Print and be damned
Tim Hunt looks at the environmental performance of laser and inkjet printers and the ethics of the companies that make them.
Our ranking table
Samsung, Sony, Kyocera and Brother all score our top mark for environmental reporting; the majority of companies score a half mark, and only two score bottom (OKI and Canon). This is quite promising in an electronics market where we tend to see companies scoring much lower overall. To get our best rating companies must, amongst other things, set clear future targets for impact reduction and have their reports independently audited.
Unfortunately, few do as well in our pollution and toxics column, with all companies scoring at least half here. The reality is that no matter how good the environmental reporting, none of the companies are selling printers without any potentially harmful chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Most, with the exception of Epson, HP, Kyocera and Samsung, don’t have any policy that makes clear commitments to stop using such chemicals.
Only one company, HP, scores top for addressing workers’ rights issues in our supply chain management column. However it, along with most other companies, also has marks for workers’ rights abuses and all companies have marks under human rights. The workers’ rights issues that plague the electronics sector were documented in our buyers’ guides to computers.
A number of brands receive positive marks because some of their models hold either the Nordic Swan ecolabel, the Blue Angel ecolabel or they do well on sust-it’s energy consumption tables.
We have only chosen brands that appear either in Which? magazine or on the sust-it website in order to narrow the field to the most energy-efficient brands and the most reliable.
These machines are capable of printing, copying, faxing and scanning so are especially useful if you work from home or have a small business. According to Xerox, the annual energy consumption of a Xerox multifunction system was 25 per cent less than the combined annual energy consumption of the individual copier, fax and printer it replaces. They also save on raw materials by having all the functions in one box.
However, Which? found that the quality of the output from these machines was not as good as from separate machines although they do save on space and cost less than buying a number of separate machines.(3) All-in-one machines can have inkjet or laser printers and therefore have all the associated consumables – ink, toner, drums. If you don’t need a fax machine in this age of email and the internet, you can buy all-in-ones without fax capability.
Laser v Inkjet
Laser printers use a light source, i.e. a laser, to create an image on a negatively charged photoreceptor. Areas exposed to light lose their electrical charge, and attract (dry) toner to them. The toner is then transferred to paper, and fused to it with heat and pressure.
Inkjet devices transfer (liquid) ink directly to paper through microscopic nozzles. The pressure required to force the ink through the nozzles at high speed is generated either by piezoelectric materials, or thermal expansion.
Laser printers have a high energy ‘overhead’ because their fusers are maintained at around 180oC (which accounts for 60-70% of their power consumption during active mode). However, they print more quickly than inkjets so that energy consumption per page falls considerably with volume. It is generally much lower than inkjets at high volumes, but much higher at low volumes. Laser printers draw more than 7 times the power of an inkjet, and more than 4 times the power of a PC, in active mode, and 2 and 3 times the power respectively when in sleep mode.
Inkjets do not require a permanently heated fuser, and so have a low energy ‘overhead’. However, inkjet printing is a mechanical process, which has a relatively high energy consumption every time a page is printed. Energy per page printed therefore remains relatively constant, whatever the volume.
Inkjets have higher levels of power draw than PCs when in sleep mode, so that power management is even more important for printers than it is for computers.
Laser printers produce much better quality black text documents than inkjets, and they turn out more pages per month at a lower cost per page than inkjets.
Inkjets produce colour and photographic-quality output cheaply.
Durability and parts
Most lasers use cartridge technology based on an organic photoconductive (OPC) drum, coated in light-sensitive material. During the lifetime of the printer, the drum needs to be periodically replaced as its surface wears out and print quality deteriorates.
The toner cartridge is the other big consumable item in a laser printer. Sometimes the toner cartridge and the OPC drum are housed separately, but in the worst case, the drum is located inside the cartridge. This means that when the toner runs out, the whole drum containing the OPC cartridge needs to be replaced, which adds considerably to the running costs of the printer and produces large amounts of waste. So always look for a model where the two are separate.
The situation is even worse with a colour laser - which can actually have up to nine separate consumable items (four colour toners, an OPC belt or drum, a developer unit, a fuser unit, fuser oil and a waste toner bottle).
Ink cartridges need to be changed more frequently than in a laser printer. The most common problem with inkjets is printhead clogging failures. These can be expensive to replace so check your model before you purchase.
Health and Pollution
The laser printing process creates small amounts of ozone and other substances which are potentially harmful in confined spaces.
Inks combine pigments and a solvent. The latter generally contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are a significant air pollutant.
Toner is relatively straightforward to separate from paper, and so printed pages can be recycled relatively easily.
