Photocopier sales in the US are worth well over $24 billion annually. Schools, offices, and churches alike see these machines as necessities, yet the environmental downsides of their use and disposal are many. From energy and paper inefficiencies to chemical contaminants and solid waste, copiers come with plenty of eco-problems.
There are over 25 million small businesses in the US today, a group that consumes 48 percent of all commercial and industrial electricity. At least one-third of that energy is wasted because of inefficient equipment and energy management. Energy-wasting copy machines can use up to 60 percent more energy than new, more efficient photocopiers.
The average office worker contributes about 1.5 pounds of paper waste to the solid waste stream every day, adding to about 350 pounds per year, or 2.5 tons annually, in a 15-person office. Copiers equipped with duplexing trays and corresponding double-sided copying policies can reduce paper use by 50 percent.
Eco-friendly copiers are also made to handle recycled-content paper. Although older machines were known to jam with recycled-paper, newer models can process it without trouble. Recycled-content paper uses 44 percent less energy and produces 48 percent less solid waste, and it reduces emissions of particulates by 41 percent, oxides by 23 percent, and greenhouse gases by 37 percent compared to virgin paper.
More than 300 million cartridges from copiers and printers end up in the trash worldwide every year, close to 100 million in the US alone. This adds up to more than 1.7 million tons of waste annually, with components that take 450 years to decompose.
The toner remanufacturing industry is comprised of 5,000 companies in the US, employing 35,000 people. By reconditioning and refilling old cartridges, each remanufacturer saves the equivalent of 264 gallons of oil and 845 pounds of solid waste each month.
Fewer than 10 percent of all electronics, including copiers, are recycled in the US every year, resulting in a 50 million ton pile of trashed electronics annually. Electronic waste is the fastest growing portion of the US waste stream, rising at rates of about 8 percent yearly.
Leasing, take-back, and trade-in programs for electronics such as copiers leave the responsibility for quality manufacture, consistent maintenance, and safe disposal of waste materials associated with these machines with manufacturing companies. Many manufacturers are now designing their equipment for easy disassembly so that the parts can be reused, reconditioned, or recycled.
Taking a leadership role on this issue, NASA has introduced a cost-per-copy leasing program for all of its copiers, which is estimated to save them $4.5 million over the five years of the program.
Related health issues
Though less circuitry-intensive than a PC, copiers do contain many components with potential health hazards. Some of the substances found in copiers pose threats during manufacture and recycling stages, while others are harmful to humans during the equipment’s operation.
Operational health hazards
Both dry-process copy machines (the most common today) and laser printers emit ground level ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and respirable suspended particulates during operation. Wet-process copiers (such as ink jet machines) and bubble jet printers are less common, but give off larger quantities of the same emissions than their dry-process counterparts. Digital duplicators (for high-volume printing, without the use of toner), on the other hand, are known primarily for VOC emissions.
Ground level ozone, often called “bad ozone,” is formed when VOCs and nitrogen oxides react chemically in the presence of sunlight. The imaging systems of some copiers use electrically charged corona wires which are one source of ozone. Ozone can cause respiratory irritations, reduce lung function, aggravate asthma and lung disease, and may cause permanent lung damage. Some innovations in system design have been developed to mitigate these emissions (charged rollers, ozone absorption, catalyst devices) and federal regulations have maximum exposure rates for employees.
Particulate matter may come from paper debris, inks, and toners and can cause health problems if not handled properly. Carbon black in particular should be handled only by employees with proper protective equipment. Of particular concern are particulates from office machinery that are less than 0.1 µm in size. Since they are undetectable with traditional sampling equipment, their presence may not be realized in time to avoid related health problems.
Though many offices, schools, and churches meet minimum air quality standards for particulates and VOCs, the combination of multiple emission types at varying densities in these buildings can result in building-related illnesses. This includes symptoms such as eye, nose, or throat irritation, headache, and dizziness. Such symptoms can be reduced by using low-emission copiers, ozone filters, proper ventilation, regular machine maintenance, and exposure to fresh, outdoor air.
Production and disposal toxics
Additional chemicals posing potential health threats to humans include arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, selenium, and polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) found in components such as photoreceptors and photoconductors, plastic parts, and circuitry. People who work with electronics, either in the production process or in recycling, are at the greatest risk for toxic exposure to heavy metals.
PBDE, a type of brominated flame retardant (BFR), has been found in homes and offices alike. It has been found in high levels in the breast milk of women in Sweden and the US, with women in North America having the highest concentrations in the world. Deca-BDE, a bioaccumulative substance and the most commonly used on electronics, builds up in human bodies in the same fashion as do heavy metals such as mercury.
Though some forms of PBDEs were taken off the North American market as of 2004, deca-BDE remains widely used, mostly on the outer casings of computers. Due to their health risks, many governments worldwide have classified BFRs as hazardous chemicals and have already begun to phase them out of use. The European Union banned the use of all PBDEs, including deca-BDE, in electronics. Many companies, such as Apple, Toshiba, and NEC, have created products without these substances.
- µm: A micrometer is one millionth of a meter or one thousandth of a millimeter. Also called a micron.
