Is Toner Biodegradable or Recyclable?


Are Toner Cartridges Biodegradable or Recyclable?

Laser printers use a clever combination of toner, static electricity, and heat to produce printed documents. With its ability to rapidly deliver sharp quality text-documents, toner was one of the major revolutions of the modern office.

Many people ask the question: is toner biodegradable? More importantly, with environmental sustainability gaining traction in the business world, is it recyclable? 

Toner is a densely-packed chemical powder with electromagnetic properties. It’s not a form of ink. As such, toner is chocked full of many chemicals and particles which won’t break down. Here’s the scoop on why toner is not biodegradable but is recyclable, and what you should do with your empty cartridges.

Is Toner Biodegradable?

Short answer: No. Neither toner nor toner cartridges are biodegradable. Both are made from industrial strength materials and built to withstand the stress of printing.

The Composition of Toner

Toner itself isn’t biodegradable because of its composition. Toner is composed of chemicals and polymer resins. It’s not uncommon to find toners containing iron oxide, styrene, and acrylate – things which don’t break down and are associated with environmental damage

In addition, black toner almost always contains carbon black. This is a fine, soot-like powder which is closely related to coal and pencil lead. Since the 1950s, there have been questions about whether carbon black is carcinogenic. Research remains inconclusive on that specifically, but the WHO classifies it as a Class 2B “possible carcinogen” out of an abundance of caution.

Finally, you’ll also occasionally find toners with small traces of ingredients like naphtha, which is much more toxic if directly inhaled over a long period.  While the regular use of toner poses no real danger to users, these are chemicals which are harmful to the environment in large quantities.

The polymer resin also prevents toner from breaking down naturally. This resin is a plastic-based molecule which helps the carbon black and other chemicals fuse to the paper during printing.  It is also the reason that laser printing remains crisp, clean, and legible for a long time after.

Toner Cartridges Are Built to Last

Toner cartridges are built from steel and plastic components. They require a resource-intense process, and the result is something which takes between 450 and 1,000 years to break down. This means that every single toner cartridge which has ever been created is still out there, somewhere.

Can Toner Be Recycled?

Short answer: Absolutely. Toner cartridges are recyclable and you should always recycle your cartridges.

The nature of toner and toner cartridges makes this office staple an excellent candidate for recycling. Most cartridges can be reused or remanufactured four to six times before they’re too worn for use. Some damage cartridges can even be repaired.

Recycling toner is also a good idea because it helps offset the environmental footprint associated with the production of the cartridges. The production process of one cartridge emits 4.8 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (that’s about the average weight of a cat).

The same study which noted these cartridges take half a millennium to break down also found that by 2012, we were producing almost 400 million of them each year. That is a lot of waste destined for a landfill.

Recycling Toner Is Easy, Cost-Effective, and Legal

Companies which specialize in remanufacturing or refurbished toner make it as easy as possible for offices to recycle their empty toner. All you need to do is collect your empty toners, wrap them securely, and pick up a prepaid shipping label from the refurbisher. Toner cartridges are permitted in Canada Post when properly packaged. Some local companies will even pick them up for you.

If you want to read more about how to recycle toner, check out our article 4 Easy Ways to Recycle Used Toner Cartridges.

Remanufactured toner is often cheaper than new cartridges, and it usually performs just as well. However, always be sure to ask what standards a third-party reseller uses to guarantee quality. Many will test according to ISO standards, but some have other quality control specs.

Finally, recycling toner is legal, but offices that have entered service agreements with a manufacturer should read their agreements. It is entirely legal for manufacturers to purchase empty toner cartridges, and for businesses to sell remanufactured toner. It may still constitute a contract violation if offices sell or recycle their cartridges at third-party remanufacturers while their service agreement specifically prohibits it.

Get Started Recycling Your Toner

Toner may not be biodegradable, but it is absolutely recyclable. Toner is produced in a resource-intensive process, and the cartridges are built to last centuries.

It’s easy to get started recycling toner. Many remanufactured cartridges offer the same quality as original cartridges but at a fraction of the cost. Recycling toner cartridges are also a great way to reduce your office’s environmental footprint. 

Ever wondered if toner is toxic or harmful if ingested or inhaled?  The short answer: it’s not nearly as bad as you think.  Check out our article Is Printer Toner Toxic for the full explanation.

Cory Porteous
Director of Marketing & Inbound Business Development
Office Interiors

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