The inks used in inkjets are often difficult to remove from paper, and so may hamper recycling.
Lasers more expensive to buy, cheaper to maintain.
Inkjets cheaper to buy, more expensive to maintain.
On a cost per page basis inkjets can work out about ten times more expensive than laser printers.
Special coated paper required to produce high-quality output is very expensive.
Speed of printing
Lasers quicker, especially for black and white
Inkjets tend to be much slower.
A black and white laser is better if you only want to do black and white text, because they are faster and cheaper to run and output better quality text. Colour laser printers are not very good for photos but can do more basic colour printing more quickly.
Inkjets much better for complex colour printing and printing photos.
Sources: see References 1, 14 and 18 below.
Costs of printing
The general rule is the cheaper the printer the more expensive it is to run. The website Print N Toner UK points out that one Kyocera toner cartridge for the FS-2020D will last two years with a 500 page per month usage, while one HP P1005 toner cartridge will last three months! To work out a printer’s cost over time is easy. All you need to do is add together the purchase cost of the printer + the cost of the replacement ink or toner cartridges + the number of cartridges used. You may also need to factor in drum costs.
Here are two examples of how to work out total cost over time.(9)
Usage: 500 Pages per month (1 Paper Ream) over a 3 year period
Example 1: HP LaserJet P1005
Retails For: £84
Toner cartridge cost: £650 (over 36 months)
Total cost of ownership £734
Example 2: Kyocera FS-2020D
Retails For: £295
Toner cartridge cost: £127.50 (over 36 months)
Total cost of ownership £422.50
The Blue Angel and Nordic Swan ecolabels aim to address the environmental impacts of printers. Many printers now carry the former but fewer carry the more rigorous Nordic Swan label. It is also important to add that each company makes many different models and only a select few will carry such labels.
Both ecolabels share common criteria such as:
- maximum power consumption levels
- modular design to facilitate repairs and recycling
- a proportion of plastic and metal parts must be recyclable and labelled
- no PBB or PBDE halogenated flame retardants or chlorinated paraffins
- no cadmium, lead or mercury
- limits on dust and ozone emissions and noise levels
- benzene, styrene and VOC emissions restricted
- drums must not contain cadmium, lead, mercury or selenium
- no harmful toners or inks
- manufacturer must take back old machine and toner cartridges and drums for reuse or recycling
- machine must be capable of duplexing either automatically or manually
The additional criteria are listed below under each ecolabel.
- no AZO colourants in toners and inks
- must be able to use 100% post-consumer recycled paper
- spare parts must be available for five years
Blue Angel labelled machines:
Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, HP, Kyocera, Lexmark, OKI, Samsung and Xerox all have some Blue Angel labelled models, too many to list here. For a full list of models see
- use of some recycled or reused plastic parts
- spare parts must be available for seven years
- CFCs, HCFCs, 1.1.1 trichloro-ethane and carbon tetrachloride must not be used in production
- phthalate and chlorinated plastic use restricted
Nordic Swan labelled machines include:
Brother – Mono lasers: HL-5300 series and multifunction 8000 series. Colour lasers: HL-4140CN, HL-4150CDN, HL-4570CDW, HL-4570CDWT. Multifunction colour: DCP-9270CDN, MFC-9460DN, MFC-9465CDN, MFC-9970CDW, MFC-9840CDW.
Kyocera Ecosys – Mono lasers: FS-2020D, FS-3920DN, FS-4020DN, FS-6970DN, FS-9530DN. Colour lasers: FS-C5100DN, FS-C5200DN, FS-C5300DN, FS-C5400DN. Multifunction mono: FS-1028MFP, FS-1128MFP, KM-2560, TASKalfa 180, TASKalfa 220, TASKalfa 181, TASKalfa 221, TASKalfa 300i.
Ink and toner
It is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to refill your old ink cartridges or to buy refilled. A re-manufactured printer cartridge can cost as little as 10% of an original cartridge and they are now reliable and easy to find with hundreds of places selling them on line.(10) About 23% of cartridges used in Britain are now re-manufactured and many now come with a guarantee.(12)
As important as the cost savings to the individual are, the environmental benefits are also far from negligible. 24 million homes in the UK have a personal computer and 90% of those homes have printers. The average household uses 2-3 inkjet cartridges a year and many offices use large numbers of laser cartridges. Around 48 million inkjet cartridges are sold in Europe each year; 81% of these are only used once.(13) The remainder usually end up in landfill sites and this is estimated to equate to 10,000 tonnes of material a year in Britain.(13)
The manufacture of a laser cartridge can use between 1 and 2 litres of oil, so remanufacture saves on this. Other materials saved by remanufacturing include aluminium and steel. A printer cartridge can typically be refilled 3-4 times.(11)
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can even refill inkjet cartridges yourself and the site TonerTopUp, for instance, gives you advice on how to do it. However, there are potential health risks. Carbon Black is a controversial carbon pigment which is used almost universally as the pigment for deep black products, from car tyres to paints. Concerns were raised over its safety after a group of Swedish scientists linked it with cancer in the early 1990s, while other studies have linked it with genetic mutation. Evaluations by the Health and Safety Executive in the late 1990s, based on a number of different studies, reveal that the initial fears about its carcinogenic effects were exaggerated and suggest that even in occupational use the material should not be considered toxic. Toner is regarded by America’s OSHA only as a particulate. As such, toner dust can irritate the respiratory tract if inhaled.
