OEMs Work Hard to Market Greener Products
- By Charles Brewer
- Apr 01, 2012
Six or seven years ago, copier and printer manufacturers and many of their customers appeared to be getting serious about the environmental impact of office printing and generating hard copy in general. OEMs actively touted the “greener” aspects of their hardware and document management solutions while businesses reassessed how, what and why they printed in an effort to develop more environmentally sustainable office operations. Many companies began implementing programs to print more efficiently, and some even restricted printing altogether. For example, Hewlett-Packard, a company by no means averse to printing, required its employees to cut down on the amount of hard copy they generated by printing on two sides of a sheet of paper whenever possible.
In 2008, of course, the “greenback” was the only “green” that mattered, and that has continued to be the case. It is hard to get the environmental message to resonate with corporate clients when they are struggling just to stay alive!
Because the economy has still not fully recovered, businesses continue to be stingy when it comes to replacing old hardware, and unit shipments have remained low. Moreover, with unemployment stubbornly high, print volumes are low, which makes the market for consumables soft. But this situation may be changing — at least in the United States. While the economy still faces stiff headwinds and the rising costs of oil and energy may stymie economic growth, OEMs are hoping to sell more hardware and supplies this year. One key way the hardware manufacturers look to drive demand is by promoting their machines as superefficient, which also means they are environmentally friendly.
Don’t get me wrong — “money saving” still trumps “green” when it comes to marketing messages in 2012. It is highly unlikely that any company will spend its hard-earned cash on premium products just because they are “green.” There appears, however, to be a renewed interest in the environmental impact of printing.
InfoTrends, a market research firm that follows the digital imaging space, released data recently suggesting that the market for environmentally friendly products is strengthening. After surveying 150 so-called IT decision-makers, the firm found 65 percent of the respondents “deemed ‘green’ initiatives as ‘somewhat’ or ‘extremely important’ to their organizations.” According to InfoTrends, “the post-recession business customer and consumer are reflecting an increased public interest in environmentally friendly products, services, and companies.” The market research firm predicts that firms marketing digital imaging devices and services will “heavily promote their green credentials” in 2012, and OEMs will redouble their efforts to promote themselves and their products as environmentally friendly. I agree. But I’d say most hardware companies have been promoting themselves as faithful environmental stewards for years.
OEMs know green
Despite the crummy economy, OEMs have continued to invest in technologies that not only improved hardware performance but also buttressed their claims of being environmentally friendly. For example, most have developed new toners that require less energy to manufacture and allow machines to consume less energy when printing. These new toners also emit less hazardous gas, like CO2. In addition to marketing greener hardware and supplies, hardware manufacturers also run a variety of collection programs for their channel partners as well as for individual consumers for disposing of hardware and cartridges at the end of their life cycles.
For years, OEMs have actively sought so-called eco-labels to promote their products as being efficient as well as environmentally friendly. Eco-labels have been around for a long time, and they carry a lot of weight in the marketplace. Perhaps the most well-known labeling scheme in the U.S. is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) gasoline consumption stickers, which began appearing in new car and truck windows during the 1970s. Today, there are hundreds of eco-labels issued by governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations around the world that vary widely and cover everything from the contents of food to power consumption to hazardous emissions.
One of the labels that all OEMs use is the EPA’s Energy Star. Launched in 1992, the goal of this voluntary labeling program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by identifying and promoting energy-efficient products. At first, the labels were exclusively intended for computers and monitors, but in 1995, the EPA expanded the program to include office devices along with heating and cooling equipment. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy teamed up with the EPA to develop standards for a range of product categories that now numbers 60 and includes appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics and more. According to the Energy Star website, the nationwide program was estimated to have saved businesses, organizations and consumers $18 billion in energy and other costs in 2010 alone.
Today, thousands of printers, copiers and MFPs carry the Energy Star label. For example, every Konica Minolta machine released since 1995 has been Energy Star-compliant. Canon U.S.A. says that all of its copiers, printers, scanners and fax machines qualify for the Energy Star label, along with 98 percent of its multifunction devices. Likewise, at the end of last year, HP released a list of nearly 450 Energy Star-rated printers, scanners and MFPs. In 2010, Lexmark reported that 76 percent of its laser printers were Energy Star-certified, along with 59.6 percent of its inkjet printers.
