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I'm trying to decide what type of printer to buy. I've read a number of posts on the web where people claim that laser printers are more durable than ink-jet printers. Some people say this is because inkjet printers are targeted at consumers who are mostly looking for low prices so inkjet build-quality is kept low (and manufacturers make most of their money selling ink cartridges anyway).

Assuming this is true, I guess a laser printer would result in less electronic waste as you don't have to repair or replace the printer as often. But how do the environmental impact of ink cartridges versus toners compare?

Are there any scientific studies that compared the entire life cycle (production, use and disposal) of both toner and ink cartridges?

  • Both can be refilled and recycled. I think you will get more pages with toner before you have to recycle but that is just my guess. – paparazzo Dec 30 '15 at 9:02
  • Consider also the "ink tank" printers. It might be that the environmental impact of the ink/toner itself is negligible compared to the container they are packaged in. – Tim Apr 11 '19 at 7:53
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    I would be particularly interested in the impact of plastic toner compared to ink when printed pages are recycled/thrown away. – Xander Aug 11 '19 at 16:44
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Unless you're into printing color photos, the laser printer is the way to go. The retail prices of toner cartridges may seem a bit steep, but there are ways to refill them. The toner lasts a long long time (a few thousand printed pages if you know what you're doing) and does not dry up, ever. Laser printers are efficient, very fast, and hardly ever break down (again: if you know what you're doing). They literally last for years. Decades if you're stubborn. You can easily get yourself something very durable for under $300.

Word to the wise: color printing is expensive either way. Stick with black and white. If you want color, do your printing at Staples.

Anything under $2000 that uses ink is a joke. Really. Cartridges dry up very quickly, or stop working after two dozen pages (a phenomenon known as planned obsolescence). They're notoriously slow, prone to jamming and other types of malfunction.

Addendum 1:

Each little ink cartridge is made of plastic. There's plenty of chemical nonsense in the ink itself as well. 150 pages per cartridge is the best you can hope for (beyond realistic) with ink. As opposed to, roughly, 3000 pages, with toner. That's twenty individual cartridges vs one. Environmental winner: laser printing.

Because laser printers work a lot faster (by orders of magnitude), less electricity is wasted, and fewer chemicals discharged into the atmosphere. Environmental winner: laser printing.

Because laser printers work for years whilst ink printers periodically break down and need to be replaced, the carbon footprint of laser printer manufacturing is a lot smaller. Environmental winner: laser printing.

Addendum 2:

In my field of work, I have to use the printer a lot - sometimes. I've tried them all. I'm not trying to insult anyone. Well. Suffice it to say that if your goal is to print ten or twenty pages once a year, a cheap ink printer ($70) will suffice. Buy it. Buy a couple of cartridges (only so-called starter cartridges come with the printer that last two or three pages). That's another $40 or $50, sometimes more, depending on how sophisticated your printer pretends to be. Only use good paper designed for inkjets. Another $15 for a batch of 500 sheets, of which, as I may have mentioned earlier, you will use ten or twenty. You'll get your twenty colorfully printed pages and be done with it for a while. Then, ten or twelve or fourteen months later, when suddenly you get this urge to print another twenty colorful pages, and try to use your printer, you'll find that the cartridges are dry. You'll replace them with new ones and realize that they have to be aligned. You'll spend an hour trying to align them, printing one test page after another. When you're finally satisfied with the results, you'll try to print your pages. You'll realize that the colors and some contours are definitely off. You'll try to align the cartridges again. Eventually you'll drain them. You'll then want to call tech support and get lots of useless info. Eventually you'll give up, buy a new printer ($70) and new cartridges ($50), print your twenty pages, and get some satisfaction out of the process. You'll have to repeat the entire process every year. That's a hell of a lot of materials bought and discarded, year after year. Think of the environmental impact. In the meantime, your laser printer can just sit quietly under your desk, ready to serve you whenever you need it. No alignment of anything, no need to get reacquainted every time you use it. Works like a charm, and only does what you ask of it, never more, never less.

@Johnny says:

One other factor is that sometimes when the ink dries in the printer, it clogs the heads and ink tubes, making the printer unusable. Even if you can purchase new heads, they often cost more than an entire printer. Ironically, if you minimize printing to be more "green", you're at more risk of this happening. I bought a cheap laser printer 6 years ago, and just last year replaced the 250 page starter cartridge that came with it. At this rate, I have another 10 years to go before I run out of toner in the 500 page replacement cartridge.

