The chances are high you have used Hewlett Packard printers in your home or office and plunked your used cartridges into one of the company’s green and white envelopes. For many of us who have embraced recycling has a habit, once that old cartridge is gone, it not only out of ink, but out of sight and mind. We are just glad we did it, and honestly, what happens after we drop off the cartridge in the mail is not something we really dwell on.
But 20 miles southeast of Nashville in Smyrna, Tennessee, those empty printer cartridges find their way to a new life. A nondescript 80,000 square foot warehouse is home to a bevy of technologies and dizzying machines where HP in moving towards a closed loop system and transforming its lucrative printer business more energy efficient, sustainable and of course, profitable. A tour of the facility is a lesson in how cutting-edge technology, operations management and internal ROI are just as important as knowing the difference between different plastic resins and what can contaminate a batch of raw materials.
HP’s closed loop recycling program has its origins in 2000. The Smyrna plant opened in 2001 and eventually, HP started to manufacture the first completely recycled cartridges in 2005. The company announced its closed loop system in 2008 and since then the numbers have been impressive. Over 100 million pounds of plastic have been recycled between 2007 and 2011. The amount of recycled plastic in HP printers has tripled the past five years. Last year alone, 28.6 million pounds of recycled plastic ended up in HP’s printer product line. Not only that, but HP is having a role in processing those pesky water bottles that too often end up in landfills. And the eye-popping numbers continue. More than 511,000,000 items were kept out of landfills because of HP’s recycling programs, 39,000,000 ink jet cartridges were recycled and 472,000,000 plastic bottles were upcycled into cartridges.
For the sustainability maven, a tour of the recycling plant is analogous to walking through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, except it does not smell quite as good, you cannot (or do not want to) touch most things and you do not get to take anything home. But the colors are dazzling and the machines are fun to watch.
First you have the receiving area where used cartridges are sent from all over the country. Businesses sends them by the box loads. Staples collects the cartridges at its stores and they end up in Smyrna, too. Envelopes from consumers may have anywhere from five to 20 cartridges. And those green and white envelopes that have been around for years? Well, HP discontinued them in 2009, but they still flow in, and in fact, a contraption inspired by corn husking machines removes them from the envelope so the recycling process can begin. As for the all the other cartridges, other machines sort them, scan them and separate them as it is more efficient for HP to process them by batches of different models.
One machine empties cartridges of ink. Another picks out the foam from the color cartridges, one color at a time. For years the cartridges were shredded with all the materials ending up jumbled together. But now they are disassembled before shredding, which requires less energy, less water and a cleaner batch of plastic for the next generation of cartridges. The new process is also more environmentally responsible because the precious metals like gold and palladium in those cartridges can be melted down with less fuel and less toxins. The cycle is working: HP estimates that some cartridges are entering their ninth and tenth phase of life.
The rest of the recycling occurs outside of Montreal. Up there the bits of black, pink, green and other pastel-colored plastic are mixed with recycled PET bottle flakes, and the process begins anew.
For HP, the recycling journey is ongoing and constantly fine tuned. Like the company’s engineers who try to improve its computers and printers and the marketers who have to decide between going for market share or profit margin (after almost ditching its PC business last year, HP focused on market share), pulverizing plastic for reuse is a number’s game. The stacks of boxes full of reused printer cartridges do not lie: HP is doing more than only running a token feel-good recycling program. The global technology giant is making money, too. We need more companies to do more about taking care of their waste instead of insisting the responsibility lies elsewhere.
Photos courtesy HP.
Full disclosure: HP paid for Leon Kaye’s trip to the Nashville region.