Saturday, August 18, 2018

The unsustainable world of computer printers - and what you can do

My multi-function computer printer started failing a few months ago.  The color LCD screen on the front went first - showing inverted colors, then finally the interface failed.  I tried switching from USB to wireless, and that worked for a day.  Tried a network setup and that didn't connect, all of which wasted a half hour of my time or more.  I had bought it in December 2013 so it is almost 5 years old and it cost me over $200 back then.  The thing is that there is no good reason for it to fail so soon.  I design electronic products for a living and a machine like this should last over 15 years or much more ideally.  But it is deliberate planned obsolescence by the manufacturers.  Over the last 30 years I have personally owned more than 8 printers as they evolved from "dot-matrix" to laser and inkjet technologies.  And from black to color and then photo quality.

I bought a replacement that is basically the same as the old one - but of course I can't use the same ink cartridges!  And of course it was packed in (non-recyclable) styrofoam, just like the last one.  The printer manufacturers want to keep making money on new designs and ink cartridges.  The folks at Staples wanted to sell me a 4 year "protection policy".  That just made me angry!  These things ALWAYS fail right after the policy expires.  In fact the staff person freely admitted that printers typically only last 3 years.  So I should count myself lucky that my last printer lasted 5 years?  When I took the new printer in it's box to the checkout counter, the gal there said "Oh, let me get some ink cartridges for that."  Apparently they only provide "starter" cartridges that just last long enough to align the print heads!  That's like selling a new car with only spare "donut" tires on it!  So that doubled the cost of the printer that I thought was reasonably priced as marked down old model.

I think about the millions of printers that the world has to replace every year and it boggles my mind!  Plastic comes from oil, so this is driving our global demand for oil - even if the plastic can be recycled.  

I tested the (Energy Star rated) printer with my Kill-A-Watt meter and found that it drops to less than 1 Watt in sleep mode and peaks at 6 Watts when printing.  If I were to leave it on like most people do, I would only be using up to .7 KWh/month.  While this may only cost about 7 to 10 cents each month, there is the environmental impact of the electricity source to consider.  Of course I'm on solar power, so this is moot for me.  But I have all my computer equipment plugged in to a switched outlet box with separate switches for each device.  This way I can kill all the phantom loads like the monitor and USB peripherals.  With this model printer, if I turn it off using the button on the printer, it does not seem to draw measurable phantom power unlike older models.  My last laser printer drew over 30 watts in "sleep" mode!  Most big office printers are sitting there all night drawing phantom power when they are not being used and that really adds up.

So what can we as responsible consumers do?  Well first, don't trash that printer!  Remove the old print cartridges and sell them on eBay (yes people buy used cartridges to re-fill) - or turn them in to the office supply store to be recycled.  And if you have spare unused ones, sell or return them too.  Most office supply stores will also recycle the old printer too.  Here is what Staples says about their electronics recycling program:

"Materials Staples collects from customers are kept in an employee-only area of the store for a short time until sufficient material has been collected to backhaul to our Staples® warehouse locations. The Staples warehouses consolidate the electronics into full truckloads and ship the material to the facilities of our national recycling partner, ERI Direct. There, the material is triaged based on potential for re-manufacturing or parts harvesting. Items that can be refurbished or that may have parts that can be reused are separated and processed separately."

Staples is an e-Stewards Enterprise, which means that we have committed to using certified e-Stewards recyclers whenever possible to handle the materials we collect. ERI Direct, a certified e-Stewards Recycler, is our primary recycling partner for electronics and therefore must be audited against stringent standards and disclose their downstream processing partners to ensure that they are using responsible e-waste recycling practices and not exporting or otherwise improperly handling electronic materials."

This is commendable and the ERI web site includes a good video that clearly shows how responsible they are about recycling.  But it would be a better world if printer manufacturers took responsibility to make better, longer lasting equipment.  They could also design around a standard ink cartridge that works across most models.

As I was writing this my new printer's screen lit up and showed:
Followed by the printer turning off, then on to install an update.

Ok, so that's impressive - it can update it's own software!  And this model can also order it's own ink cartridges when they run low.  They have got us right where they want us!  But this is all driven by corporate greed and not the common good.  This is just not sustainable in the long term.  We have one planet worth of resources and industry keeps using it up as if it was infinite.