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The Printer Ink Scandal

May 2011

I don’t know what the most expensive liquid in the world is, but if it’s not printer ink, I bet it comes pretty close to winning the prize. 

It’s hard to be precise but as far as I can work out, after a rather messy afternoon dismembering a cartridge, it’s easy to pay well over £5,000 a gallon. 

The truth is, it’s impossible to tell how long a cartridge will last.  It’s not just the number of pages you print, but how many words or pictures are on them and even the font and paper you use.  That much I accept; what I do object to is the sneaky ways ink cartridges are sold to us.

Firstly, and most obvious, why on earth don’t they say how much ink is in there?  You can’t buy a bottle of wine or shampoo without being told the quantity, so why are printing ink-mongers able to get away with hiding it?

Secondly, this business of sticking the three colours together gets my goat so fast that its hooves barely touch the ground.  It means that when the blue runs out I am forced to replace all three of them; outrageous.

Thirdly, there’s the way it decides for itself when it needs replacing.  Some printers even prevent any further printing until the cartridge is replaced.  Does it really know how much ink is left?  Of course it doesn’t; it’s just making an estimate based on the number of times it has whizzed back and forth, but the petrol gauge in your car is a paragon of accuracy compared to this guesswork.

Fourthly, how much ink is left in the cartridge after it is replaced?  There needs to be a little, because to run dry would cause the system to seize up, just as you would not allow your car to run dry of oil, but it doesn’t need much.  However when I took one supposedly empty cartridge apart and found what looked like about a third of the inkwell still full, I felt cheated.  It has been electronically declared “empty” but there was plenty in there.

It’s disgraceful, and confirms my view that, from a salesman’s perspective, printing cartridges are the perfect product – unregulated, impossible to compare like with like and we always buy spares.  In fact, one reason why printers are getting cheaper and cheaper is that the big money is made selling the ink, and once you are stuck with a printer, they’ve got you.

So what should a canny Oldie do?  I don’t know how clever it is, but my approach has been to buy a cheap black and white laser printer.  Laser printers used to be very expensive, but mine was only £80, and whilst the replacement cartridges are a steepish £50, they really do last for ages (mine is still going after two years, and I do print a fair bit), the printing is much faster and the quality is fine.  I also have a cheap inkjet printer for the occasional colour page (pictures, mainly) but once you have a black and white printer you realise just how little you actually need colour.  Please don’t be tempted by a colour laser printer, they really are expensive to run.

If you want to stick with your inkjet printer, then have a look at the instructions and set the printing quality to “draft”.  It’s quite good enough for most needs and uses much less ink.  When it does want you to replace a cartridge, try taking out the old one, shaking it up a bit and putting it back in; cheaper printers will often be fooled into thinking that it’s a new one and press on.  Eventually the print will get faint, and then you really do need a new one, but that’s up to you.

Finally, believe it or not, the font really does make a difference.  The University of Wisconsin claimed to achieve savings of over $5,000 each year just by changing the font on all its printing from Arial to Century Gothic.  Times New Roman is also supposed to be one of the more economical.

I doubt that many Oldies do so much printing that this will make a difference, but consider it before you produce that novel.