Subscriptions for Printer Ink? It's Business for the Future


HP is taking a big dive into the circular economy with its ink subscription service, and we think it's pretty great.

Over the years, the IT industry has implemented sustainable business practices, including using less materials in products, reducing energy usage in the manufacture and operation of products, making products more recyclable, and developing end-of-life programs. HP believes that the IT industry is uniquely positioned to support the ideals of the circular economy by inventing more sustainable technologies and services.

HP is already driving toward this approach across its portfolio by designing out waste, improving product longevity, and developing solutions that keep resources in the value chain for as long as possible.

Delivering Higher-Value Services

HP’s strategy is reflected in innovations such as its service-based solutions, which are reducing computing and printing footprints. These solutions include its Managed Print Services (MPS) and Instant Ink service, which help customers, large and small, save money, lower their environmental impact, and ensure responsible use and recycling.

Both offerings support HP’s circular economy efforts by shifting the emphasis from selling products to delivering higher-value services. For example, MPS offers a customizable set of solutions—including devices, network print management software, supplies, support, and end-of-life hardware options— that reduce customers’ printing-related energy usage 20%–40%, decrease costs 10%–30%, and lower paper waste 25% or more.

Instant Ink, HP’s ink-subscription service, while reducing costs, ensures that consumers and small businesses don’t run out of ink at the wrong time. Through the program, an Internet-connected printer notifies HP when it is running low on ink, and a replacement cartridge is automatically delivered. Customers can return the empty ink cartridges to HP in a prepaid envelope. By providing print as a service in this way, HP is reducing waste throughout the product lifecycle. In fact, ink subscription printers generate up to 67% less waste per printed page than do conventional business models.

One Million Water Bottles Saved a Day

HP’s first-of-its-kind closed-loop recycling program for print supplies was designed in collaboration with key recycling and materials suppliers and partners. Through this program, returned ink cartridges are disassembled and separated into metals, plastics, and other materials. The plastics are then processed and mixed with plastics from other sources, such as used water bottles and plastic hangers, to create plastic for new cartridges.

Launched in 2005, this initiative has been enhanced over the years based on HP’s growing expertise in materials development and reverse logistics. Changes include expanding the types of plastics used and shifting from a “shred and separate” process to a disassembly approach that has delivered a 50% increase in plastic recovery and a reduction in water and energy use.

In the past five years, HP has helped divert, on average, more than 1 million water bottles per day from landfills—and has used more than 3 billion bottles and 40 million apparel hangers to manufacture more than 2.5 billion ink cartridges. HP has used more than 100 million pounds of recycled content material since the program began. Today more than 75% of original HP ink cartridges and 24% of HP LaserJet toner cartridges by sales volume use closed-loop recycled plastic. HP continues to apply lessons learned from programs such as this one to advance the way it designs other products to use recycled materials.

Designing for the Future

HP continues to invest in technologies it believes will significantly change the way people live and work. Those technologies include 3-D printing, which many believe will enable the circular economy to scale into other industries. For example, HP’s commercial 3-D printers will eliminate waste by enabling fast, localized, customized, and accurate production of parts and finished goods. Because all products will be made to order, demand variations and obsolescence will decline rapidly, and repairs will become easier, faster, and less expensive.

HP has already seen the benefits of this type of model. By replacing analog printing with digital printing production, companies can reduce waste by up to 30% by better matching demand with production.

Moving from a linear economy to a circular one requires disruptive innovation. For more than 30 years, HP technologies have led printing technologies in many markets. Today, by collaborating and engaging the creative potential of others, HP looks to lead the development of solutions that will allow inventors to design and build systems whose form and function will surpass what can be imagined and manufactured today.

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Achieving a Circular Economy: How the Private Sector is Reimagining the Future of Business.]