The Savings, and Controversy, of Printer Cartridges
By Reid Goldsborough
It’s a truism that as a general rule consumers seek bargains and businesses seek profits. With computer printers, the healthiest margins come not from the sale of the ink jet or laser printers themselves but from the cartridges needed when the originals run out of ink or toner (powdered ink used with laser printers). With some heavily used printers, the cost of the cartridges used during one year can be more than the cost of the printer itself.
Looking to save costs, some individuals and businesses buy replacement cartridges not from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) but from third-party companies.
But along with savings, there’s a risk. And there’s a legal battle raging.
When the cartridge in an ink jet or laser printer runs out of ink or toner, you have three main choices:
•You can buy a new cartridge from the same company that made the printer. This is the easiest option — printers typically come with all the information you need to order replacements. It can be the safest option, since you know the cartridge and the ink or toner will work just as well as what the printer came with. This is especially true when quality is paramount, as it can be when printing photos.
But OEM cartridges are the most expensive option. Beware of suspiciously low-cost cartridges labeled as OEM products. Reports indicate an influx of low-quality counterfeits from China, Malaysia and Latin America.
• You can buy a compatible or remanufactured cartridge from a third-party company. Compatible cartridges cost as little as half that of OEM cartridges, while remanufactured cartridges, made from empty OEM cartridges, can cost as little as one-third the price. Along with these cost benefits, with the recycled units there are also environmental benefits because fewer cartridges wind up in landfills.
But some companies selling cheap replacement ink-jet cartridges fill them with ink that’s not fully compatible with the printer, which may clog the print head. Some companies selling cheap replacement laser toner cartridges don’t clean or replace cartridge components when needed, which may leak toner and damage the printer.
• You can buy an ink jet refill kit. They typically come with ink and a syringe that you use to refill the cartridge yourself. This option can cost as little as 10 percent of the cost of buying new OEM cartridges.
But the kits can be messy, with some easier to use than others.
OEMs really want you to buy replacement cartridges from them, and they’re using various tactics to this end.
Some say that using an aftermarket cartridge will void the printer’s warranty, a contention that has dubious legal validity provided that the cartridge itself doesn’t cause any damage. Some OEMs offer discounted prices on their replacement cartridges if buyers agree not to turn them over to third-party manufacturers when they’re empty.
Industry heavyweights such as Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark International have begun making cartridges with patented chips that communicate toner levels to the computer or that are needed for the cartridge to work at
all. This makes it difficult or illegal for third-party manufacturers to create compatible products.
Lexmark, in fact, is waging a legal battle against one remanufacturer, Static Control Components . In response, SCC has filed suit accusing Lexmark of violating antitrust laws in trying to thwart competition.
Where does all this leave individuals and companies that use printer cartridges?
If you go the third-party route, stick with reputable, quality-conscious companies. Pendl Companies and others like it, for instance, will remanufacture a laser toner cartridge only once to minimize risk. Also, don’t buy from any third-party cartridge company that advertises its products through spam. If it’s taking shortcuts this way, it may be in other ways as well. And don’t simply choose the lowest price replacement cartridges you can find. Two good sites are PrintPal and Carrot Ink .
Despite earlier promises of the “paperless office,” the need for paper, and printers, has only been increasing. According to a figure cited by Hewlett-Packard, North American office printers spewed out 1.2 trillion sheets in 2001, an increase of more than 50 percent from five years earlier.
If third-party printer manufacturers are allowed to compete, they will continue to play an important part in helping to control office printing costs, if not use of paper itself. According to a survey by Lyra Research of Newtonville, Mass., 40 percent of businesses with more than 100 employees use remanufactured cartridges.
The remanufacturers see this number increasing.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or .
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