Liquid gold

There’s an old saying that the paperless office is about as likely as the paperless toilet, and in recent times that’s become much more apt.

There’s an old saying that the paperless office is about as likely as the paperless toilet, and in recent times that’s become much more apt. It’s not that we’re churning out vastly more paper, but we’re certainly coating it with a lot more ink.

Blame digital cameras, multimedia, the web — suddenly black ink on white paper is no longer enough. We have to have coloured banners, fancy charts and photographs. And it’s costing dearly. Lyra Research in the US reckons the ink cartridge replacement market is now worth $US21 billion a year with the major printer vendors — Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark — taking around 84% of that. And no doubt you’ve seen the comparisons. Britain’s Which? magazine reported in July that the colour ink in HP cartridges was seven times the price of vintage French champagne. At $US22 per quarter-ounce, US PC World revealed, that’s more expensive by weight than imported Russian caviar.

Printers are now virtually disposable. Consider the Epson Stylus C61, a popular inkjet that retails locally for around $200. Consider the price of its cartridges: $65 for colour and $70 for black. That means you’re paying $135 for ink and $65 for the machine. As a post on a US web board said, “I’m printing ... with an Epson that cost $US79.95 and uses two $US30 carts. It almost makes sense to replace the entire printer when the ink runs out.”

Almost everyone but the manufacturers agree that printers — and particularly inkjets — are often sold at cost price or less. Once you’re lured into a purchase, you’re trapped into buying its expensive refills. Just how expensive is revealed by a little simple maths. The Epson C61 black ink cartridge contains 20 millilitres of ink at a retail price of $70. That’s $3.50 per ml or a staggering $3500 per litre. By comparison the cyan, magenta and yellow inks in the 42ml colour cartridge — divided into three 14ml tanks — are a comparative snip at $1550 each per litre. Why black ink should be more than double the price of its colour cousins is unclear. It is after all the most commonly used colour. Or perhaps that’s the reason ...

The manufacturers will give you all the old flannel about how attentive they have to be about ink quality, colour uniformity, viscosity and all the rest, neatly side-stepping the fact that commercial printers (such as the presses that produce this magazine) have equally demanding requirements — and they pay considerably less than $3500 per litre for it.

Economy ink

But you don’t have to buy name-brand cartridges, as third-party compatibles are available for most machines. (In the case of the C61, these came in at $39 for colour and $28 for black — equivalent to 40% and 60% cheaper than the name-brand equivalents.) Or if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can try refilling your used ones — at a saving of around half as much again. (Tip: refill before the cart’s completely empty to avoid getting air bubbles in the output channels.)

Many manufacturers now add controller chips and circuitry to their cartridges to thwart refilling and third-party replacements. Lexmark lasers have a “killer chip” built into the toner cartridge. If it’s not present or has been wrecked by refilling, the printer simply won’t go. Epson too uses authentication chips and circuitry although it’s a little less extreme — for now. Its cartridges can at least be refilled. (For detailed instructions check out All of which rather negates the manufacturers’ arguments about superior product and better quality. If their inks really are a cut above, why not let the market discover so for itself?

As if cartridges weren’t expensive enough, it’s been discovered that Epson’s internal circuitry stops the printer printing long before the ink runs out. By bypassing this system, Which? magazine researchers managed to increase their printed-pages yield by between 17% and 38%.

But things aren’t all going the printer makers’ way. In the UK, the Office of Fair Trading gave them until last month to better communicate the total cost of printer ownership or face possible fines. In December 2002, the Euro-pean Union launched an investigation into monopoly practices in the market and may also ban cartridge control circuitry like the Lexmark’s “killer chip” on purely environmental grounds. And in August, North Carolina passed a bill to clarify consumer rights; it’s now perfectly legal for residents to refill any inkjet or toner cartridge. Whether New Zealand consumers get similar protections remains to be seen.

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