Printer cartridge remanufacturers - who clean and refill cartridges before resale - have already complained about printer manufacturers inserting microchips which make remanufacturing impossible or uneconomic (ENDS Report 342, p 33 ).
They warn that the practice could shut down the sector unless cartridges are included in regulations transposing the EU Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment. The Government had argued that the Directive would not allow this - but has now said that it is against the idea on the grounds that it would amount to "gold plating" of EU legislation (see p 38 ).
Cartridge remanufacturers now see a new "threat" to their industry in the shape of new return and recycling schemes for inkjet cartridges, set up by Hewlett Packard and Lexmark. From 1 May consumers will be able to return empty HP inkjet cartridges using pre-paid envelopes supplied with new cartridges, while Lexmark's scheme will be extended to its full range of cartridges by September.
HP's cartridges will be sent to a dedicated recycling facility in Germany operated by PDR Recycling. The company, established 10 years ago by polyurethane foam manufacturers, has diversified into cartridge recycling.
According to HP, plastics and metals from recycled cartridges will be used to make products such as automotive parts, microchip processing trays, serving trays and spools. The company has also developed a scanner component made from 25% recycled inkjet cartridge plastic and 75% recycled plastic bottles.
HP said that offering its customers a return and recycling service for as many products as possible was "an integral part of our business strategy". A market study conducted in Europe earlier this year concluded that three-quarters of its customers found the idea of returning cartridges to the company for recycling "very appealing".
The company, which has operated recycling schemes in the USA since the 1990s, claimed that the "superior quality, reliability and ease of use" of its new cartridges, together with its recycling scheme, offers a "preferable alternative" to remanufacturing and reuse. But it "understands there is also a need for lower quality, reused cartridges, and...there is space for both in the market."
HP declined to comment on how its expected return volume of 1.5 million inkjet cartridges in the UK by next year compares with forecast sales of new inkjet cartridges. But using the UK Cartridge Remanufacturers Association's estimate of HP's sales - some 16-22 million - the recycling rate would be around 7-9%. The association said 15% of HP's inkjet cartridges are recycled worldwide.
"The schemes are another threat to our sector," said the association's David Connett, "because they take cartridges out of the market". The selling price of Canon and Epson cartridges, said Mr Connett, will probably be too low to justify the collection and recycling costs.
HP said that none of its cartridges contain so called "killer chips" that prevent remanufacturing, but some do include "smart chips" that alert the user to low toner levels or allow the user to order new cartridges online.
However, Mr Connett said the complex design of many new cartridges made it difficult to remanufacture them without expensive cutting equipment.
Friends of the Earth welcomed HP's recycling scheme but said "re-filling cartridges is even better for the environment than shredding them. To prove its environmental credentials, HP should ensure it designs out any smart chips which make it difficult for third parties to re-fill cartridges."