Environmental Impact of Printer Cartridges

I actually felt a pang when I learned that more than 12 cups of oil are used to produce a laser printer cartridge, and that it takes 450 years most parts of the cartridge to decompose, some even longer.

But did you know that you can circumvent this situation?  While it may be difficult to recycle batteries or used electronics, you have the opportunity to reduce, reuse, and recycle printer cartridges at your fingertips.  Oftentimes there’s a cartridge refilling store just down the road.

Before outlining a suggested, greener course of action, let’s distinguish between the different types of printer cartridges.

An inkjet cartridge is the small and hard plastic cube that contains ink and used in many home office printers – light use.

A laser jet cartridge is the same thing but it is used in a laser printer, which is high-speed and uses a computer program to print higher quality characters.  These cartridges and printers are typically pricier and used in homes with more printing demand or small offices.

A toner cartridge is the longer and hard plastic rectangle that is inserted into larger laser jet printers and used for frequent printing.

Suggested Ways To Minimize Environmental Impact of Printer Cartridges

When Printing…

Don’t  – If you do not need to print, don’t.  Other than a feel good message, there’s some real meaning behind those email salutations of  “Please consider the environment before printing this email”.  Scribble down directions or pieces of information on a scrap piece of paper instead of printing it out.

Cut and Paste – Again don’t print.  Simply cut and paste information from the screen onto your calendar or note pad that can be transferred to you smartphone or instantly accessible via the cloud.

Minimize Print Space – Boarding passes, directions, and other everyday printed documents are oftentimes cluttered with advertisements, useless information, and legalize.  Look at the print job on screen before you hit the print button and either limit the pages to what you absolutely need or reduce the font to squeeze it only one page.

Double Side – More and more everyday consumer printers have this paper-saving feature.

Reuse by Refilling Cartridges

You should be able to reuse an inkjet, laserjet, or toner cartridge.  The key word here is actually refill.   The are a number of companies in the in the cartridge refilling business.  123Refills offers cartridge refill services in stores and do-it-yourself refill kits and supplies (online).  Their in-store services will clean, refill, and test the cartridge before returning it to you.  They even have a sweet tag line, which is “Rethink How You Ink!”  As of the writing of this article, 123Refills claims to have refilled 8.2 million cartridges and conserved 23 million quarts of oil.

Cartridge World  is also in the cartridge refill business and according to Cartridge World 70% of the world’s  350 million discards cartridges end up in landfills.  The average laser printer cartridge can be remanufactured 3-4 times and every recycled ink cartridge saves about two ounces of oil and it takes a gallon of oil to make a new one.


There’s no good excuse for not recycling.  There are just too many convenient drop off points not wrap it in a newspaper plastic bag and include it into your consolidated errands.

The maker of my printer, Hewlett Packard, will send you pre-paid shipping materials so you can transport your old cartridges back to the company for reuse and recycling.  Other times these materials are included in the cartridge package so you do not need to request anything – just package and ship (for free) your used cartridges back.  Check out your printer company’s recycling policies.  Every major and small office products stores have a cartridge drop off bin.

Some wonder if ship cartridges long distances to recycling is a net green activity – given that it takes a gallon of oil to make these conveniences, I’m guessing that it is a net positive.  But we’ll keep digging.  So for right now its open to discussion and comments.

Here’s a short video reiterating some of these points


About the author

Kenny Frankel

As graduate of the University of Maryland, Kenny has a major in Environmental Politics and Policy, so he's undoubtedly a guy well versed in environmental issues. Now, post college he is a practitioner of sustainable living and employed by solar installation company. We all will have a deeper green perspective after reading his articles because he brings a big picture insight to our everyday purchase decisions and even recycling.  As an early staff writer for Green Blizzard, Kenny covers environmental policy, big-agricultures impact on the environment, solar energy, recycling, and products made from recycled materials.