- arsenic: A naturally occurring element used in wood preservatives (inorganic) and pesticides and animal feed (organic). Both inorganic and organic arsenic are harmful to humans and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased red and white blood cell production, heart abnormalities, blood vessel damage, increased rates of cancer, and more.
- brominated flame retardants (BFRs): Used on printed circuit boards and components like plastic covers and cables. Once released into the environment through leaching and incineration, BFRs travel through the food chain and can increase cancer risk.
- cadmium: Found in chip resistors, infrared detectors, and semiconductors. Toxic and bio-accumulative, this chemical can affect your kidneys.
- ground-level ozone: The main component of smog, ground-level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react chemically with nitrogen oxides (NOx) when it is sunny and hot outside. Many urban areas have high levels of this summertime pollutant but rural areas can have increased ozone levels too, as wind can carry ground-level ozone hundreds of miles from where it originates. Breathing ozone can cause a number of respiratory health problems plus it damages ecosystems and vegetation including crops.
- lead: Used in the soldering of circuit boards, lead can cause damage to your nervous system, your kidneys, and your blood system. It is estimated that consumer electronics are responsible for 40 percent of the lead in landfills. From there, it can seep into our drinking water and then accumulate in the environment, affecting plants, animals, and humans.
- mercury: Found in batteries and circuit boards, mercury can seep into waterways. This chemical travels through the food chain and can cause brain damage.
- particulate matter (PM): A mixture of dry solid fragments, solid cores with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid of varying shape, size, and chemical composition. PM of concern is 10 µm or smaller, less than one-sixth the size of a human hair (or 60 µm). Airborne particulate matter sources include burning fuels (gasoline, oil, diesel, wood) as well as fine powders such as carbon black toner. PM may cause health problems, particularly for the elderly, people with heart and lung disease, and children and infants.
- polybrominated biphenyls (PBB): A flame retardant added to plastics, foams, etc. Exposure to PBBs can result in nausea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, joint pain, fatigue, skin irritations, nervous and immune system problems, and liver, kidney, and thyroid damage.
- polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE): A fire-retardant linked to brain and reproductive system disorders.
- selenium: Used in electronics, as a pigment in plastics, paints, enamels, and rubber, as well as in dietary supplements and some cosmetic products. This substance can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, nail brittleness, and neurological difficiences.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen, and can create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.
- California Integrated Waste Management Board - Fact Sheets and Case Studies Industry-specific fact sheets with tips to reducing waste and saving money. Check out this website for ideas on saving paper in hospitals, hotels, landscaping companies, legal offices, meetings and conferences, offices, printing companies, property management, restaurants, and retail outlets.
- AIRNow - United States Air Quality Maps
- Global Technology Forum - US: HP expanding into copier business
- Center for Small Business and the Environment - Profitable Options For Greening: Energy Efficiency
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Greening Your Purchase of Copiers: A Guide for Federal Purchasers: Why Green Your Copier?
- GreenBiz.com - Taking the Wrinkles out of Paper Recycling: In One Bin, Out the Other
- The Federal Network for Sustainability - Greening Federal Copier Paper: How much can we reduce the use of copier paper?
- Sierra Club - Environmentally Friendly Paper
- GreenBiz.com - News: Pollution Prevention: How Small-Office IT Can Make a Big Impact
- ClickPress Global News Distribution - Toner Cartridge Remanufacturing Saves the Environment
- Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition - Toxic Outsourcing
- The Computer Take Back Campaign - The problem of outdated, unwanted electronics is huge—and growing still.
- Department of General Services, California - Office Machines - Copiers: Take Back Agreements
- GreenGuardian.com - The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide: Copiers
- US Environmental Protection Agency - NASA's Environmental Approach to Copiers: Lessons Learned
- Green Seals’ Choose Green Report - Copiers: Waste and Disposal
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Office Equipment: Design, Indoor Air Emissions, and Pollution Prevention Opportunities - Page 3
- AIRNow - Ozone and Your Health: How can ground-level ozone affect your health?
- Department of General Services, California - Office Machines - Copiers: Indoor Air Quality
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Ozone Generators that are Sold as Air Cleaners: Ozone Heath Effects and Standards
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health - NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards: Carbon black
- Aerias Air Quality Sciences - Copying Machines and Their Harmful Emissions: Dry process photocopy machines
- International Indoor Air Quality Commission - IAQ News: Copy Machines
- Aerias Air Quality Sciences - Copying Machines and Their Harmful Emissions: Minimizing Health Effects From Copiers
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Computers
- Computer Take Back Campaign - Brominated Flame Retardants in Dust on Computers: The Case for Safer Chemicals and Better Computer Design
- The Green Guide Product Report on Computers
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Computers
- Consumer Reports Greener Choices - Products for a Better Planet: Arsenic (choose Arsenic from the “Search by” drop-down box)
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Air Quality Guide for Ozone
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Ground-level Ozone
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Ground-level Ozone Basic Information
- California Environmental Protection Agency - Air Resources Board: Ambient Air Quality Standards (AAQS) for Particulate Matter
- Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry - ToxFAQs: Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs)
- WorldWatch Institute - Furniture: Comfort Without Consequence
- Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry - ToxFAQs: Selenium
- Montana State University Extension Service - Healthy Indoor Air for America’s Homes
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Volatile Organic Compounds - VOCs