As always, it is best to use caution. The current recommendations are to avoid skin contact and use a dust mask to avoid inhalation of toner. Refill toner kits come with a mask and surgical gloves. If any of the material is spilt, it should be cleaned up with a damp cloth and hands should always be washed after completing the procedure.
The road to widespread use of remanufactured cartridges has been a difficult one with manufacturers keen on stifling competition. Scare stories of invalid warranties for using remanufactured cartridges have permeated the internet and popular consciousness despite them being categorically untrue. Manufacturers have also sought to use technology to block their use. Many new cartridges were fitted with chips and other devices to stop remanufactured cartridges from working. The reason that companies have made this difficult is the huge profits they make from selling the cartridges. According to Lyra Research, the worldwide printer cartridge replacement market is worth more than the printer hardware market (around about $72 billion annually). HP makes about $15 billion on printer cartridges while Lexmark makes about $3 billion on printer cartridges, about 70 percent of total company revenue.(17)
The EU attempted to outlaw this practice in 2002 with Article 4 of the WEEE Directive. It aimed to legislate against the use of anti-reuse devices and the environmentally-unfriendly behaviour of original printer and cartridge manufacturers. However, companies tried to circumvent the rules, and in 2007 MEPs voted to alter the legislation (by a massive 579 votes to 9) to try to stop this. Cartridges and toner are still classified as consumables, and therefore not directly covered under the directive.
At the bottom of the table comes Sony which, despite having our best rating for environmental reporting, still only scores 5.5 out of 20. It scores particularly badly in our ‘People’ section where it picks up marks for poor supply chain management, a poor record on human rights (it has subsidiaries in a number of oppressive regimes) and a poor record on workers’ rights. Most recently a Somo report found poor performance in Sony supplier factories in China where, amongst other problems, “Basic wages are legal but insufficient for a decent living in Shenzhen.”4
Kodak also has a poor score for supply chain management. It also scores badly for lobbying through the National Foreign Trade Council and the US Council for International Business.
Samsung are a second company to score well for environmental reporting but score badly in many other categories. Again it fairs badly in the workers’ rights category being, amongst other things, a buyer from the notorious Foxconn. It’s also listed as a supplier to the military and is consistently involved in lobbying.
HP, which scores 7, was recently de-listed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. The de-listing signalled a lack of confidence from ethical investors in the company’s sustainability strategy and performance. It was however one of the few companies to have a best Ethical Consumer score for its supply chain management.
Next in the table are Dell which also scores badly for workers’ rights. Most recently SACOM criticised them for the military-style management still in practice in their Chinese factories, characterised by “military training” for new workers. Wages were also criticised as being below those required to live. The company also scores worst for its supply chain management policy.
Further up the table, OKI has poor policies in place across the board, while also picking up marks for supply of radar equipment to the military.
Epson scores top on environmental reporting but again picks up points for poor supply chain management and a workers’ rights criticism from supplier factories in China.
At the top of the table Brother and Kyocera both score well for environmental reporting but badly for supply chain management.
60 second green guide
- buy second-hand machines. Drivers are usually available from the manufacturer’s website
- send redundant machines to be recycled
- always use recycled paper
- to reduce energy use, only buy laser printers if you intend to do large quantities of black and white printing
- if buying a laser printer, chose one which has a separate drum and toner cartridge so that each part can be replaced separately
- refill ink and toner cartridges and buy remanufactured drum units
- use the draft or economy or toner saver setting on printers to save toner or ink
- use a duplex for double-sided printing
- change ozone filters on copiers, laser printers and fax machines which use toner
1 Energy Efficient Printing and Imaging in Further and Higher Education: A Best Practice Review prepared for the: Joint Information Services Committee (JISC). May 27th 2009. Peter James and Lisa Hopkinson
4 Game console and music player production in China. Somo. February 2011