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Rushing to paint printers green

Despite some progress, printer and ink companies have a long way to go to make their products more sustainable.

Printer companies are under attack as more people become concerned about global warming and toxic pollution.

The solution? "Printer Vendors Need to Greenwash Their Image."

That unfortunate headline was the theme of an e-mail newsletter this morning from Lyra Research, a well-respected firm that tracks the digital imaging industry.

Apparently the writer didn't realize or care that "greenwashing" is a negative term. It describes how companies aiming to appeal to treehuggers are painting a green face, without necessarily cleaning up their act.

Picky consumers detest this trend, which makes it nearly impossible to tell which companies walk the green walk instead of merely spouting a green talk. Earlier this decade, greenwashing wasn't so insidious because most claims of eco-friendliness were made by small enterprises, like, say, your local weaver of organic hemp hacky sacks.

But now that the world's biggest corporations aim to appear green--sincerely or cynically--it's easy to be fooled by multimillion-dollar public relations campaigns.

This year, printer hardware is expected to contribute 1 million tons of solid waste in this country alone, while pulp and paper companies are the fourth-largest toxic polluters of water, according to Lyra.

The Lyra newsletter asked, "What can the industry do to prevent an attack by environmental groups and create a better image for itself?"

To start, the industry could gain some friends by reworking its razor cartridge model of ink replacement. I learned quickly--through reviewing printers for CNET--how much people hate that the cost of ink and toner quickly exceeds the price of the printer itself. Vendors insist that people use their premium-price, branded inks or suffer crummy-looking pages. And disposing of cartridges is a pain, even if you're organized enough to mail them in or bring them to stores, such as Walgreen's, for reuse.

Also, how about better tech support and repair? Fixing gadgets should be no harder than taking a cracked heel to the shoe cobbler. The tech industry overall should make better-quality, longer-lasting hardware. A printer that cranks out one page faster per minute than last season's model is not efficient. A printer that lasts but a year and costs more to fix than replace is not sustainable.

Yes, people at HP and most other printer companies have made sincere efforts to establish responsible recycling programs. They've also made more models Energy Star efficient, experimented with corn-based plastic and modular components, and made it easier to print on two sides of a page to reduce paper waste. You might even argue that personal photo printers are kinder to the planet than traditional lab photofinishing.

Still, what's the secret sauce in all that proprietary ink and toner? Materials safety data sheets that companies are required by law to report do not detail the little-tested toxicity of these chemical cocktails. The information is limited largely because American laws regulating potentially dangerous chemicals are notoriously weak.

It took independent testing by an Australian lab to root out potentially cancerous, asthma-inducing ingredients in laser toner.

I don't want to breathe in that noxious dust at my desk, and I certainly don't want to breathe in the hot air of greenwashing. Let's hope that tech companies boast of small successes in moving toward sustainability without getting ahead of themselves.