exactly where its facilities are located. A close examination of company Web pages can be revealing; many provide detailed information about their products and practices.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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