And now, here's a decent ink printer

And here is what it looks like:

enter image description here

  • Thank you for your answer. You addressed the economical side. Although that is somewhat interesting, my main question is how the environmental impact of toners compares to that of ink cartridges. Do you know anything about that? Also why would anything under $2000 with ink be 'a joke', but not a <$300 laser printer? – THelper Dec 28 '15 at 6:57
  • @THelper: All right, give me a minute to spell it out for you in the body of the answer, then. – Ricky Dec 28 '15 at 7:09
  • Thanks for your update! Based on your answer it seems likely that toners have a lower environmental impact than ink cartridges, but I do think that without investigating the full life cycle (production, use and disposal) of both toners and cartridges it remains difficult to give a final verdict. – THelper Dec 30 '15 at 5:46
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    How about the printers that don't take cartridges such as the Epson Ecotank? – Maxfield Solar Mar 16 '16 at 13:35
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    I think the question is still, what are the effects of toner on the environment? What chemicals are in the toner and is it safe for the environment? I have used laser printers and they usually have some sort of "waste toner container" so there is toner that needs to be disposed of... any anwsers to these questions? – user6522 Apr 10 '19 at 2:14
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+50

The question seems to be asking only about the environmental impact of the cartridges, so I probably shouldn't talk about how a laser printers use 100 times more power while they are printing, but allow me just to say that for the whole life cycle the most significant stage for both types is paper usage, followed by the manufacturing of the product and electricity consumption.

According to energycentral.com the production of a new laser cartridge consumes more than three quarts of oil emitting close to 5kg of greenhouse gases per cartridge, while inkjet cartridges consume about three ounces of oil with a corresponding reduction in GHG during manufacture. This factoid is found all over the web without naming the source, and it bothers me further because it doesn't take into consideration the differences in size and capacity.

Both types of cartridges also require a lot of steel to produce (the plastic is just a coating) but it's important to note that 97% of the materials used in both types of printer cartridges can be recycled, which means you can effectively reduce the waste to only 3% if you return them to the manufacturer or drop them off at Best Buy or Staples to get your coupon towards your next purchase.

You can reduce that further if you refill your own, but many printer manufacturers try to foil your attempts to use refilled or re-manufactured cartridges. In 2017, the Supreme Court told Lexmark it can’t make it impossible for printer cartridge buyers to refill them, but it didn't say they couldn't make it awkward or difficult.

If you plan to buy a new printer, look for a brand that doesn’t goof around like that. When comparing, keep in mind that each time a cartridge is refilled, the impacts of refilling get added to the total footprint, but the increase of the cartridge’s life reduces the overall impact.

Many sources quote each other that GHG emissions by weight for the toner are about 16 to one, which works out to 3.2 kg GHG per 200 grams of toner, but I have not been able to find the original source of these numbers either.

Toner is basically plastic polymer dust, which is considered a hazardous waste in Europe, but only if it is being disposed of or being sent to recycling, not if it's being refilled. Toner in some ways is considered less dangerous to the environment than aqueous inks because many of the chemicals needed in inkjet ink are not required in a laser printer.

Inkjet cartridges are considered a "designated" item by the U.S. EPA. which mandates that any government agency, office or contractor that spends more than $10,000 a year on inkjet cartridges must purchase a model with the highest levels of recycled content. Naturally, this would not apply to you if you are just buying one for your own personal use.

A good study of Life Cycle Assessment of toner cartridges can be found here https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6023/3272d8efc645494fb1a4a15f24f80a8a386a.pdf?_ga=2.260727236.830309716.1565737019-1061069556.1565737019 but it compares toner according to different recycling alternatives, not to inkjets.

A good LSA for inkjet printers which includes the ink can be found here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276385268_Life_cycle_assessment_of_an_inkjet_printer

The best Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) I have found that breaks down all the factors by comparison can be found at https://scholarworks.rit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1093&context=books which should be examined if you want all the hairy details. Although standards for carbon footprinting exist (including WBSCD’s GHG Protocol, ISO14064 and the draft PAS 2050) there is no absolute guidance for deriving boundaries for a study of this type.

Typical Material Safety Data Sheets for inkjet cartridges can be found here http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/community/environment/productinfo/pdf/ij_c6635a_eng_v1.pdf The table entries marked "confidential" would be the ones I would be most concerned about. This may be the reason why a fair comparison of between the two technologies has not yet been presented to the public.

The part of the discussion that never seems to come up is something I've noticed from personal experience. Most people throw out the inkjets when they run out of ink because a new printer with ink costs a lot less. This seldom happens with laser printers. From the point of view of the cartridge, the problem is compounded when the printer runs out of only one color ink, leaving the other three to be wasted. This is a huge black mark against the sustainability of inkjets in practice, but the end result is that you can get all kinds of inkjets for free if you intercept them as post consumer waste, effectively reducing the manufacture impact to zero while simultaneously reducing the load on landfills.

