In the new millennium, we hear all about advancing science while moving forward responsibly. And why shouldn’t we try to protect the environment we live in as we try to make are lives better, easier?

This is where the green movement has stepped in: responsible people (and companies) trying to reduce their impact, reuse their tools and recycle their waste.  Last week, Hewlett Packard (HP) was kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes peek into their green effort with a tour of one of two inkjet cartridge recycling plants they run as of this writing.

For those readers who may be new to the HP green scene, I want to give a quick overview because in some ways HP has been ahead of the pack when it comes to environmental awareness. They set into place their Global Citizenship objective in the 1950’s and hired their first environmental control coordinator in 1970. 

Throughout the 70’s, HP put together environmental policy but in the 1980’s they turned policy into reality with their first recycling programs.   Computer products and hardware were the first recycling programs in 1987 followed by the founding of the HP Plant Partners Program in 1991.  It was in 1991 that HP first started recycling toner cartridges; they added inkjet cartridges in 1997.   Twenty years after they started their first recycling programs, HP announced that they had recycled one billion pounds of computing hardware and cartridges.  And here’s the kicker: the company has set goals to recycle another billion pounds of material by the year 2010. 

Which is why I was excited to see the recycling plant in action; after all it is an important cog in the HP Closed Loop System for Plastics Recycling.

I’m sure you are wondering what the HP Closed Loop System for Plastic Recycling is and it can be complicated to explain.  I’ll try my best to break it down simply.

The closed loop starts with customers – maybe you, perhaps – sending in their original HP inkjet cartridges for recycling through HP’s Planet Partners Program.  All of the inkjet cartridges are sent to one of two HP recycling facilities: the Nashville location I visited recently and another plant in Germany.   At these facilities, the products are stripped and shredded and sent to the next stop in the closed loop circuit.


HP Planet Partner boxes arriving at recycling facility

That next stop happens to be a plant in Canada where the refined recycled material (clean PET shreds) are mixed with recycled plastic bottle resin and unnamed chemicals in a process called compounding.

After compounding, the material is ready to be made into cartridges and is sent to one of four HP cartridge manufacturing plants internationally: Ireland, Asia Pacific, Puerto Rico and North America.

And from there, the new cartridges – made from the recycled old cartridges – are shipped to stores and purchased by customers.  The chart below provided by HP may help explain this process better than I did.

Now that you may have a grasp on the overall HP Closed Loop process, we can focus on how the Nashville facility fits into this picture.

And that’s hard to do at first because the Nashville facility itself is unremarkable from the outside; it looks like any other warehouse you might pass by on the interstate or back road.  Looks can be deceiving though; it was nothing like I imaged a factory would be.

For one thing, the facility was clean, relatively clutter free and spacious.  HP added several natural lighting panels to the ceiling in addition to typical fluorescent lighting which not only cuts back on energy bills but probably boosts morale.  I know how much I loathe working in florescent lighting all day!


You can see the natural lighting panels above the machines

The factory is divided into two huge rooms.  The first room we toured was where the cartridges are brought in and sorted through by employees.  We didn’t see much of this area of the plant in use but our tour guides explained this was the first stage of sorting.

There are several levels of sorting because the facility only recycles original HP inkjet cartridges but receives plenty of other materials on a daily basis. That list includes original HP toner cartridges (sent to the recycling facility in Virginia), remanufactured HP inkjet or toner cartridges, other branded cartridges and complete random items (including cell phones, batteries and Barbie dolls to name a few).

You may wonder why they won’t recycle remanufactured HP inkjet cartridges.  HP’s official line is they can’t recycle cartridges handled by a third party due to what may or may not be present in the cartridges.

Once cartridges have been sorted by employees, they are sorted by machines in several ways.  First, cartridges sent in individual envelopes are removed from their packaging using a large machine that pulls the paper from the body of the cartridge.


Workers and machines help with cartridge sorting and packaging removal

After cartridges are removed from their packaging, they are sorted into cartridge families using an x-ray machine.  Fun fact: HP got the idea for this machine from a similar one used to make sure there are no bones left in your boneless chicken.  Fun, right?


Cartridge families sorted, preshredding

The cartridge families then head to the shredder (not a pleasant fate, but keep the end goal in mind).  The shredded cartridges, combined with the sort manufacturing scrap brought to the plant, next has to pass the sink or float test. 


Cartridges on the way up, shredded materials on the way down

Inside the cartridges, there is foam (think carpet padding consistency) and residual ink.  The shredded material is sprayed with water and sorted so that just the plastic and metal pieces move forward and the foam is sorted out.


Sorted foam from inside cartridges

From there, the machines pull out the precious metal with magnets.  This metal will also be recycled but at a different location.  The plastic shreds are ready to be refined and compounded at this point and are shipped off to the next location.


Sorted unrefined plastic shreds

But here’s the cool part – those plastic shreds you see in the above pictures will be made into new cartridges – the HP 60 cartridge family has 60% recycled materials in each individual cartridges.   And after you done using the cartridge made from recycled materials it can be sent back to the Nashville factory to enter the closed loop system once again.

What really hit home with me about the HP Closed Loop System is that it doesn’t actually make the company any money.  Recycling the cartridges is free for customers and the process is run through the Imaging and Printing Group.

Recycling inkjet cartridges isn’t the only green project HP is working on either!  Don’t worry, faithful readers, PrinterComparison.com will follow up with information about other green initiatives that HP and other manufacturers are working on in the coming weeks.

Find out more info on HP’s Eco Solutions and Global Citizenship projects on their site.  Want to see the tour yourself? Check out the HP video tour of the Nashville recycling facility. Interested in seeing how other consumers react?  Watch the "HP Street Challenge: How green is your print cartridge?".