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Ink Wars
The fight to recycle your old printer cartridges is about to get messy.

Photo of Bob HrabecAt Toner Solutions, Inc., a computer printer service shop near Raleigh, North Carolina, used laser-printer cartridges are stacked up by the hundreds waiting for service. Cartridge technicians will check every part -- from the rollers to the drum to something called the doctor blade -- and replace those that are worn. After their tanks are filled with powdery toner, the cartridges will be loaded into the company van and hand-delivered to one of the business's 1,500 customers. "Our remanufactured cartridges work just as well as new ones," says Bob Hrabec, the company's 60-year-old founder and president. "As long as they get a good print that is good quality, people are happy." There are other reasons Hrabec's customers keep coming back: A pre-owned cartridge costs 20 to 50 percent less than a new one and saves three pounds of plastic from the landfill.

Americans bought 67 million cartridges last year for their laser printers. At least 27 percent of those were refurbished, and the numbers are steadily increasing. That's good for the environment, and good for business. Toner Solutions is one of about 5,000 small outfits in the United States profiting from the trend.

But an inky shadow has just been cast over their future. Lexmark International, Inc., the world's second-largest printer maker (behind Hewlett-Packard) has been trying for several years to stanch the flow of its spent cartridges to companies like Toner Solutions, which annually drain millions of dollars from Lexmark's bottom line. So the $4.4 billion company came up with a simple, technological fix. Most used Lexmark cartridges sent back to the company get a full tank of ink and new parts, just like at the smaller shops but, more crucially, also receive a special microchip -- and without it, a Lexmark printer won't work.

That amounts to monopolistic behavior, charges Ed Swartz, the CEO of Static Control Components, Inc., the largest maker of laser-cartridge parts in the United States. Swartz's company, with 1,200 employees, supplies materials to shops like Toner Solutions and stands to lose a hefty portion of its business because of Lexmark's clever innovation. So starting in May 2002, Swartz's company began developing and marketing a microchip of its own, one that allowed Lexmark printers to function no matter who rebuilt the cartridge. Lexmark, in turn, sued Static Control in federal court for digital copyright infringement and won an injunction last February.

Static Control has appealed the ruling, and oral arguments are slated to begin before March, but if Lexmark prevails, say Swartz and recycling advocates, Toner Solutions and thousands of other independent remanufacturers could go out of business. The environment could suffer too. Consumers will have far fewer recycling options and face more hassle, since cartridge-return programs run by corporations such as Lexmark require them to package up and mail their own empties. Other companies could also follow Lexmark's lead -- and not just in the printer market. Ford Motor Company, for example, could install chips in all of its parts, forcing owners of Ford cars to do business only with Ford and killing the market in used auto parts.

The result: Millions of spent cartridges and other perfectly service-able products could end up in the landfill, where their industrial-grade plastic components will take an average of 1,000 years to decompose.
-- Bob Burtman

Illustration of a printer

The magnum opus is finished, but now your printer cartridge is out of ink, and you're left with three bulky pounds of plastic and moving parts. What to do? You could haul it to an office-supply chain. Staples, OfficeMax, and Office Depot all collect used printer cartridges. But if braving their parking lots fills you with angst, look up a local remanufacturer. The International Imaging Technology Council, a trade association, has 5,000 remanufacturers in its database and can recommend top-notch shops in your area (702-838-4279). Many Lexmark and Hewlett-Packard dealers will also take cartridges, but there's no guarantee that they'll be remanufactured (Hewlett-Packard, for example, will take them back but will at best recycle the plastic and chuck the rest).
-- B.B.

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Photo: Bob Rives

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council