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The Printer Cartridge Lifecycle and Digital Product Passport Touchpoints

Brought to you by André Rückert from ECOLOGICON 

A printer cartridge is an incremental part of a printer, that is responsible for transferring the picture onto paper. There are several different types and models of printer cartridges on the market worldwide.  

There are many printer manufacturers worldwide including printer manufacturers producing thermal, UV printing and serial matrix printing equipment. In the toner and ink printing sector some of the biggest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are Lexmark (equally taking part in the CE-RISE project), Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, HP, Kyocera, Minolta, Oki, Olivetti, Ricoh, Toshiba and Xerox. Excluding the special printing equipment focused on thermal and UV-printing, a user can distinguish between a toner cartridge and an ink cartridge-based printing system. The difference being that a toner cartridge uses fine toner powder instead of liquid ink to produce a print. 

In Europe, about 135 million toner cartridges and 370 million ink cartridges are sold every year, with a market volume of € 10.2 billion for toner and € 9,4 billion for ink cartridges (Waugh et. al. 2018). Around 20 to 25 % of the toner cartridges are not from OEM but are remanufactured or simply compatible with selected printers. It is estimated that there are currently 200 different toner cartridge models on the market and between 400 and 600 different ink cartridge models (Waugh et. al. 2018).

When using the worldwide GDP (2019) as a reference and extrapolating the number of cartridges provided by Waugh et. al. 2018, the amount of toner cartridges sold worldwide per year could be roundabout 734 million with a market value of € 56.1 billion (2 billion ink cartridges with € 51.7 billion market value). 

Figure 1: The printer cartridge life cycle (André Rückert, ECOLOGICON)
Orange boxes: life cycle steps; blue arrows: transfer and transport steps; red boxes: cradle and grave.

The figure above shows the typical life cycle of a printer cartridge. After raw materials are extracted, the printer cartridge is produced by either an OEM or a non-OEM that is specialised in producing compatible or cloned cartridges.  

Following this step, the cartridge goes into a use phase with a consumer (business or a private customer). Once the cartridge gets damaged or empty during the use phase the consumer can either refill the cartridge in specialised refilling centres or opt for remanufacturing. Most cartridges can be remanufactured/refilled between five to seven times while some (Lexmark, 2023) are designed to be remanufactured even up to 10 times. 

However, when a cartridge cannot be refilled/remanufactured anymore it reaches its end of life. At this stage if the consumer does not use a designated collection system (potentially offered by the producer itself) the cartridge may end up in a household waste treatment stream and lose its raw materials. On the flip side, if the consumer finds a designated collection system provided by the municipality, the OEM, or third-party companies, who are specialised in collection of cartridges, the sorting and consolidation process will commence by deciding if the cartridge may be refurbished, should be remanufactured, or recycled based on the market value of a refurbished cartridge, market demand, and the current quality state of the cartridge. If the collected cartridge is not worth or has not been designed to be remanufactured due to its quality aspects, it will be sent off for recycling or to and environmental sound downstream option.  

The introduction of Digital Product Passports (DPP) for printer cartridges could improve several aspects of the illustrated life cycle. DPPs would essentially support consumers in making more sustainable decisions; and providing environmental protection agencies with the necessary information to make sure producers comply with statutory and regulatory requirements considering allowed substances, and fulfilment of product quality standards in the printer cartridge materials.  

During the use phase, a DPP would support the consumer with essential information about remanufacturing/refill possibilities and provide more information of the correct disposal of cartridges by listing nearby collection points and return solutions. This would ultimately increase the collection and RE-rates of cartridges.  

Digital Product Passports would equally support the collection and consolidation procedure by simplifying decision making processes as to which RE-strategy should be applied. 

Lastly the DPP could support refillers, independent remanufacturers/and OEMs who remanufacture cartridges, with information about spare parts availability, disassembly instructions, repair instructions, and exploded drawings to optimize their processes.  

All in all, the Digital Product Passport supports a more sustainable consumption as well as responsible handling of printer cartridges which could possibly impact our environment positively through saving resources, and energy consumption. It has the potential to boost circularity in the printer cartridge market in many different life cycle stages if OEMs and other stakeholders along the value chain work together to improve data availability and accessibility.