MONTREAL — It's not all cars with me. I checked out what happens to the used ink we all discard by the boatload, and — surprise, surprise — it still lead me to green opportunities for cars and trucks. Remember the one word of career advice Benjamin Braddock gets in The Graduate? "Plastics." This, then, is a story about plastics and the green things you can do with them.
In a factory building in an industrial sector of this charming French-Canadian city, an ingenious machine goes about its business, which is dismantling Hewlett-Packard printer cartridges. “Recycling” for these familiar household objects usually means a shredder, which according to HP’s Dean Miller can reduce thousands of cartridges per hour to a somewhat messy mix of plastic, metal and paper particles.
"Closed loop" dismantling is the next big innovation in recycling, applicable to many products, from printer cartridges to TV sets and cars, too. Dismantling instead of crushing or shredding allows for more complete recovery of component parts, and creates some very useful recovery streams. In this case, it creates a tough plastic that is made into printer cartridges. Hence the closed loop.
The HP dismantler (built to pilot size, not commercial scale) is slower than the shredder, processing about 15 cartridges per minute. But it is far cleaner, leading to the recovery of as much as 50 percent more plastic material, Miller said. It can handle a majority of HP’s current cartridges. And it was totally cool to watch: A worker lines the cartridges upside-down on a conveyer, and they slide into the machine, which first flips them over, then uses a fast-moving blade to neatly scrape off the paper label.
The next station, just inches away, lops off the yellow plastic top of the #110 cartridge, dropping it into a bin. Robotic fingers then pluck out the cartridge’s electronic circuit, leaving a bare plastic bucket that is pure PET plastic and eminently recyclable. After it has been reduced to tiny plastic pellets, it will go back to HP to again be made into new inkjet and laser print cartridges.
I watched #110 cartridges with yellow tops get processed, but the dismantler works for a majority of HP’s huge inventory.
Recycling printer cartridges is big business. According to HP’s Jean Gingras (see my video below), the company has recycled 319 million of them since 1991, and has shipped a whopping 555 million cartridges with recycled content from the “closed loop” process I saw in Montreal since 2005. Some 14.4 million pounds of recycled plastic was remade into printer cartridges in 2009, Gingras said.
The Lavergne Group factory does not make printer cartridges — what goes out the door, destined for HP factories around the world, is containers full of giant cardboard boxes of sand-like plastic pellets. It is not pure cartridge crumble, but a mix of 10 to 25 percent HP waste with reclaimed PET plastic bottles, all of it seasoned with Lavergne’s “secret sauce” of chemical additives. According to Miller, there is no loss in strength and durability in cartridges made from this reclaimed raw material.
I love watching industrial processes, and this one didn’t disappoint. The bottle waste comes in as huge 22-ton shipments, and because it’s in all colors of plastic — blue, green, clear — its first stop is a gigantic (perhaps 25 feet across) blender that slowly spins and homogenizes it at three revolutions per minute. It is one of just two such machines in the world, and its maker is out of business. HP and Lavergne have used 25 million pounds of bottle flake since 2005, the equivalent of about a billion plastic bottles. (Of course, the U.S. uses up 29 billion water bottles a year, and less than 20 percent are recycled.)
The bottle and printer material are combined, additive sprinkled in, then the material is heated until it melts together before emerging from an extruder machine as very long spaghetti-like strands that are cooled in a water bath before shredded and emerging from a pipe as warm-to-the-touch plastic pellets.
And that’s what gets shipped. You could make car bumpers from it as easily as printer cartridges, and indeed Lavergne Group is also in the auto business, producing raw material that is remade, in Michigan, into front ends for Ford Econoline cargo vans. According to President Jean-Luc Lavergne, strong European end-of-life vehicle laws create an opportunity for his business, and he is talking to both Mercedes and Opel about locating facilities there (after the factory in Vietnam is built, of course). Lavergne has already dismantled 50 cars in a pilot project.
The HP printer cartridges sold in stores undoubtedly contain recycled content (though they’re not labeled as such) but the “closed loop” process is new and hasn’t reached gotten back into commerce yet. But it’s the wave of the future.