The recent Earth Day observations provided an opportunity to observe how the personal computer can help people support ecological causes and how people can help make computers less taxing on the environment.
It may seem oxymoronic to call computer printers environmentally sensitive. Printers are voracious consumers of paper, and thus of trees.
An intriguing new computer printer developed by Kyocera Electronics Inc. claims to be environmentally sensitive, however, not because it uses less paper, but because it has no disposable parts.
Conventional laser printers are built around an imaging engine that must be replaced after several thousand pages.
Although these plastic, ceramic and metal cartridges are intended to be recycled, most of them wind up in landfills.
The Kyocera Ecosys a-Si FS1500A printer, which will have a suggested list price of $2,395 when it becomes available next month, has a new type of ceramic print engine that purportedly will last the 300,000-page life of the printer.
Kyocera says the new "amorphous silicon" engine has a life cycle equivalent to as many as 75 cartridge replacements on a conventional printer. As a result, it will send no non-biodegradable cartridges to the dump.
For people for whom "green" has a more pragmatic meaning, Kyocera asserts that the Ecosys printer also saves money by reducing the average cost per page, to less than one cent as against about three cents for conventional laser printers.
Referring to the environmental issue, Rob Auster, printer analyst for BIS Strategic Decisions of Norwell, Mass., said: "I think this is something that the rest of the printer industry is going to have to deal with. Kyocera has put forward a value that users can understand.
"Their message is, 'If you love the earth, you'll love our printer. No disposables, no polluting.' "
From a performance perspective, the Kyocera Ecosys a-Si FS1500A holds its own against rival printers.
It is rated at 10 pages per minute, has 300-dot-per-inch resolution, comes with one megabyte of memory (expandable to 5 MB) and has an adequate selection of built-in fonts.
The printer takes up relatively little desk space and works quietly. It has a 250-page paper bin and optional bins for more paper and envelopes.
It is an LED printer, meaning it uses light-emitting diodes instead of lasers and mirrors to produce images.
The technologies are different, but the results are essentially the same.
In short, the Kyocera Ecosys a-Si FS1500A appears to match the features of its competitors, but with the promised advantages of a low operating cost and low environmental impact.
People who own other brands of printers can recycle, too.
Canon USA Inc. is the leading provider of imaging engines for laser printers, including H-P Laserjets and Apple Laserwriters. Since May 1990 Canon has included a pre-addressed, postage-paid UPS mailing label with each replacement cartridge.
When the cartridge is spent the user puts it back in its box, slaps on the label and sends it to Canon. Canon in turn ships the cartridge to a recycling plant in China.
A spokeswoman for Canon said nearly 750,000 cartridges had been recycled since 1990. However, Mr. Auster estimated that 8 million cartridges are sold each year, which suggests that fewer than 10 percent are returned.
Another 15 percent to 20 percent of the cartridges are taken to independent companies for refilling, he speculated.
Refillers replace the toner particles, the black dust that functions as ink in a laser printer.
The practical advantage is that refilling a printer cartridge costs about half as much as buying a new one, about $40 as against $75 to $100.
Refilling usually does not replace the ceramic printing drum in the cartridge, though, so it merely postpones, rather than eliminates, the cartridge's eventual journey to the dump.
A cartridge can be refilled several times, but eventually the drum wears down and gets scratched, resulting in degraded print quality.
Kyocera plans to get around the problem by using an "Ecotone" toner mixture that includes microscopic ceramic particles. The particles continuously clean and polish the drum, extending its life.
The Ecotone mixture (in a recycled package, of course) must be replenished after 5,000 pages.
Owners of dot-matrix printers can save money and landfill space by re-inking printer ribbons instead of replacing them.
Computer Friends Inc. is one of the leading makers of inexpensive ribbon re-inking equipment. It costs about 5 cents to re-ink a ribbon cartridge for a dot-matrix printer, as against several dollars for a new one.
The Computer Friends re-inkers include MacInker (about $80), a universal device for most dot matrix ribbon cartridges; the JetMaster, a $25 device that will recharge an inkjet cartridge six to 10 times for the price of a single new cartridge; and InkerKing ($400), a commercial-grade re-inking machine.
Computer Friends also recharges laser cartridges and installs a long-life drum, which extends the life of the cartridge. The first recharge, including the drum, is $72. Subsequent refills will cost $40.
Kyocera Electronics of Somerset, N.J., is a subsidiary of Japan's Kyocera Corp. The company can be reached at (908) 560-3400.
Computer Friends Inc. of Portland, Ore., can be reached at (800) 547-3303.