Printer makers rapped over refill restrictions

The European Parliament is to wipe out the practice of embedding 'clever chips' in printer cartridges to prevent their reuse

A law approved this week by the European Parliament is aiming to make it easier for consumers to refill pricey ink cartridges and reduce the amount of "electroscrap" generated by the PC and electronics industries.

Printer makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Epson, Canon and Lexmark could be forced to redesign their printer cartridges by the time the law comes into force in 2006, eliminating the "smart chips" that the EU says prevent cartridges from being reused. The law will also force companies to fund systems for disposing of the products they manufacture. A second directive also restricts certain hazardous substances from being used in electrical and electronic equipment.

The new legislation is aimed to grapple with the mountain of electroscrap which the EU says is increasing as consumers discard obsolete PCs, peripherals, mobile phones and other electronics. It arrives as mobile phone makers said they would back a programme for recycling handsets, which often contain hazardous substances.

But the electroscrap law could have a negative impact on printer makers, which depend heavily on sales of proprietary ink cartridges to subsidise the cost of their printers. These proprietary cartridges make up about 90 percent of the $30bn (£19bn) annual global printer market.

Printer makers are increasingly building chips into their cartridges that prevent them from being refilled, forcing consumers to buy replacements, according to the EU.

An article in the "Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment" dealing with product design is specifically aimed at preventing manufacturers from "getting round recycling rules by designing products with 'clever chips' to ensure that they cannot be recycled", specifically printer cartridges.

HP, the largest printer maker, has claimed that all of its cartridges are reusable. Less than 10 percent of its cartridges include chips, which provide features such as ink-level monitoring. These can be refilled, but the features provided by the chip do not work on the refilled cartridges, according to HP.

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