Considered a necessity in modern offices, printers are becoming increasingly popular in small and large offices, churches, and schools alike. But with the associated energy and paper waste, as well as the toxic nature of the components, printers are far from eco-friendly.
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.
The most common electronics used in offices—computers, printers, fax machines, speakers, and scanners—consume the equivalent of two 75-watt light bulbs left on all day and all night when they’re not in use. Since peripherals such as printers and scanners are often idle more than they are in use, power consumption could be reduced by 65 percent simply by shutting them off during down times. This not only potentially saves energy costs equivalent to $14.44 annually per printer, it elongates the machine’s life and reduces the heat output it creates, which in turn cuts building cooling costs.
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. Printers equipped with duplexing attachments can reduce paper use by 30 to 35 percent.
Some older printers choked when fed recycled-paper, but 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.
Over 67 million laser printer cartridges are purchased by Americans each year, and the number’s rising all of the time. Of that number only 27 percent are refurbished. As a result, more than 300 million cartridges from printers and copiers 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 30 percent of used printers are recycled in the US every year, adding to a 50 million ton pile of trashed electronics annually. Electronic waste is the fastest growing portion of the US waste stream, rising at rates around 8 percent yearly.
Electronics companies are starting to develop ways to stem the flow of e-waste. For instance, Dell will take back printers made by any manufacturer with the purchase of a new Dell PC. Some printer manufacturers are also designing parts made from recycling plastic components. In 2008, Hewlett Packard plans to use an estimated 10 million pounds of recycled plastic in their cartridges.
Related health issues
Though less circuitry-intensive than a PC, printers do contain many components with potential health hazards. Some of the substances found in printers pose threats during manufacture and recycling stages, while others are harmful to humans during the equipment’s operation.
Operational health hazards
Laser printers emit ground level ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and respirable suspended particulates during operation. Ink and bubble jet printers are less common, but give off larger quantities of the same emissions than their laser counterparts.
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 come printers 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, as well as 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
- Center for Small Business and the Environment - Profitable Options For Greening: Energy Efficiency
- National Resources Defense Council - 50 Simple Tips from a Year of Living the Green Life: Home Electronics
- ESP Energy - Energy Management Products For Your Home or Business: Printers
- GreenBiz.com - Taking the Wrinkles out of Paper Recycling: In One Bin, Out the Other
- Federal Agencies in the Western United States - Greening Federal Copier Paper: How much can we reduce the use of copier paper?
- Sierra Club - Environmentally Friendly Paper
- onearth - Ink Wars: The fight to recycle your old printer cartridges is about to get messy.
- GreenBiz.com - News: Pollution Prevention: How Small-Office IT Can Make a Big Impact
- ClickPress Global News Distribution - Toner Cartridge Remanufacturing Saves the Environment
- ConsumerReports - E-waste Survey 2006: Disposal Method: Computer Peripheral - Page 32
- The Computer Take Back Campaign - The problem of outdated, unwanted electronics is huge—and growing still.
- Dell Product Recycling - Printer Recycling
- Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition - HP joins other tech outfits going green(er)
- 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?
- Green 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
- ieee Spectrum Online - Tech Talk: Laser printers may pose health hazard
- 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: Computers
- The Green Guide Product Report on 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