The Energy Star program is one of the digital imaging industry’s most recognized eco-labels, but there are many others around the world. Germany’s Blue Angel, which was established in 1978, is probably the most well-established. Its criteria go beyond energy consumption and mandate low noise levels as well as using materials that are easy to recycle. Fewer machines are able to fulfill the Blue Angel requirements versus those for an Energy Star label. HP released a list on February 21 indicating that just over 50 of its inkjet and laser machines are Blue Angel-certified. Lexmark released a similar list with roughly the same number of machines in 2010. I should point out that only one of the HP machines was an inkjet unit, and none of the machines on the Lexmark list were based on inkjet technology.
Better performance through chemistry
One way that hardware manufacturers have achieved lower power consumption in their machines has been by deploying newly designed toners that are capable of fusing to a substrate at increasingly lower temperatures. Most OEMs (including Brother, Canon, Dell, HP, Lexmark, OKI and others) have developed “low-melt” toners over the past couple of years, and hardware vendors promote them as being both “cost-cutting” and “environmentally friendly.”
Arguably, Xerox’s low-melt toners are the most groundbreaking. The firm’s scientists, along with researchers from its partner Fuji Xerox, discovered a process that allowed polyester resins to be used as the base material for Xerox’s chemically produced toners (CPT), which are manufactured in a water-based medium. Prior to the release of Xerox EA-Eco toner, the company used styrene acrylic resins in its emulsion aggregation (EA) process to produce chemical toners. Styrene-acrylic-based toners tend to require more heat to fuse than polyester-based toners. In the past, several other firms (including Ricoh and Sanyo) had manufactured CPT based on polyester resins, but these toners were rendered in a solvent medium, which generated byproducts that are more difficult to treat and dispose of than those that result from a water-soluble medium.
Xerox says its EA-Eco toner melts at a temperature 45 degrees Fahrenheit lower than its styrene-acrylic-based CPT. The firm claims using its new toner can lower its machines’ total power consumption by 15 to 30 percent, depending on the device. EA-Eco toner, which was formerly called Ultra Low-Melt (ULM) EA Toner, was introduced in higher-end machines and has since worked its way down market to entry-level devices. ULM EA Toner debuted in the Xerox 700 Digital Color Press in 2009. Throughout last year, the ULM EA Toner was released in a number of new office machines, including the WorkCentre 7120 and WorkCentre 7500 families. In February 2011, Xerox deployed its polyester-based, low-melt CPT in the Phaser 6010, one of the firm’s least expensive color printers. It has also been released in various other machines, including Dell’s 1250c, 1350cnw, 1355cn and 1355cnw units as well as the Fuji Xerox DocuPrint CP105, CP205 and CM205.
As noted earlier, Xerox is only one of a number of OEMs promoting its toners as supporting more energy-efficient printing devices. Canon markets a variety of toners that it says offer enhanced fusing properties that save energy and deliver excellent image quality. The list includes Canon’s exact Black (eB), precise Output (pO), pure Quality (pQ) and Quick Fixing (QF) color toners. The toners are deployed in a range of machines. The eB toner, for example, is used in Canon’s black-and-white digital presses, while pQ toner is deployed in light production and office machines, and QF color is employed by office color copiers. It appears that these are all ground toners, and I suspect they are based on polyester resins. Canon also has a CPT offering, which it markets as S toner.
The remanufacturing industry is now well-versed in the benefits of toners made in part from vegetable oils derived from plants such as rapeseed or soy. A lot of oil goes into toner. The stuff makes up the bulk of toner resins and much of the toner’s colorant — especially carbon black. Instead of using toners made wholly from traditional petroleum-based materials, certain remanufacturers have sought to strengthen their environmental message by using biotoners when recharging spent toner cartridges. The goal is to enhance the green aspects of reusing cartridges with a toner that is environmentally friendly.
But biotoners are not the exclusive property of remans. A couple of OEMs are using them too. Ricoh began developing biomass resins for hardware components and skins in 2002. In 2005, Ricoh said it was the first OEM with an MFP made from materials with 50 percent biomass. In 2008, the firm released the imagio MP C2200, which contained 70 percent biomass. In 2006, the company also began investing in creating toners from vegetable oils. In November 2009, Ricoh released its first biotoner, which was dubbed “for E toner,” in the imagio MP 6001GP for the Japanese market. The OEM said its “for E toner” contains 25 percent biomass.
