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Photos: How HP recycles those pesky printer ink cartridges

A photo tour of how Hewlett-Packard grinds up old ink cartridges and recycles them into brand new products. Spoiler alert: There is a Canadian piece to the puzzle

Where the magic happens

HP's Liffey Park facility near Dublin, Ireland, is where its closed loop inkjet cartridge recycling takes place (LaserJet toner cartridges are dealt with elsewhere). Inkjet cartridges arrive here to be converted.

The purpose

So what is closed loop recycling?

Think of it this way – every one of these nice, new cartridges contains plastic from cartridges gone before. If you return used HP cartridges then they don't end up in landfill, they get recycled. But remember, they have to be genuine HP cartridges because the plastic mix is wrong in other brands.

Either drop them off in collection boxes at Staples or send them straight to HP. It's free for you, as HP covers all costs and will even send you a shipping container. Read more about that here.

The process

This is the complete loop.

Plastic is recovered from returned cartridges and mixed with either shredded plastic water bottles (one million per day in 2013) or shredded plastic clothes hangers (depending on the type of plastic in the cartridge). That resin is manufactured into new cartridges. When those cartridges are used and returned, they will go around the loop again.

Secret sauce

A special additive mix, developed by Montreal plastics experts Lavergne Group, is the key ingredient that turns the shredded plastics from old cartridges into raw material almost indistinguishable from new plastic.

This is crucial, since it means HP can use the same machinery with both new and recycled plastics.

Before and after the washing

Here's what your old inkjet cartridge looks like when it reaches Lavergne.

Giving old products a second life

Plastic from hangers and water bottles is required because not everyone returns used cartridges. It augments the mix so HP has enough recycled raw material for its manufacturing processes.

The bonus: it keeps the hangers and bottles out of landfill.

Ready for Ireland

This is what emerges from Lavergne's plant: Pellets of plastic ready to be turned into inkjet cartridges. These pellets are then shipped to Ireland in 575 kg cartons.

A dash of colour

The recycled plastic only comes in basic black so far, however. Coloured components, such as the shipping cover you remove before putting the cartridge into your printer, still has to be made from new plastic.

Irish shape shifting

Once arrived in Ireland, the pellets are dumped into a hopper at the Liffey Park plant to be dispensed to the extrusion moulding machines. This is the start of their journey to becoming new cartridges.

Rapid shell creation

Pellets are melted and forced through an extrusion mould like this to create 24 shells every 26 seconds.

The coloured-coded holes on the side of the mould allow water to flow through to cool the newly-minted cartridge bodies so they hold their shape.

Extrusion complete

These shells are the result of the extrusion process. They will now be sent to another area of the factory for assembly.

Next up: Foam

Ever wonder why the ink doesn't slosh around in inkjet cartridges?

In the next step, these foam inserts get stuffed into the shells to control it. They're not recyclable, sadly, however HP is working on developing a process for this too.

For now, used inserts get removed from the cartridges you send back and are cleanly incinerated.

Not too much, not too little

To add just the right amount of ink, this machine weighs each shell, adds ink, them weighs it again to ensure each cartridge holds the same volume.

Plenty of colour

Each of these vats will fill thousands of cartridges. The hoses pump the ink to the filling machine.

A tiny chip with a lot of data

After the cartridge has been filled and a protective cap put over the nozzle to prevent leakage, it has its electronics applied. It is then labelled and a chip is installed so the printer can recognize it.

The chip not only indicates it is a genuine HP cartridge, it describes the cartridge's ink colour and capacity and what printer it's meant for.

One more thing...

Next up: the shrink wrap.

The final product

These cartridges are all ready to head off to be boxed and shipped to users, who, HP hopes, will return the empties for another turn round the wheel of cartridge life.

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