Epson makes a tiny step in the right direction

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Opinion

Epson announced this week that they are going to be packaging all of their ink cartridges in 100% recycled paper. I think that this is a positive step in the right direction. But, it does not address a significantly greater environmental impact caused by the design of their ink cartridges. Epson designs their ink cartridges for the USA market so that they can not be re-used, and are nearly impossible to be refilled. Recycling programs convert the plastic cartridges along with their residual ink and attached microchip into “energy” by incinerating them. Obviously, this is not an ecologically friendly way to recycle materials, nor a sensible way for consumers to consume consumables when an obvious alternative is being marketed outside the USA.

From Epson’s Sept 19, 2011 Press Release:

All Epson packaging for consumer retail ink cartridges in the U.S. and Canada will consist of 100 percent recycled paperboard that can also be recycled when empty.  By converting to recycled paperboard instead of virgin paperboard, less solid waste will be produced.  In addition, by diverting fiber that would otherwise go into a landfill, the CO2 that would be emitted from decomposition of the material in a landfill is avoided, resulting in nearly one million pounds of solid waste eliminated per year.  This move also eliminates the production of waste water equivalent to over 17 Olympic size swimming pools per year.

Recycled paperboard is made from 100 percent recovered paper that has been diverted from the solid waste stream and collected, separated, cleaned and recycled for use.  Production of the recycled paperboard uses 50 percent less energy than converting virgin grades of paperboard, resulting in a significant reduction in greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Saving 17 Olympic sized swimming pools of waste water seems like a lot. But it is a drop in comparison to the amount of toxic waste water that is produced from the manufacture of the microchips that are installed on each and every one of the millions of ink cartridges that are thrown away after one single use.

In the USA alone, it is estimated that Americans toss more than 450 million one-time use ink carts into USA landfills each and every year. Each plastic cart has a small microchip embedded on it. It will take thousands of years to breakdown into harmless substances. Epson claims it is necessary to use a microchip to track the amount of ink being used. The microchip makes it very difficult for third party ink suppliers to manufacture systems that will allow the ink monitor status to update correctly because the 2000 Millenium Act prevents the exact reproduction of digitally encoded functions.

For example, when an Epson printer is first powered up it will display a notice that a non-genuine cartridge is installed. The consumer will have to acknowledge this message before printing can resume. While not a nuisance other than when the printer is first powered up, it is an indication of how an OEM can interfere with the consumers experience when they choose to use alternative cartridges.

Microchips from Epson ink cartriges. These are small printed circuit boards, the black dome contains the chip itself.

Microchips from Epson ink cartriges. These are small printed circuit boards, the black dome contains the chip itself.

These microchips could be re-used if the OEM desired. InkjetMall sells chip resetters that can reset the OEM chip to read “full”. Many of our customers recycle their old Epson chips to reuse on our inexpensive refillable ink carts. We have an Epson 3800/3880 chip recycling program that we use to produce our 3800 and 3880 refillable cartridges. On average, our customers can reset the microchips eight times. We sell replacement chips because the refillable ink carts will usually last the life of the printer. But, we encourage our customers to save the chips from their spent OEM carts for reuse when they switch to our inking systems.

The amount of energy required to make such a tiny device as the microchip embedded on an ink cartridge is phenomenal in relation to the amount of energy the device will generate in its lifetime. But, the amount of toxins released into the environment in order to manufacture these chips is heart-wrenching. A recent study from the IT and Environment Initiative entitled “The 1.7 Kilogram Microchip: Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices” suggests that the environmental impacts of microchip manufacture has a macro-scale. The ratio of production inputs to that of the final product are about 630:1. The gist is that to produce a 2-gram memory chip, a total of 1600g of oil energy are required and 72g of chemicals. More than 32,000g of pure water is required. In other words, to produce a 2 gram microchip requires 1.7 Kilogram (3.7 pounds) of fossil fuel and chemicals.

The amount of these microchips that are needlessly thrown into landfills is staggering. It is not difficult to imagine the amount of water wasted, and the amount of chemical toxins (many of them carcinogenic) that are produced, and the huge amount of oil that is consumed in order to produce them. The 1.7 Kilogram report goes on to say “the semiconductor industry uses hundreds, even thousands of chemicals, many in significant quantities and many of them toxic. Emissions of these chemicals have potential impacts on air, water and soil systems and potentially pose an occupational risk for line workers.” It’s really hard to believe that such a tiny little thing as a microchip can have such a tremendously negative impact on the environment.

Further, it is estimated that 10% of all oil that is imported into the USA is in the form of plastics used in single-use ink carts. The biggest issue is that the design of single-use carts is intentional, rather than a necessity in providing a safe and clean ink supply to today’s inkjet printers. The release by Epson of Epson designed CISS ink units in Indonesia shows that the OEMs are willing to allow consumers to use a ReUsable ink supply only when the use of that is profitable to the OEM. Because CISS use is so widespread in Indonesia, the OEM has no choice if they wish to offer something that consumers are willing to buy.

I have maintained since releasing my inks in ReUsable cartridges that being “green” is a universal concept. Every individual can have the choice of leaving a small footprint on this Earth if they are given the correct choice of products, or if they choose the correct products. The most powerful source is the customer, and when the customer begins questioning how their consumables are packaged, that question works its way up stream to effect powerful changes.

The refilling of ink cartridges and the use of continuous ink supply systems (CISS) for inkjet printers is very common in most countries outside the USA. But, for the OEMs the USA remains the prized ink market that they are willing to spend millions of dollars in legal fees to prevent the import of products which the USA consumer can use in a ecologically friendly manner.

There really is no correct reason why the OEMs can not package their inks in ReUsable systems here in the USA.  If they can provide a solution that is ecologically responsible, the vast majority of their customers will continue to choose OEM inks over competing inks. They are demonstrating that they are willing to forego the use of seminconductor chipped cartridges if it means getting into an ink market (outside the USA). The argument that the chip is required to track ink usage, or that a sealed cartridge is critical is now a moot statement.

Unfortunately, the OEM could have invented ReUsable systems. Instead it has been the ingenuity of third party ink manufacturers which has caused these inventions to begin to become mainstream. Now, the OEMs may find themselves increasingly cut out of a more ecologically sound way in which to sell their inks. Many of the third party manufacturers have been patenting their inventions. If the OEM finds itself antiquated in an environmentally conscious society that insists more and more on reusable inking systems, they will only have themselves to blame.

Since first offering CISS in 2000, my hope in providing ReUsable ink systems has been to provide a catalyst for change in this industry by providing a high-standard, alternative choice. Bringing a high-quality, ink in a perpetual, reusable cartridge system is a first step that will have an immediate environmental impact on an individual basis. To transition from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution is a tremendous challenge that somehow feels natural because of the end-result produced by the effort.

  • You can find ConeColor ReUsable inking systems for supported Epson printers here.
  • You can find Piezography ReUsable Black & White inking systems for supported Epson printers here.