How Green is My Printer?

By M. David Stone  |  Posted 2008-10-27

How Green is My Printer?

For companies and IT departments that take green issues seriously, printers deserve special attention. In addition to the questions you might ask about any IT equipment -- from power use to the potential for recycling or reusing the material in the equipment itself -- there are a slew of issues specific to printers and to the paper and ink they use.  (We'll use the broad definition for ink here, to include toner)  If you want to evaluate how green a given printer is, and maximize the green potential of the printers you have, here are some key issues to consider, with an emphasis on paper and ink.


Some of the most important questions focus on minimizing wasted paper.  High on the list is print duplexing -- printing on both sides of a page.  There are some documents that have to be printed on one side of a page, but having an automatic duplexer in the printer offers the possibility, at least, of cutting paper use by something approaching 50 percent.  (A full 50 percent will never happen in the real world, if only because some documents have an odd number of pages.  But depending on what your office prints, you could get close to 50 percent.)

Does it Duplex Efficiently?

Just being able to duplex isn't always enough.  Some printers can print in duplex mode without slowing down.  Others slow down at least a little, because it takes longer for them to suck a piece of paper back in after printing on the first side than it takes to simply get started with the next sheet in the tray.  The more a printer slows down when duplexing, the more likely users are to avoid duplexing long documents -- which are precisely the documents that give you the most benefit from duplexing.  A key issue for evaluating a printer is to find out whether it slows down in duplex mode and, if so, by how much.

Can You Force Users to Duplex?

Another good question to ask is whether the manufacturer gives you tools to let you define permissions, so some or all users simply don't have the choice to print in simplex mode (on one side of the page).  

Is using Duplex Mode Easy?

For users who you don't want to force to use duplex mode, look for settings in the driver that make it easy for them to switch between duplex and simplex as needed.  If a printer can print in duplex, but the choice is hard to get to, some users simply aren't going to bother.  If the driver doesn't give users an easy way to switch, consider setting up each user with two instances of the driver -- one for duplex mode and one for simplex.  Then make the duplex version the default.

A Word on Manual Duplexing

Some printers that lack automatic duplexing offer a manual duplex mode in their drivers.  Typically, these modes print the odd pages in a document, stop to give the user a chance to turn the pages over, then print the even pages.  Some even include animations onscreen showing users how to flip the stack of pages.  For most network printers in a corporate environment, manual duplexing is a poor substitute for automatic duplexing, since it involves a trip to the printer to turn the pages over.  For a small workgroup, however, or for a personal printer in someone's office, manual duplexing is better than not having duplexing at all.

Cartridges, Recycleing and Multiple Pages Per Sheet

Printing N-Up (Multiple pages per sheet of paper)?

Although not as universally useful as duplexing, the ability to print 2, 4, or more document pages on a single sheet of paper is a time honored way to save paper for draft output.  The feature is particularly helpful for users looking to proof the layout of pages.  Most printer drivers include this feature.  Make sure your users know about it.

Recycled Paper

The argument for using recycled paper is obvious.  What may not be obvious is that not all printers can work reliably with it.  If you want to take advantage of recycled paper in your company, make sure it's an acceptable media type for any printer you're considering.

Ink Saver Mode

One of the lesser known secrets about the ink-saver options in drivers is that for printers that offer these modes, most output looks just as good whether the ink-saver mode is on or off.  In any case, when you're evaluating a printer, it's certainly worth looking for an ink-saver option and testing it to see if you can save ink without sacrificing quality.

Ground versus Grown

Toner can either be physically ground from larger chunks of material or chemically grown.  The chemically grown variety is more energy efficient to produce -- by 25 to 35 percent according to Xerox.  That's a little extra green bonus for printers that use grown toner.  

Cartridge Capacities

Regardless of page yield, ink cartridges for any given printer are the same size, with the same amount of material.  Give extra points to printers with higher capacity cartridges.  Keep in mind too that if you have a printer with a choice of cartridges, using the high capacity cartridge will generate less waste for a landfill (and incidentally cost less per page, so it will also save money).

Recycling and Cartridges

If you count up the number of ink or toner cartridges you use over the lifetime of a printer, you may be appalled both by the sheer number of cartridges, and by how large a volume they would use up in a landfill.  When evaluating a printer, ask about the percentage of recycled material in the cartridge, as well the percentage of recyclable materials (or, even better, reusable parts for remanufacturing the cartridges).  You'll also want to make sure the manufacturer has a cartridge recycling program in place.

One other thing: if you compare percentages of recyclable materials between cartridges from different printers, be sure the comparisons are indeed comparable; the percentage by volume may be very different than the percentage by weight.

Recycling and Printers

Some of the recycling questions for cartridges apply to the printer itself as well.  When you're evaluating a printer, ask if the printer itself contains any recycled materials, and, if so, what percentage.  Similarly, you should ask what percentage of the printer is made of recyclable materials (or reusable parts), whether the manufacturer has a recycling program, and whether there is any out of pocket cost to your company for recycling.

Energy and Certifications

Energy Saving Features

For the most part, you can judge energy saving issues by the appropriate certifications, notably Energy Star, but there are at least two specifics you should also look for.  First, an instant warm-up fuser will save energy by not having to warm up before printing, and as a nice bonus, it will speed first page out time.  Similarly, for all-in-ones or multi-function printers, an instant on light source will both save energy and speed scanning.  More important, an instant on light source usually goes hand in hand with a mercury-free lamp in the scanner, which is a hazardous substance that's best avoided.


Finally, don't overlook the importance of certifications.  In particular, look for Energy Star (for energy savings) and RoHs (for avoiding hazardous substances).

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