How Green is My Laser Printer? Notes of Caution for Eco-conscious Buyers

These days, we cannot escape from the major theme in so much business and domestic electrical equipment product advertising – claim after claim of environmentally-caring, carbon-neutral, green-focussed manufacturing philosophies. Advertising agencies are working overtime to ensure we have clear consciences in buying their wares. No doubt these “green” advertising messages are made as a genuine attempt to guide potential customers – but consumers need to arm themselves with clear knowledge of terminology to ensure that advertising messages are clearly understood. This is certainly the case when discussing laser printer consumables, and in particular, so-called “toner cartridges”.

Some manufacturers are happy to advertise their printers as requiring only “toner cartridge” changes in its useful lifetime. This is an interesting claim, and raises the question “what is a Toner Cartridge?”.

Such advertising implies that there is no need, therefore, to replace drums, belts or fusers, for example. But of course, the term “toner cartridge” is used colloquially to describe a “print cartridge” – and thereby the claim for planet-friendliness becomes very opaque indeed.

Why? Because a print cartridge will include up to 3 different replaceable elements. It might be true that the unit to replace includes only toner: but often (and usually in the lower end cost range of laser printers) , there will also be a developer. This developer is a magnetic roller which transfers toner to the Organic Photo Conductor (OPC) drum. In some models, the cartridge can also include the OPC itself.

Thus any statement of the type “… you need only replace the print cartridge and nothing else”, seems to infer that you need not replace the drum, maintenance, fuser, cleaning or transfer kits. It also infers that there is only one print cartridge – but how often is this the case? Certainly in the case of a single pass colour laser printer, there are actually FOUR cartridges (CMYK). Users of some printers will replace four drums every time they replace four cartridges, whether they are aware of it or not. On the other hand, Kyocera is an example of a manufacturer which has only toner in the toner cartridge, with the developer and OPC as separate units. Most manufacturers, and models within each manufacturer range, offer solutions which operate between these two extremes.

It has often been shown that printers with a two-part supplies configuration tend to be less expensive to run than those with an integrated drum. Certainly an arrangement which separates the two is more environmentally friendly because the drum part needs to be changed less often, therefore producing less waste.

In addition to the toner/OPC arrangement, a single-pass colour laser printer (unlike monolaser printers) is very likely also to use a belt of some description. This takes the form either of an Image Transfer Belt (that transfers the image from the OPC drums to the paper) or an electrostatic Paper Transport Belt (that moves the paper in front of the OPC drums). Even though there is no need to replace a fuser unit or apply maintenance or cleaning kits, an electrostatic paper transport belt cannot last indefinitely. Depending on the volume put through the machine, it may need replacing before the user is ready to get rid of the printer. And if this belt is not replaceable, it would classify the printer as a ‘disposable device’, which is perhaps not particularly environmentally responsible.

Thus, when looking at selling points for lower-end laser printers, buyers should be wary of the full significance of replacing “only” the Toner Cartridge. This selling point has a variety of meanings for the eco-conscious, which require close scrutiny to ensure a complete understanding of the true environmental impact of such a replacement.

The comments in this article are by no means a call to avoid attractive, low cost colour laser printers. They are rather a caution to ensure that they are bought with an understanding of their true potential impact on the environment, and the steps to take to minimise this. Such an impact requires a look beyond advertising hyperbole.