Let me count the ways.

When that fateful day comes and the printer runs out of ink or toner, there are a lot of different things that can happen to the empty cartridge that you pull out of the printer.  You can take it back to a retailer that recycles cartridges, you can get a shipping label from the manufacturer and mail it back, you can sell it, or you can throw it away.  Some manufacturers have simplified this process through subscription or membership programs like HP’s Instant Ink or My Print Rewards, which provide return packaging for used cartridges upon sending a replacement.  Some also provide free return shipping materials with new cartridge orders.

But imagine a world where you could be rid of your recyclables with the touch of an app.  Well, at least one company is looking to change up the recycling game and capitalize on the trend of on-demand everything with an Uber-like service for the collection of household waste and recyclables.  For those that aren’t familiar, Uber allows consumers with smartphones to submit a trip request that is routed to a network of drivers who use their own cars.  The entire process is completed through an app, from the initial request through the payment.

The Uber of Recycling

recycling app

Rubicon Global, a provider of sustainable waste and recycling solutions, announced recently that it has developed an app that will allow consumers to schedule and pay for on-demand collection of household waste and recyclables at their leisure.  The service is not specific to cartridges, but the company itself offers waste and recycling services for electronic waste, including computers, mobile phones, tablets, televisions, DVD players, copy machines, and other appliances, among many other things that you can learn about here. Through the app, customers would be able to submit a request for their recyclables.  The request is submitted to Rubicon’s network of local haulers, which are prioritized based on location and availability.  Initially, the pickups will range from a few hours to the following day, though the ultimate goal is a 30 minute pickup for all requests.  Pricing will be dependent on a number of factors, including the volume and the availability of drivers, among other things.  The app is still in beta testing so details are limited, but the thought of getting rid of my empty ink cartridges with the touch of an app was intriguing.

Ink/Toner Recycling by US Retailer

How Many Steps Does it Take to Recycle a Cartridge…

Recycling a cartridge is not hard, but it’s also not convenient unless you are enrolled in some type of program.  As mentioned above, you can take it to a retailer that participates in cartridge recycling, but that requires either knowing or researching which locations will take them, remembering to grab them before heading out, and probably going at least a little bit out of your way to drop them off. By my count of the major retailers in our industry, only Office Depot / OfficeMax, Staples, Best Buy, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart (some locations and brands) offer cartridge recycling.  However, it should be noted that Office Depot / OfficeMax, Staples, and Best Buy can be worth the trip if you are into merchant rewards.  These retailers offer a certain number of points or rewards dollars that can be saved and used toward a future purchase, though there can sometimes be strings attached (must also simultaneously buy a certain number of new ink or toner) or limits on how many you can return per month.  Again, more complexities, and not worth the trip for someone that really only goes into one of these stores once or twice a year to buy more ink or toner.


Most manufacturers also take back cartridges and some make it easy for customers that are simultaneously purchasing replacement supplies from them.  But often the process requires the user to find the recycling page, print the return label (if they aren’t out of ink!), put it in an envelope, and drop it in the mail.  For most people, that’s a lot of steps for something that you are never going to see again.  That’s one of the reasons why so many of them end up in the trash. 

According to estimates, between 350 million and 375 million empty ink and toner cartridges end up in landfills or incinerators each year in North America (that’s about 70%!).  There are so many reasons to recycle cartridges, including reducing landfill waste, saving energy and resources, and reducing the need for new raw materials, among other things, and yet it often gets overlooked because there can be a lot of steps involved.  We are at a time where environmental concerns are high, which is why many manufacturers make sustainability a priority, but convenience needs to be there as well.  An easy-to-use third-party collection service could be potentially disruptive to manufacturers and hinder their ability to get their cartridges back, which could mean fewer reusable materials available for them to make new cartridges from, or depending on what happens to the cartridges after they are collected, more empties on the market for remanufacturers.

Number of Recycling-Related Ads at US Office Supply/Electronics Retailers

Part of the issue is likely awareness.  According to gap intelligence data, the number of recycling ads at major US retailers (Best Buy, Office Depot / OfficeMax, Staples) has not been in the double digits since early 2014, and Staples is the only one that has consistently advertised its cartridge recycling initiatives month after month.  However, to be fair, it could be that these retailers weren’t getting enough participation to justify the cost of running the ads.  Retailers also advertise in-store, but that requires visiting the store to see those ads, and online you have to specifically search for recycling on the retailer and manufacturer websites to quickly find details for their programs.

Make it Easy for Me!

The point is that Rubicon Global has acknowledged a pain point and is looking to alleviate it through its on-demand service that simplifies the entire process. At this moment, I have a bag of half a dozen empty ink cartridges sitting by my door because the frequency with which I visit an outlet that provides cartridge recycling (at least that I know about) is very low (though I admit, other times I just forget to bring them along).  But depending on the amount I had to pay, I might be willing to relinquish a few dollars just to get them out of my house.  And it’s not only ink cartridges, I have a variety of other used electronics that I just don’t know what to do with, but won’t throw away because I want to make sure they are recycled responsibly.  Taking care of that entire process with the few touches of an app seems like a pretty valuable service, especially since it’s based on a business model that continues to grow. 

As previously mentioned, specific logistics are unknown, but even if this particular company wouldn’t be willing to come to my house for a few ink cartridges, I do think there is some potential for even that small of a market for someone.  If Rubicon Global’s service comes to fruition and becomes Uber successful (see what I did there?!), I would not be surprised to see similar companies hop on the bandwagon.  At a point when consumers are becoming more familiar with scheduling and paying for services entirely through an app, now could be the perfect time for an on-demand service like this.