Inkjet cartridges, ink and the environment

Back in the mid-90’s when I was getting my start in the computer sector, a colleague started up what was a revolutionary idea at the time – an ink cartridge refilling business.

In those days when your ink cartridge ran out, you threw it out without a second thought. It was expensive, wasteful and even then, millions of ink cartridges were winding up in landfills each year.

My colleague’s idea had a twist that made it even more attractive to business – he would visit them and refill the cartridges on-site. Needless to say, he did a roaring trade. I think he charged around $20 per cartridge, which was very cheap compared to the cost of a new cartridge – and still is in many cases today.

Unfortunately, he also made a few enemies – particularly among printer and ink cartridge companies when word got around. A couple rattled their legal sabers and had their lawyers sending him nasty notes.

As more refilling businesses started popping up, some companies started a scare campaign stating that the use of a refilled, remanufactured or third party cartridge would immediately void the warranty of the printer – which were also quite expensive items at the time.

The printer/ink/toner cartridge companies lost that battle and today refilling your own cartridges is a more common practice, with related supplies readily available.

Some companies still try to defeat the practice of refilling by incorporating a built in counter chip that can’t be reset – so when you’re shopping for your next printer, that’s something you may want to check – that the cartridges it takes can be refilled or remanufactured/third party cartridges are available.

Something I also did on my last printer purchase was to compare information on cartridges – costs and importantly, how many pages could be printed. This wasn’t just about saving money, but as cartridges only have a certain lifespan when refilled multiple times, to keep them out of the waste/recycling stream for as long as possible.

Ink cartridge recycling statistics

Unfortunately, while recycling and refilling of cartridges has picked up, it appears the number that are reused is still a minority.

Statistics vary country to country, but the general range is only 5% – 30% of empty printer cartridges are being recycled. This means hundreds of millions of cartridges are still winding up in landfill every year.

Refilling your own cartridges

Refilling cartridges yourself can be a bit of a hit and miss affair. I recommend being very wary of bargain-basement priced ink. Every time I have bought cheap ink, I have had problems. In one instance, the ink basically never dried. Stick with better known brands stocked by office supplies stores.

I certainly recommend wearing surgical gloves (which you can reuse) if you attempt to refill them yourself!

Tip: never run a cartridge to the point it prints no more if you wish to refill it as this wears the cartridge out far faster when run “dry”.

For those who don’t wish to refill cartridges, there are mail-in services that will do it for you.

Remanufactured and third party cartridges

You can also make substantial financial and environmental savings by purchasing remanufactured cartridges. These are made from made of reused printer cartridge parts.

Again, quality can be an issue, so it’s better to pay a few extra bucks for a brand from your trusted office supplies store – you’ll still save a bundle.

According to, for every 100 000 used cartridges that are remanufactured from recycled materials, 10.6 tons of aluminium, 44 tons of plastic and 264172 gallons of oil are saved!

Cash for empty cartridges

If you just want to avoid refilling or remanufactured cartridges altogether, recycling bins are a fairly regular sight in ink supplies stores these days. Often you won’t get anything for the cartridge, except for the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing some good by the planet as someone else will buy a refurbished version of your waste.

However, there are some rewards programs available for ink cartridge recycling in the USA that will pay you cash for your empty cartridges – further details can be found here.

What’s in inkjet cartridge ink?

Another reason to keep cartridges out of landfill is the ink itself. I never realized some of the nasty components of inkjet ink until I started researching for this article. The most common components are water, colorant, fixative, penetrant, resin, buffering agent, biocide and fungicide.

I fully expected to find petro-chemicals, but biocide and fungicide too? Ech. Aside from plastic taking so long to break down anyway, I imagine the biocide would also further slow down the degradation process.

Environmentally friendly ink

The good news is that more earth friendly inkjet cartridge inks are on their way in the form of soy based inks.

Soy inks have been in use by most newspapers for many years (that’s why newspaper is generally safe to compost). I hunted around, but haven’t been able to find any soy-based ink cartridges available as yet, but fingers crossed they won’t be far away. Whether they’ll still need the fungicide and herbicide I’m not sure.

Ink usage reduction tips

The greenest ink is the ink you don’t use! So here’s a few tips for reducing your ink consumption which will lighten your printing related environmental impact and leave a bit more weight in your pocket ($)

– Most printer software offers an “express” or “draft” mode setting and you might be surprised how good the quality is. This setting can save up to 25% on ink consumption

– Use an ink friendly font – a free font called Ecofont can be downloaded here.

– In some software applications such as Excel, Word and various web browsers, you can select an area to print – that way you’ll only print what you need which is particularly handy for printing information from the web.

– Look for a “printer friendly” or “print article” feature on web site pages. These will usually generate a version of a page without any advertising, menus etc.

.. and finally, before printing anything, ask yourself – do you really need to? The paperless office is a concept that is long overdue!

On a related note, pick up some paper saving tips in my article, The Paper Reduction Diet. If you’re looking at “greening” your paper sourcing; check out “Buying Recycled Paper” and “Tree Free Paper“.