Don't let profit-making weaken e-waste efforts

I was at a local IT retail store last weekend, looking to buy a set of new ink cartridges for a multifunction printer (MFP) at home. The printer was given free with a purchase I made about two to three years ago, during a promotion at a mall.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

I was at a local IT retail store last weekend, looking to buy a set of new ink cartridges for a multifunction printer (MFP) at home. The printer was given free with a purchase I made about two to three years ago, during a promotion at a mall.

It's a pretty old printer by today's standards so I was quite prepared to fork out more for its ink cartridges than I would have for newer models, since consumerables for older systems are typically costlier.

But, I was still stunned to find out a new pair of ink cartridges would set me back almost S$90. I asked the store assistant if I could replace just the color ink cartridge, and leave the photo ink cartridge empty since I didn't need the MFP to print photos. He replied that doing so may stall my printer, because most models won't continue to function until all empty ink cartridges have been replaced, even if that specific cartridge isn't needed.

I asked the store assistant for the price range for a low-end MFP, and he quoted a new model by an established vendor brand that was priced at just S$109. So, instead of buying the ink cartridges, I needed to fork out just S$20 more and I would have a new printer.

What's more, ink cartridges for the $109 printer cost about S$45, half the cost of that for my old printer. The store assistant did say, however, that newer cartridges now usually carry smaller capacities to address customer complaints about their printer ink drying out after several months, even when left unused. This meant that cartridges may now be cheaper, but will print fewer pages before they need to be replaced.

But, all this also meant that the investment needed to maintain my MFP can be spread out. So, it was an easy decision to make...I bought the $109 printer.

Unfortunately, making that decision meant I had just contributed needlessly to the growing level of e-waste. My old printer was still functioning well and didn't need to be replaced. In addition, if the new ink cartridges indeed carry a small capacity, I'll need to replace them more often--hence, creating more empty cartridges that may, or may not be recycled.

But, I had to make the logical consumer decision to switch because the manufacturer simply made it too costly for me upkeep the machine.

In a report released in May, Pike Research said it expects the e-waste crisis to worsen over the next several years, before turning the corner in 2016. The volume of e-waste, it said, will hit 73 million metric tons in 2015, before various efforts to curb wastage make impact.

According to Pike's managing director Clint Wheelock, government regulation, electronics industry initiatives and consumer awareness are critical components in the fight against e-waste. However, he noted that consumer behavior remains a significant challenge. "It's too easy and relatively inexpensive to simply throw electronics away, though we are seeing improvements in popular awareness."

In my case, it was actually more inexpensive in the longer term for me to simply "throw [the] electronics away".

I think it's great that IT vendors have started to adopt various green IT efforts, such as providing hotlines and drop-off centers for consumers to recycle their old or unwanted equipment. It's great, too, that some are extending such efforts to product design and packaging, so that they're able build systems that leave smaller carbon footprints and consume less energy.

But, for green efforts to reach a wider community, IT vendors need to target what matters most to the consumers--price.

I understand the business decision for manufacturers to focus on consumerables to help ensure a steady revenue stream. However, there are ways to do that without adding to the level of e-waste.

For instance, they could build ink cartridges to fit and be usable in as many printer models as possible. Right now, there are just too many different types of ink cartridges being offered by just one single printer brand.

In addition, manufacturers could design new printer models that support existing or older categories of ink cartridges, especially if their ink technology remains the same. These will not only provide better economies of scale, the printer manufacturer also won't need to spend extra resources producing different types of ink cartridges.

Ultimately, these will produce cost savings for manufacturers and that should in turn, translate to cheaper ink cartridges for consumers.

Printers should also be built to provide flexibility, rather than restrict consumer choice. Some manufacturers today tout systems that operate on individual ink cartridges by color, in a move aimed at easing the cost of having to replace entire ink cartridges. That's a great plus point for consumers, but it's one that's diminished when consumers are forced to go out and buy a replacement cartridge--even if it's for just one color--before the printer will continue to function.

IT manufacturers need to recommit to lengthening the lifespan of their products, and that entails not just building durable systems, but also making it economically viable for their customers to maintain the systems.

It's not enough to look at product design and packaging, or to simply offer green IT technologies and tools. Tech vendors need to also ensure their attempts to maximize profits aren't exacerbating the e-waste problem.

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