In short, the differences between the impact of the cartridges themselves is minuscule compared to many other factors that would be significant when choosing between the two technologies. From the perspective of sustainability, I would opt for the laser, especially if my source of power is guaranteed to be clean, but when I can't generate enough power, I am often forced to use the inkjet.

The printed paper, from both inkjet and laser printing, after it's been printed and goes to recycling, gets stripped of inks and resin which is removed from the pulp in a form of sludge that doesn't always get used for anything else. It could be used in making composite deck planking and other construction materials, but it doesn't have much commercial value and is often thrown into the landfill. Nevertheless, it sometimes ends up as fertilizer, or is burned to create energy.

After repulping the paper, the pulp gets treated with deinking enzymes (usually a mixture of cellulase and hemicellulase) and mixed with a non-ionic surfactant (basically soap) during flotation which helps the enzymes to soak in and prevents the ink from re-attaching itself to the fibers.

The cellulase itself is a natural enzyme that breaks down cellulose. It's produced by bacteria, fungi and protozoans in the natural environment as well as inside our digestive tract to break down fruits and vegetables. The PH sometimes needs to be adjusted, so if the paper contains a lot of sizing (like clay or ash particles) then a mild acid is used to lower the alkalinity. If it needs to be raised (due to acidic paper) then sodium silicate or sodium hydroxide is used. If the paper needs to be very white, then hydrogen peroxide is use to bleach the inks, which is considered very safe in the environment.

Often, different types of cellulase may be matched with different types of surfactant to get best results or simply to avoid having to alter the PH level. The water itself is easily recycled and gets fed right back into the system. Some operations use DAF (dissolved air flotation) with a small amount lost through evaporation.

Energy also has to be added to the system in the form of heat (45 to 55 C), but you don't want it to get too hot (65C) or the toner particles will fuse again to the pulp fibers. The sludge from deinking is sometimes burned to provide this heat.

In most all office paper recycling operations, the printed ink jet paper and printer toner sheets both go through the same process because those two waste streams are not sorted. They get sorted out as "Office Waste" (OW) but they don't get sorted out from each other. It is possible to sort them and treat them differently, resulting in a simpler process for the paper without toner, but this is only done in very specialized waste streams where the volume is high and the quality of the feedstock is certain.

So, unless paper recycling methods change, the environmental impact of both types of recycled paper is very nearly identical. It's important to note that this process is primarily used only when the brightness of the paper is an important outcome. Very often in unsorted waste streams the final product is cardboard and neither the ink nor the toner needs to be removed. It just gets blended into the final product with (hopefully) no difference at all on the impact to the environment.

What is completely unknown is what actually happens to the thousands of chemicals in paper during and after the recycling process. Until the secret ingredients of printer inks and toners are revealed, there is no way to know. Those ingredients are considered "confidential" in the industry. Until then, no comparison can be made.

In the recycling industry, upcycling is never considered. Paper is believed to be useful only to create same or lower quality products. Since collection and retention of water is the primary concern in the arid desert where I live, all waste paper products get converted to compost. My personal sustainability depends on a huge population of worms who would get very hungry and thirsty if they didn't have ample food and a moist habitat. They can sometimes consume half their weight every day. Paper is one of their favorite foods, and it holds moisture well. When planting trees I dig enormous holes and fill the bottom with layers of paper, branches, rotted manure, native soil, and finished compost. Initially, this does little more than provide a bank for water, but it also assures the future survival of the tree by providing a nourishing roots zone and a place for worms to survive if the surface gets too hot, too dry, or too cold. I view this as "upcycling" because the end result (fresh, fermented, dried, and canned fruit) is much more valuable to me than any kind of paper. I'm not sure why, but my nut trees seem to get a special boost from paper, especially when it's shredded and mixed into the top 18 inches of mulch.

  • Very informative, thank you! You mention quarts and ounces in your answer, I assume that's US units and not Imperial? – THelper Aug 14 '19 at 11:41
  • @THelper cell - For all I know it could be both, but I also assume it is US units because that's normally the system used for oil. It's possible that the figure applies only to black cartridges with black toner or ink, but that factoid should be disregarded for multiple reasons, at least until I find a trustworthy source for it. – Scott Tramposch Aug 14 '19 at 16:38
  • Thanks for a very detailed answer, do you have any sources for the paragraphs on paper recycling? – Xander Aug 17 '19 at 7:02
  • The most helpful source for that portion of the answer was Lignocellulose Biotechnology: Future Prospects Rames Kuhad, Ajay Singh, published by I.K. International Publishing House 2007 but wikipedia sections on toner, paper recycling, and deinking were very helpful in updating that information. – Scott Tramposch Aug 17 '19 at 14:47
  • Perhaps I should have added that I NEVER send paper to the recycle center. I compost it. I've seen whole collection trucks being dumped at the landfill due to contamination cause by people throwing trash into their recycle bins. I should probably edit the answer to include the techniques I use. – Scott Tramposch Aug 17 '19 at 15:06
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Inkjets are the Hummer of printers

If you care about the environment, give that inkjet printer to the next person you can find for whom your gift/sale will prevent them from buying a new inkjet.

