The European Parliament is meeting next week to discuss whether the world's leading printer manufacturers are acting against the spirit of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, WEEE.
Manufacturers have incorporated so-called clever chips into printers, which alert users when a cartridge needs replacing and of any faults with the machine. A good idea, in principle, but it only works with the manufacturers' original toner cartridges, not with third-party refills.
"When you are using a recycled or refilled product sometimes they replace the drum, sometimes not, and you've got no idea how many times its been refilled. It's possible you are really damaging your printer," said Rhiannon Williams, product manager for supplies at HP.
Using a third-party refilled toner cartridge would invalidate most manufacturers' warranties. "If the non-HP product causes damages to the printer then this damage will not be covered by the warranty, but it will not void the warranty as such," said HP's spokesperson.
But this is against the spirit of WEEE, claims MEP Diana Wallis. WEEE encourages electronic products to be built so as to maximise recycling, not just of the whole product at the end of its life, but component parts as well.
According to Wallis, Lexmark has gone one step further, patenting a chip that can shut down a printer if a non-Lexmark part is used. Wallis is concerned that printer manufacturers will prey on people's fear of using third party recycled products to maintain their dominant position as suppliers of printer consumables.
Lexmark refused to comment on this issue. HP categorically denies this is even possible and said this technology is definitely not used in its units.
"[Printer] chips don't have this function, they have misunderstood the purpose," said a spokesman for the company. "If someone installs a non-HP cartridge we will not be alerted of that, all that happens is that the chip will stop functioning."
MEP's Diana Wallis and Chris Davies have put forward an amendment to the WEEE Directive, which will prevent manufacturers from intentionally making products non-recyclable. It will be discussed by European Parliament's next Wednesday (10 April).
"We are approaching this from an anti-environmental angle, rather than an anti-competitive one," said a spokesman at Chris Davies' constituency office. "It is against the spirit of the treaty. The European Parliament didn't foresee these kinds of activities happening when the directive was written."
Undoubtedly, printer manufacturers make up for the slender profit margin they make on cheap printers by the high price of consumables, so it is in their interests to discourage users from buying cheap third-party refills. But how can a manufacturer warranty something over which they have no quality control?
Even if an independent body or association should be formed where owners could purchase quality reliable refills, MEPs argue that this would involve too much bureaucracy and could still jeopardise warranties.
So until the third-party refill suppliers can guarantee the quality of their products, or the manufacturers licence their toner technology to third-party suppliers, there seems little relief for printer users.