- Printer ink can often be more expensive than the printer itself.
- Using an outdated “razor-and-blades” business model, printer companies sell printers at a loss and make up for it in ink sales.
- Printer companies do whatever they can to squash competition from more economical and sustainable third party options by frequently updating the firmware in the cartridges.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: A gallon of printer ink can cost you $12,000. When in cartridge form, it’s more expensive than vintage Champagne and even human blood. In fact, it can be cheaper to buy an entire printer than it is to purchase new ink cartridges. So why is printer ink so expensive?
Let’s start with the first printers. No, not that far. No. Come on. There we go. Inkjet printers were first developed in the 1960s, and early computer inks were made from food dye and water. Because of this, they would fade after a few months, so companies had to develop a dye that gave permanent photographic quality. In 1988, Hewlett-Packard achieved just that, with the first mass-market inkjet printer, which sold for about $1,000. But a lot has changed since then.
Today, you can buy a brand-new printer for around $35. But there’s a catch. When the ink runs out in one of these printers, you need to buy specific cartridges, and these cartridges are expensive. So why are the cartridges so pricey?
David Connett: Oh that’s simple: greed. And an outdated razor-and-blades model.
Narrator: This is David Connett. He’s the former editor of The Recycler and has been lobbying for change in the printer-ink industry for years.
Connett: They sell the printers cheap. They sell the consumables at a very expensive price. And basically it’s a formula: The cheaper the printer, the more expensive the consumables.
Narrator: Once you’ve bought a printer that uses cartridges you’re trapped in a cycle. You have no choice but to buy them, or throw away your printer. As a printer is typically a one-time purchase, companies don’t mind selling them at a loss and making the money back through cartridge sales. The HP Envy 4520 all-in-one printer, for example, sells for $70 but is estimated to cost $120 to manufacture. The loss they make on printers means that companies need to sell ink cartridges to make a profit, and this model has led to a battleground between printer manufacturers and third-party ink suppliers. The companies do everything they can to keep you buying official ink cartridges. Manufacturers install microchips into their cartridges and frequently issue firmware updates to prevent the use of third-party ink, which can be more affordable.
Connett: Last year, almost 900 firmware upgrades were issued by just nine printer manufacturers, so that’s almost three a day. I mean, that’s just, like, either absolute incompetence, ’cause you’ve got to do it so much, or it is a definite stealth tactic to control the market.
Narrator: Printer companies attribute the high costs to the research and development that goes into perfecting printer ink. The materials they use, however, cost very little.
Connett: The manufacturing cost of ink is between €20 and €40 a liter.
Narrator: And a lot of the ink you buy never even gets used for printing. According to a 2018 test by Consumer Reports, more than half the ink you buy could end up lost in maintenance cycles for cleaning the printheads. And printers that use multiple-color ink cartridges also stop working as soon as one color runs out, even if the other colors are still full. These days, you’re getting even less for your money. While the cartridges themselves are the same size and price, they often contain far less ink inside than they used to. The ink in many manufacturers’ cartridges has shrunk from 20 mil to around 5 mil over the past few years, without any reduction in price. The original-size 20 mil cartridges are often still on sale but are often sold as extra-large cartridges for even more money. And some new cartridges can have as little as 3 milliliters of ink inside. Some companies have now even started ink subscriptions, deactivating your cartridges remotely if you print more than your allocated pages. Laser printers offer a lower-cost alternative to inkjet but produce a lower-quality printed image. The real solution for many, though, would be to offer more-efficient ink cartridges.
Connett: This product, you know, can be better engineered. They could liaise with the aftermarket to actually, you know, find a solution that works for everybody because, you know, this, ultimately, this is bad for the consumer, because it’s overpriced and expensive, and it’s bad for the environment, because it doesn’t need to be made that way.
Narrator: We reached out to Canon and HP for comment. HP replied with this statement:
“Original HP ink and toner cartridges deliver the best possible printing experience for customers. We make significant investments in R&D each year to provide the highest levels of print quality, safety and environmental sustainability. When customers purchase HP, they are reducing plastic waste and contributing to a circular economy. And we work tirelessly to maximize value for our customers, including Instant Ink, our “ink delivery” subscription service which includes ink, shipping and recycling.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on August 19, 2019.