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Taking on big ink

The earth is loaded with rare and precious materials, from tiny grains of radioactive isotopes to pouches of hand-picked saffron — pound for pound one of the most expensive spice and dyes on the planet, with prices varying from $1,000 to $10,000 for

The earth is loaded with rare and precious materials, from tiny grains of radioactive isotopes to pouches of hand-picked saffron — pound for pound one of the most expensive spice and dyes on the planet, with prices varying from $1,000 to $10,000 for a kilogram.

Ambergris, a kind of oil made by Sperm Whales, possibly from the indigestible beaks of the giant squids they consume, is one of the most expensive liquids on the planet at more than $40 per fluid ounce.

Human blood also has its value, pegged at roughly 40 cents for a millilitre, or $12 for a fluid ounce. It’s free in Canada, but that’s what for-profit banks will charge you.

But the most expensive liquid anywhere by a long mile is printer ink. The price of ink can range up to $8,000 per gallon or $2,100 per litre, which is the equivalent of more than $2 for a millilitre. To fill a beer bottle with ink would cost you $682.

While the liquid is expensive, most of the high cost of ink replacement cartridges has to do with the fact that every cartridge is essentially a mini computer that stores and delivers the ink to the page. They are manufactured under antiseptic laboratory conditions, free of lint and dust that could plug up the microscopic holes, and great care has to be taken to ensure that none of the ink dries as its being put into the cartridge.

But $8,000 per gallon is still extortionate, especially when you consider the fact that every printer is quite obviously designed to exclude cartridges made by other companies, and each cartridge is designed to be difficult to refill. When someone sells you a printer they want you as a client for the long haul.

The situation prompted one Boston man to file suit against Hewlett Packard (HP) and Staples for “colluding to inflate the price of printer ink cartridges in violation of federal antitrust law”, according to the article at Ars Technica (

The suit alleges that HP paid Staples $100 million not to sell more inexpensive third party cartridges. The Boston man’s HP replacement cartridges are at the high end, with ink in the $8,000 per gallon range.

But while HP and Staples are the target of this particular suit, they’re hardly the only companies in the printing game to go after third party businesses. They’ve used patents and even the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to try to put third party companies out of business.

One tactic involves putting proprietary chips on cartridges that third party companies can’t duplicate, and are required for the printer to operate.

Another tactic is to bundle the printer with specific software that can recognize a third party cartridge, and refuse to print.

And then there’s the usual scare tactics, warning buyers that using third party printer cartridges will void their warranties and could put their prints and printer at risk.

It should be mentioned that this lawsuit follows a recent study that found that most printers are lying when they start to blink and warn users that they’re almost out of ink. TUV Rheinland, which conducted the study, found that all printer cartridges had at least some ink left over at the end of their life.

Epson printers were generally the most efficient in their study, using about 80 per cent of ink, while one of Kodak’s photo printers was rated the worst for only using about 36 per cent of available ink before the light started blinking. In their study, TUV Rheinland weighed the cartridges before and after their use, and stopped using the cartridges when the printers reported low ink.

Another problem identified by the study is that cartridges that use multiple colours will say they’re low when only one of the colours is down. The solution is to use a printer that allows for single cartridge replacements for each colour, but again most are replaced with 10 to 20 per cent of their ink remaining.

It will be months or even years before the Boston man’s suit against HP and Staples could see its day in court, but in the meantime people are being ripped off each and every day.

In the spirit of not being wasteful in the New Year, it makes sense to do a little research before you buy a printer.

The first thing you want to know is whether you can replace colour and black cartridges individually, and how many pages you should be able to print with each cartridge. What will really matter to most people in the long run is the cost per page for black and white and for colour. Just divide the number of pages the company advertises by the cost of the cartridge and you should know how many cents each print will cost.

Then you should find out if the cartridges you use can be obtained from a third party source — either a company that manufactures the replacements, or sells refilled cartridges. There are literally dozens of websites for companies that refill cartridges, like,, and You might want to check with our local computer stores like Altitude Computers and Garibaldi Graphics as well — probably before you buy your printer, because it helps to be able to buy your ink locally instead of paying for shipping.

There are also ways to refill cartridges yourself, although be warned that it’s extremely difficult even with steady hands. Check out, and the cartridge aisle at your local store to see what’s available. The do-it-yourself website Instructables will also show you how at