The MP 6001GP is the only Ricoh machine I know of that uses the firm’s “for E Toner.” I find it curious that Ricoh has been mum about its biomass toner for the past couple of years, especially since biotoner garnered so much attention from remanufacturers. Perhaps it did not perform as well as expected. The company has also had a difficult time since the economy went sour, which may explain why more machines with biomass toner have not been released. It is possible that the “for E toner” program has been put on the back burner until Ricoh’s financial situation improves. Only time will tell.
Konica Minolta markets its Simitri Toner with Biomass more broadly than Ricoh has for its “for E toner.” Simitri toner is a CPT that is manufactured using a process similar to that used by Xerox. As far as I know, however, Simitri is based on a styrene acrylic resin, not polyester.
Konica Minolta aggressively promotes its CPT as being especially “green.” Rather than pulverizing toner into small particles from larger toner ingots, CPT particles are formed during a controlled chemical reaction and “grown” from the molecular level into a toner particle. Konica Minolta claims the CPT production process generates 33 percent less CO2 than what is produced using traditional pulverizing processes and that it reduces the generation of gases such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide as well. The firm says almost 99.6 percent of its color toners and 96.5 percent of its black toners are CPT.
As the name suggests, Konica Minolta’s CPT contains biomass, but in a lesser amount than is found in Ricoh’s CPT. The firm says that roughly 9 percent of the raw material used to make Simitri toners contains biomass. The plant-based materials are contained in the wax component of the toner. By using the bio-based wax, Konica Minolta says its toners require no oil during the fusing process. Not only does this reduce the amount of petroleum consumed by the OEM’s hardware, it also improves the image quality of the final output and eliminates glare associated with oil on the finished document.
The OEMs all established recycling programs years ago, and for years they have been collecting aging machines and spent toner cartridges. In fact, some states in the U.S. mandate that equipment be collected at end of life and disposed of in a manner that complies with specific criteria. Recycling programs vary from OEM to OEM. Some companies attempt to recover equipment and recycle hardware components, while others focus more on cartridge collection. Lexmark actually remanufactures certain ink and toner cartridges, but most OEMs simply shred the cartridges they collect and reuse the plastic resins.
In many cases, plastics from empty cartridges end up in products like park benches or synthetic building materials. HP, however, uses the plastics that it recovers from spent ink and toner cartridges in its hardware and cartridges. The firm has established facilities in various regions around the world to collect and process empty cartridges. In the U.S., HP has partnered with Staples to collect spent cartridges, which are then shipped to separate North American facilities — one for ink and another for toner. HP says that more than 389 million ink and toner cartridges have been returned and recycled since it initiated its Planet Partners program in 1991 and estimates that it represents nearly 200 tons of cartridges.
HP’s recycling centers are designed to capture PET (polyethylene terephthalate) resin so it can be reused along with other material to produce new cartridges. PET degrades when it is molded, so recycled PET (RPET) must be processed before it can be reused. The firm has developed new compounding processes so RPET can be molded efficiently. Other techniques are also employed to improve the performance of the captured RPET, like combining it with resins from recycled water bottles and virgin plastic additives. I recently attended an HP event where representatives for the firm said HP has produced more than 2 billion ink and toner cartridges using recycled plastics. The firm says using recycled plastics in its inkjet cartridges lowers the amount of carbon it generates by 22 percent compared to using virgin plastics.
Green = $$$?
With the economy in the dumps, it is hard to say if all the OEMs’ efforts around environmental issues will drive more sales. There are indications that they will be successful if and when the economy turns around. Recycling has certainly worked to drive more sales for the paper industry.
As far back as the late 1990s, the market for various office papers began to flag. But as consumers became more sensitive to the environmental impact of printing in the middle of the last decade, demand for recycled papers started to surge. Many papermakers found that papers made with some percentage of post-consumer wastepaper were among their most popular products. In certain cases, some consumers even demonstrated a willingness to pay a premium for “greener” products. Paper merchants and office supplies vendors expanded their selection of recycled papers to meet the growing demand, and the category grew.
Obviously, the OEMs are hoping they can tap into this same pool of environmentally sensitive consumers. I suspect that they will.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Recharger.