Printer Ink Cartridges: Why You Pay More But Get A Lot Less | Consumer affairs
It is a busy morning at Cartridge World in Aylesbury, part of a chain of nearly 200 outlets across the UK selling branded and refilled printer cartridges. It’s a thriving business. The shop has doubled its sales in the past five years.
But customers keep coming back to him with the same complaint, says shop owner Martin Dyckhoff: The branded ink cartridges they have bought run out of ink too quickly.
The sky-high price of printing ink – more expensive than vintage champagne by measure – is well documented. Less known is the fact that the amount of ink in the average cartridge has shrunk dramatically. “Newer cartridges contain a fraction of the ink that a similar product contained a decade ago,” says Dyckhoff. “The amount can be tiny.”
For example, the Epson T032 color cartridge (released in 2002) is the same size as the Epson T089 color cartridge (released in 2008). But the T032 contains 16 ml of ink and the T089 only contains 3.5 ml of ink. The situation is similar with cartridges from Hewlett Packard (HP). A decade ago, the best-selling HP cartridge was 42 ml of ink and sold for around Â£ 20. These days, standard HP printer cartridges can only hold 5ml of ink, but they sell for around Â£ 13.
Cut open an HP inkjet cartridge and see what’s going on. The size of the sponges inside that hold the ink has decreased progressively over the years. The rest of the cartridge is now just empty space. In the meantime, the ink tank of Epson cartridges has been systematically reduced in size.
“The strategy was to get consumers to buy more frequently,” says David Connett, editor of The Recycler, a specialist magazine for the recycling industry. “The major printer manufacturers have reduced the amount of ink in a cartridge, encrypted the chip technology, and used aggressive marketing tactics to prevent refills.”
Chris Brooks, Technical Director of the UK Cartridge Remanufacturers Association’s industrial group, is more direct: “The big printers are doing everything they can to make more and more money from poor consumers in exchange for less ink.”
The worst value, say the experts, is the color cartridges. All three leading vendors, including Canon, sell single tri-color ink cartridges – cyan, magenta, and yellow – often with less than 2 ml of ink per color. “They have a very bad value because when one of the three colors is used up, the entire cartridge no longer works,” says Dyckhoff. “We always recommend people buy a printer with a separate cartridge for each color.”
The shrinking amount of ink in the cartridges has allowed manufacturers to offer a remarkable new product – called “XL” (extra large), but almost exactly the same size as the standard cartridge. For example, HP makes the HP300, which contains 5ml of black ink and retails for around Â£ 13. It also makes the HP300XL, which has more ink – around 16 ml – and sells for around 20 to 25 pounds. But both are almost the same size. In fact, some manufacturers’ “XL” cartridges may contain less ink than the standard cartridges that were issued a few years ago.
XL cartridges are an âinsultâ to the consumer, says Patrick Stead of cartridge recycler Environmental Business Products: âHP sells cartridges that are half full, then sticks an ‘XL’ on, refills them, and sells them for even more money. The difference in manufacturing costs is only a few cents. It’s a shocking rip off. “
Printers deny that they are pressuring consumers to increase their profits. “Focusing on a single factor such as where it was purchased, the cost of the cartridge or printer, the cost per page, or the milliliters of ink in a particular cartridge is not an accurate way of measuring the cost of printing,” HP said in a statement. Consumers should focus on the cost per printed page – she claims that her Officejet Pro models have kept ink cost per page the same since 2009.
Epson, meanwhile, argues that printheads are more efficient than they were 10 years ago because of advances in technology. “You are able to produce a larger number of pages with an appropriate amount of ink,” said a company announcement.
Of the leading manufacturers, Canon has been the least aggressive when it comes to ink reduction, but the volume has still shrunk. For example, the latest inkjet cartridge PGI-525BK contains 19 ml of ink compared to the 26 ml BCI-3BK released in 2005. The company has also introduced standard and XL cartridges.
Critics accept that there have been technological improvements and that modern printheads are more efficient. “But these improvements can’t justify a five-fold reduction in the amount of ink in a cartridge,” says Brooks. “The cost of printer ink is lower than ever, a few euros for a liter. Many cartridges cost less than 50 pence to manufacture. The premium is enormous. The consumer pays a lot more pro-rata today than it did a decade ago.” for cartridges with very little ink. “
There is an intense battle between manufacturers (HP, Epson and Canon) and remanufacturers, represented by Brooks, who refill cartridges in order to sell them at a discount. Remanufacturers have generated a third of UK sales, while counterfeit cartridges are pouring into the country from China.
In addition, aggressive competition from new entrants like Kodak, who launched their way into the market with cheap plastic printers and even cheaper cartridges in the mid-2000s, has diminished their bottom line. (Kodak said last year it was pulling out of the inkjet market.)
“The big three have seen their market share decline year on year,” says Brooks. “You had to do something drastic.”
The response has been to sell cheaper printers and get the money back on low-ink cartridges that consumers have to replace more frequently. A decade ago the average household printer cost more than Â£ 150, but today they retail for just Â£ 30.
Many new printers come with “start-up” cartridges that contain tiny amounts of ink that require the owner to purchase new cartridges almost immediately. Others have embedded technology to block cheap refills. “The logic is simple,” says Stead. “As soon as a consumer buys an HP printer, they have to buy HP cartridges, no matter what they cost.”