Can Ink Cartridges Be Recycled?

The process is easier than you think.

Printer cartridge
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Ink cartridges are recyclable, which is great news for the planet. It takes almost a gallon of oil to make a single laser printer cartridge and, after they’re used and thrown away, ink cartridges spend between 450 and 1,000 years decomposing in landfills. In that time, they can release volatile organic compounds and heavy metals that pollute soil and aquatic environments.

While printer ink is made of chemicals and heavy metals, cartridges are made of a variety of tiny plastic, metal, and electronic parts. Their unique composition makes ink cartridges relatively difficult to recycle and not suitable for standard recycling programs.

Because the raw materials in ink cartridges can vary, municipal recycling programs don’t always accept them for curbside pickup or drop-off services. Instead, you can drop them off with a dedicated printer cartridge recycler who will send them to a recycling plant equipped to handle them.

Despite the fact that printer cartridges are recyclable, an estimated 350 million end up in landfills each year in the U.S. alone. That’s more than half of those produced in the nation annually.

How to Recycle Ink Cartridges

Printer ink cartridges piled in a recycling bin.

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Once your unwanted ink cartridges reach a recycling plant, they are sorted by type and make (different manufacturers sometimes use different materials). Components like plastics will be melted down and made into new products, including new cartridges, pens, and mouse pads. Metals are recycled to make a variety of products and any leftover ink can be used to fill pens.

But in order to make it to a recycling plant, your ink cartridges first need to be collected through one of the following recycling programs:

Take-Back Programs

Many large-scale computer companies and printer manufacturers have ink cartridge recycling programs and will gladly accept your old ones through a take-back program. 

Most take-back programs are free and some companies even cover the cost of postage. If you bought your printer from a popular electronics brand, there’s a good chance the company has an established ink cartridge take-back recycling program.

Some companies, like Dell, will deliver packing materials so you can mail in your ink cartridge for them to recycle. Others accept them at their retail locations free of charge.

Companies That Recycle Ink Cartridges

Mail-In Recycling

You can also recycle ink cartridges through mail-in recycling programs not associated with cartridge manufacturers. These programs are often hosted by nonprofit organizations that can ensure the raw materials are recycled into new products, diverting waste from the landfill, saving energy, and conserving natural resources.

Some recyclers even pay cash in return for cartridges because they can earn a profit by refurbishing them. Others support schools and charities by donating these profits to fund their programs, keeping millions of pounds of environmentally harmful e-waste out of landfills every year.

Curbside Pickup

While many curbside pickup recycling programs don’t accept used cartridges, some do. It depends on your area and whether or not there are any recycling plants nearby that have the capacity to sort and process the numerous materials in ink cartridges.

Before throwing your cartridge away or looking into specific recycling programs, check with your city’s recycler to see what they accept. Most recyclers list accepted items online. If you’re unsure, give them a call to find out. And if they don’t accept ink cartridges, you can utilize one of the recycling systems detailed above.

Where to Recycle Ink Cartridges?

Several big box retailers accept ink cartridges for recycling, including Target and Best Buy. You can also drop them off at office retailers, notably OfficeMax and Staples. Some Goodwill locations also accept donations of ink cartridges for recycling through partnerships with large electronic companies. Check for similar programs at Walgreens and Costco stores, too. Retailers who recycle ink cartridges include:

  • OfficeMax
  • Staples
  • Best Buy
  • Target
  • Goodwill
  • Walgreens
  • Costco

Larger cities often have dedicated e-waste recyclers that accept drop-off donations of electronics and electronic accessories, including ink cartridges. Check a recycling locator to find one near you.

How to Reuse Ink Cartridges

A man wearing gloves refilling a printer ink cartridge.

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Reusing ink cartridges is an even more environmentally conscious option. Unlike the recycling process, reusing the cartridges doesn’t consume energy. Office retailers can often refill them for you, but you can also choose to DIY it. Purchase a refill kit online or from your local office supply store to refill your ink cartridge. Kits usually come with plastic gloves, replacement ink, a screw tool, a syringe, and instructions. 

Make sure you slip the gloves on before handling ink to prevent any from getting on your skin. Printer ink can be hazardous to human health if consumed, but it’s not especially worrisome if it comes into brief contact with skin. If you do get ink on yourself, wash it off with soap and water as soon as you can.

Then, follow the instructions included in your kit to fill your cartridge with ink. If all goes accordingly, you’ll be able to put the refilled cartridge right back into your printer and use it all over again. Not only does this divert waste from the landfill, but it also saves money you would ordinarily spend on a brand new cartridge. The ink cartridges can be reused this way several times before they start to wear out and produce low-quality prints. Once that happens, it’s time to recycle it.