Canadian innovation powers HP closed-loop recycling

If you use an HP Inc. printer, chances are you’ve seen at least part of the device’s current ink or toner cartridges before. Thanks in large part to an 18-year-old partnership with Montreal-based Lavergne Group, new HP cartridges are made from plastic salvaged from their ancestors.

The process is called closed-loop recycling, and it took a lot of research and expertise to make it work. Plastic, it turns out, is not a single product – there are many kinds, each with different properties, and they can’t be mixed. That’s why, if you look at the bottom of any plastic bottle or other object, you’ll see a triangle with a number in it; that number tells you what type of plastic you’re dealing with.

HP and Lavergne first concentrated on PET plastic, the type used in consumer inkjet cartridges, and has since perfected the process for the polypropylene plastic from business inkjet reservoirs as well. Their sights are now set on recycling other varieties.

Although HP makes used cartridge return easy through its Planet Partners program (customers can drop them off at retail outlets such as Staples or send them back in free mailers ordered from the Planet Partners site), not all that are sold come back. That means their plastic needs to be augmented from other sources.

In the case of PET, the material of choice is plastic water bottles – one million per day. Many come from Haiti, where a program begun by First Mile Coalition after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country, employs Haitians to collect and process the mountains of used water bottles littering the landscape. HP is currently investing $2 million in a wash line at the Haitian recycling facility to improve the quality of the plastic it exports.

Extra polypropylene comes from, of all places, the clothing hangers discarded by retail outlets after garments are sold.

The old inkjet cartridges begin their journey in Nashville, TN, where they’re disassembled, foreign material is removed and sent for disposal or recycling (some bizarre things arrive in the return mailers, including other vendors’ cartridges, which are not usable, bit of junk, and the occasional old cell phone), and the plastic is shredded. Then it’s off to Montreal, where Lavergne’s expertise addresses yet another problem: manufacturing equipment designed for virgin plastic can’t be used with plain old recycled plastic. It took almost five years of research for Lavergne to develop its special sauce that turns recycled plastic into something close enough to virgin plastic that it can be run through those machines.

And, said Dean Miller, worldwide recycling innovation program manager for HP, during a media tour of Lavergne’s 160,000 square foot plant, “The real magic happens here at this facility.”

First, the plastic shreds are separated by colour. Black, white, and anything else end up in bins for use in various products (mixed colours become grey plastic). The separation process also gets rid of foreign material such as bits of wood, paper, rubber or wire that is mixed in.

HP is currently investing $2 million in a wash line at the Haitian recycling facility to improve the quality of the plastic it exports. Photo courtesy HP.

Once the plastic shreds are clean, they’re combined with post-consumer plastic and Lavergne’s special additives in a giant mixer that tumbles the 20-ton batch for six hours to properly mix the components. And that’s a small batch – Lavergne has recently invested in additional facilities that include 16 mixing silos that hold five or six times that amount and do the job in two hours.

Next stop is the extruder that heats the mixture to 575 degrees Fahrenheit and forces it through nozzles to create what CEO Jean-Luc Lavergne calls “plastic spaghetti”. The strands are cooled and then crushed into pellets which then go through a de-metalizer to remove any remaining non-plastic residue.

Finally, each batch is tested to ensure the plastic meets specifications before heading off to HP’s factory become new cartridges.

It’s an intensive process, but well worth it according to Shelley Zimmer, environmental leadership program manager at HP. Recycled plastic has a 30 per cent smaller carbon footprint than virgin plastic, reducing water used in processing by 39 per cent and fossil fuel by 60 percent. HP has so far produced 4.2 billion ink and toner cartridges with recycled content from 830 million cartridges, 101 million hangers, and 4.3 billion water bottles. In 2018 alone, it used 21,250 tonnes of recycled plastic in its products.

CEO Lavergne believes that there’s enough recyclable plastic on earth already to allow us to go for hundreds of years without manufacturing any from scratch. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is, investing $11 million last year in equipment to allow the company to recycle plastic from electronics like televisions.

“Recycling is harder at first,” he noted. “But in the end we have no choice.”

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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