Inkjet printers are planet-hateful products. They are built to be cheap, frequently replaced, throwaway items. Further, a huge amount of engineering goes into making it use supplies as inefficiently as possible to maximize the amount of shopping, buying, packaging, shipping, and throwing away that can be done. This is the dark side of capitalism -- manufacturers get paid only when a physical package is sold at retail.

I do not exaggerate when I say they are engineered to die young. Because when you must throw your inkjet in the trash, you must also toss a set of cartridges that are on average 50% full, along with any spares you bought. They make a fair effort to assure your next inkjet won't use your last one's cartridges.

And you probably know the "starter" ink cartridges that come with inkjet printers are only partially filled.

Bulky inkjet+scanner+copier combos

Another wretchedly wasteful product is the inkjet+scanner+copier. It has all the problems of a cheap inkjet, with a cheap, inferior scanner also bolted on. When either one breaks, the entire very bulky carcass goes in the trash.

Whereas I find individual standalone scanners (such as the petite CanoScans) to be very reliable, having gotten 15 years of service out of my first (I wore out the mechanism with over 5000 scans). The Canoscan doesn't even have a power brick; it makes do with the energy budget of a standard USB port. It does have a "copy" button on the front panel, which will signal its software to auto-scan and print the result on your default printer.

Laser printers are excellent, but beware consumer models...

Laser printers last a lot longer. And their toner cartridges genuinely are reused/remanufactured/refilled; that's not a gimmick. They also don't "dry out"; I've stepped away from a laser for 2 years and it starts right back up.

There are consumer-tier laser printers on the market, typically in the $100-200 range, with pricey toner cartridges. While they are head and shoulders above inkjets, they still suffer from the same crass manipulation to assure maximum sales of packaged items. My consumer-tier HP Laserjet is a neat little machine that's lasted 7 years with no sign of trouble; however when it does break, a parts stream is almost nonexistent. *But, this model differs from the previous model in one key way: it uses a different model of toner cartridge whose toner compartment was made half the size. I don't mean the "starter" toner cart, I mean all of them. I was appalled when I found that out. The toner cartridge isn't half the price, of course; the whole point was to get full-boat for the cartridge twice as often. And it works.

For best performance, enterprise printers.

Different deal when you step up into enterprise printers - the kind found in universities, midsize businesses, hospitals, etc. These corporations, or their consulting companies, research the total life-cycle cost of ownership of their stuff. The printer manufacturers know the "cheap razor, expensive blades" game won't work on these enterprises.

So they really make the printers as good as they can be, they don't subsidize the printers, and they price the cartridges sensibly - they're still expensive, but they hold a serious amount of toner. Also, the large printers are built to be maintained -- normal wearing parts like rollers, separation pads, coronas, fusers, etc. are readily available and easy to swap, even on 10-year-old printers. Often it can be done without any tools at all!

Enterprises also have zero tolerance for onboard security electronics that printer makers put on their cartridges to prevent third party refills. Those are not seen on enterprise printers.

These beasts are now my mainstay.

You may not be keen on spending $450 on an new enterprise laser. However, I make a point to peruse my local university surplus stores. I typically score perfectly serviceable used lasers for $25 or $50. And the very fact that the university owns hundreds of them speaks for their satisfaction with the model.

This also means a new printer is not manufactured.

I buy 1 toner cartridge every couple of years, mainly because the toner clumps and doesn't transfer well anymore. And it's a refilled toner off Amazon, and I take my oldie in to Office Depot to be recycled. (Who resells it to the refilling industry).

You might think "oh, that surplus printer is obsolete" - maybe, I did buy some of them 6 years ago, but then I keep running into that very same model in use in hospitals, government offices and businesses today.

-1
  1. Toner is madeup of plastic powder(dry carbon powder+polymer) compare to ink, so inkjet is environmentally safe.
  2. also ink printed has more lifetime then toner so need not to be reprint. but compare to printing capacity ink has been only 500 pages when toner gives 2000pages.
  3. toner is polluted air when it was put in open
  • Thank you for trying to answer, but I feel your answer is too short to be helpful. How do you know ink is environmentally safe? Doesn't that contain harmful chemicals? How do ink and toner impact the environment per printed page? And what do you mean with point 3; toner is polluted air? – THelper Aug 14 '19 at 11:47

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