Reinventing mindsets around recycling: How HP closed the loop with Canadian innovation

HP has manufactured more than 3.8 billion ink and toner cartridges with recycled plastics as a result of an innovative partnership with Montreal-based recycling pioneer The Lavergne Group.

You’ve probably come across some impressive recycling figures from HP: 3.8 billion. This is the number of ink and toner cartridges the company has manufactured using recycled plastic. This achievement has been enabled through the recycling of 784 million HP cartridges as well as the company’s Canadian-formulated, closed-loop recycling process — which now includes 86 million apparel hangers and 4 billion post-consumer plastic bottles. It’s numbers like these that make HP Canada’s Most Sustainable Tech Company. 

Making it happen with the right partner 

HP joined forces with Montreal’s recycling company, Lavergne, eighteen years ago. The founder Jean-Luc Lavergne is hailed as an innovator in closed loop recycling. He has been a partner to HP in a growing effort to divert plastics from landfills and make them into new cartridges and products.

Since inception, this partnership has spurred groundbreaking innovation through the development of a process to upcycle PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and polypropylene-based clothing hangers into new HP cartridges, creating a fully-closed-loop product that contributes to the circular economy. 

But in the beginning, the two companies had slightly different agendas. Lavergne wanted to reach technology markets using high-quality plastic resin. At the time, HP was collecting end-of-life cartridges through what is now a nearly 30-year-old HP Planet Partners Program. Ultimately, the company wanted to upcycle the plastics it was collecting.

HP and Lavergne quickly decided that the solution was to close the recycling loop by bringing plastics from the returned cartridges back into HP’s supply chain. What seems like an obvious solution to both parties’ needs was at the time a novel innovation. Industry engineers doubted the viability of recycled plastics and did not believe they could meet high standards for quality. 

“Eighteen years later, it now seems obvious,” Jean-Luc Lavergne said. “It’s a leap of faith bringing end-of-life products into new products. An ink cartridge looks like it’s just a little plastic box, but there’s so much technology in it. HP wanted to make sure they could give end users the performance that’s required, otherwise it would have been a disaster from an engineering point of view.”

Within a couple of years, HP also started testing Lavergne’s process for ink cartridges. As Jean-Luc Lavergne puts it, “HP had shown their ability to think beyond what was standard at the time for recycling. They were, and still are, a company that aims for the future, aims for the best.”

Together HP and Lavergne proved that cartridges made with recycled plastics could perform just as well as those made from virgin plastics.  The process involved receiving end-of-life HP ink cartridges.  From there, it was a matter of breaking that down into composite parts and putting the resulting plastics back into the supply chain for new cartridges.

Reaching scale

Lavergne says they realized about 50 percent yield at the beginning of the relationship. The process was slow at first because it took time to break down the incoming used cartridges. Eventually, HP and Lavergne developed a better way to dismantle the products. In just three years, the two companies developed a bespoke machine for doing just that — reverse manufacturing cartridges. The machine can now rapidly deconstruct cartridges on-site at the same Nashville, Tennessee facility where HP brings its returned used cartridges. The process has also improved to about 95 percent efficiency in terms of weight of used cartridge components in and new cartridge output.

“It’s efficient and it’s made cleanup easier,” Jean-Luc Lavergne says. “We simplified and streamlined.”

What comes next

Like any good partnership, Lavergne and HP are finding new ways to expand. 

“Getting recycled plastic into aesthetic products is one of the most challenging things in our industry,” Jean-Luc Lavergne says. “There’s a very fine line between making a good product and a great product, and together we figured out a way to exceed expectations.”

That’s precisely what the two are now doing. HP Tango printer, for example, contains more than 30 percent recycled plastics from old printers and other electronics. It’s part of what Lavergne describes as his partner’s unique commitment to sustainability. “HP has taken this far. I don’t see anyone else taking this posture and really doing what’s right for the environment,” he said.

Lavergne credits HP with pushing the envelope, finding new ways to reduce the impact of the technology products and services that are consumed worldwide. He says these goals are pushing HP’s engineers, and his, to set the bar higher — just as they’ve been doing since the start of their partnership.

“There’s enough end-of-life plastic out there for us to feed the monster for the next couple of hundred years,” he says. From Lavergne’s perspective, there are many frontiers still to explore, Lavergne will continue to make plastics circular.”