Week of 3/05/2006

Dear EarthTalk: As I understand it, "hybrid" cars make use of an electric motor that never needs to be plugged in. But what's up with the proposed "plug-in" hybrids I've been hearing about?—Jen Seminara, Omaha, NE

The mass-market gasoline-electric hybrids made by Toyota, Honda and others make use of an electric engine right under the hood next to the gas engine. That electric motor creates fuel economy by kicking into use during idling, backing up, slow traffic, and to maintain speed after the gas engine has been employed for acceleration. The car doesn't need to be plugged in because the on-board electric battery is constantly being charged by the gas engine and by the motion of the wheels and the brakes.

The so-called "plug-in hybrids," now in prototype stages of development, take this technology a step further. By adding the ability to charge up from a standard household outlet, typically overnight, such cars relegate the gas engine to back-up status and instead let the electric motor do most of the work.

Proponents claim that such "gas-optional" cars—if you don't take long trips you can rely entirely on the electric motor—can be twice as fuel efficient as hybrids, which already get double the gas mileage of traditional vehicles. Additionally, they say, powering up plug-in hybrids with wall sockets results in far less pollution (from the power plants providing the electricity) than an equivalent gasoline-powered car spews out its tailpipe. Meanwhile, plug-in hybrids recharged from rooftop solar power systems might approach being the world's first mass-market "zero emission" vehicles, requiring no power from the grid at all.

Convincing a skeptical American public that plug-in hybrids are the way of the future is the challenge of a loose network of advocacy groups led by the California Cars Initiative (CalCars). Indeed, the experimental electric vehicles of a decade ago and older required re-charging every 25-50 miles, rendering them useless for anything but short trips. The new breed of plug-in hybrids solves this problem by employing much more sophisticated battery technology while still keeping the insurance of gasoline (and a gas engine) on-board.

"It's like having a second small fuel tank that you always use first—only you fill this tank at home with electricity at an equivalent cost of under $1/gallon," reports the CalCars website. The organization goes on to explain that with gas prices at $3/gallon, traditional cars cost eight to 20 cents per mile, while plug-in hybrids used for all-electric local travel and commuting would cost only two to four cents per mile.

CalCars is lobbying the world's major automakers to introduce plug-in options on future hybrid models, and has built showcase examples themselves that achieve 100 miles per gallon using Toyota's Prius. Meanwhile, a growing list of state and local governments say they would seriously consider converting their fleets to plug-in hybrids if such vehicles became available.

The website HybridCars.com reports that DaimlerChrysler has built a handful of prototypes based on its 15-passenger Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. And analysts believe Toyota already has the technology in place but may be waiting to gauge consumer demand before making any production commitments. Only time—with a little guidance from the price of gasoline—will tell.

CONTACT: California Cars Initiative (CalCars), http://www.calcars.org.


Dear EarthTalk: Is it economical and environmentally friendly for me to recycle my empty inkjet printer cartridges instead of buying new ones?

—Matt Hoffman, Seattle, WA

Analysts estimate that more than 300 million inkjet printer cartridges find their way into American landfills every year. Each of those new cartridges requires about three quarts of oil and other raw materials to produce, and also contributes its fair share of greenhouse gases during manufacturing. And as anyone who has ever bought one knows, they come packaged in such excessive amounts of cardboard and plastic that it often takes several minutes and a pair of strong scissors to break through to even get to the ink cartridge!

Thus any effort to reuse or recycle these items is a big win for the environment. And given the exorbitant prices of new inkjet cartridges—the real profit center for printer manufacturers—it makes economic sense, too, for consumers who just want to save money.

The good news is that Americans are already recycling more than 40,000 tons of inkjet cartridges each year. Hundreds of companies out there are eager to pay for your used cartridges so they can re-ink them and resell them at prices much lower than for new ones.

We Buy Empties, InkjetCartridge.com and the eCycle Group, among others, take back major brand inkjet printer cartridges and pay for the privilege, even reimbursing shipping costs. These companies usually only accept large quantities (like 100 or more) of spent cartridges, paying between 10 cents and $5 each, depending on the cartridge type. Meanwhile, Staples, Office Depot and Office Max each give customers about $3 in store credit, or in some cases a ream of office paper, for each empty cartridge that is returned.

Meanwhile, most of the major inkjet printer manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, Epson, Canon and Lexmark, will gladly take back empty cartridges shipped directly to them in their original boxes. Hewlett-Packard even puts pre-paid return shipping labels inside their boxes to facilitate customer recycling of their used inkjet cartridges.

Several such companies offer special buy-back rates for schools, churches and other non-profits, which can solicit and collect used cartridges from members and businesses to raise money. Interested organizations can contact companies like iRethink and Funding Factory, which both have special programs to facilitate collection and reimbursement for spent inkjet cartridges.

Those who don't mind getting their hands a little messy can re-ink their empty cartridges themselves. Squeeze bottle ink refills are the most cost effective and environmentally friendly way to keep on printing. Inkjetman, which sells its own refilled inkjet cartridges, also sells inkjet refill kits, which will last through thousands of pages, for about the price of a single new cartridge. FillJet sells similar kits, and estimates the cost of a refilled cartridge to be about $2 in ink, which represents a savings of at least 80 percent over buying refilled recycled cartridges from them.

CONTACTS: iRethink, www.irethink.com, Funding Factory, www.fundingfactory.com, We Buy Empties, www.webuyempties.com, InkjetCartridge.com, www.inkjetcartridge.com, The eCycle Group, www.ecyclegroup.com, Inkjetman, www.inkjetman.com, FillJet, www.inkjetrefilloutlet.com.