Why is printer ink so expensive?

A few years ago, I went to the computer store to buy a printer. One printer on sale was ~$45. I checked the ink prices, and a full set for this color printer would be ~$55. I told the cashier, why don’t I just buy the printer and sell the ink and pocket the $10 difference? He said, “Usually the cartridges that come with the printer aren’t full.”

Another computer salesman told me their ink section was affectionately known as “The Gold Mine.”

Is there some kind of conspiracy?

Yes. For inkjet printers, get yourself a Continuous Ink Supply System if you’re going to be doing a significant amount of printing.

consumable supplies are where the most money is made.

Supply and demand.


When you buy a printer, the only ink cartridges you can usually buy are from the manufacturer. Or, at least that’s what the manufacturer hopes. So, they sell new printers for dirt cheap and hope to make up the money on the expensive cartridges.

You notice that manufacturers are now putting in postage paid recycling envelopes in their cartridges with a little blurb on how you can help save the world by giving them back their cartridges? There’s a reason for that: The manufacturers want to keep the empty cartridges out of the hands of recyclers who fill them with ink and sell them for 1/3 the price of a new cartridge.

You notice Staples recycles cartridges? In fact, they’ll even pay you to drop them off there. That way, Staples can refurbish them and sell their brand of cartridges for 30% cheaper than the manufacturer’s price.

Kodak originally tried to break this model by promising cheap cartridges although their printers were more expensive. A $100 HP equivalent would be about $150 to $170. However, the cartridge would be $10 instead of $30.

I’ve noticed that Kodak printers are now about the same price as HP and Canon printers. And, so are Kodak’s printer cartridges.

A while ago at least printer ink was in the top 10 most expensive liquids in the world (after seman from prize bulls, perfumes and snake venoms). Although remember hearing something about that being expected to change (no cite, I could simply be going mad).

I believe the main reason lies in how it’s distributed; an ink “cartridge” is an entire delivery mechanism in it’s own right (compare it to a pen’s ink cartridge; a simple piece of soft plastic with no moving parts or circuit boards). You can save quite a bit of money by just having existing cartriges refilled (or do it yourself) in any case.

There are printers out there that bring the cost way down. I still use my old reliable HP laserjet 4 for the majority of my printing needs and reserve my wide carriage ink printer for photographs.

They lure you into buying a real nice printer that looks like a bargain. Then they make money by selling you ink. They are kind of like pushers.

It’s a grand old marketing tradition that dates back to the original Kodak cameras and Gillette razors. King Gillette (the person) realized that if he gave away the razor, people would keep coming back to the buy his blades, even if there were less expensive alternatives.

If you’re talking ink jet printers, look closely at the “printer” – what is it, – a pair of rails, a motor to drive the ink cartridge, a roller to push the paper? Simple. Maybe you even got it free with the computer purchase. Now look at the cartridge – it’s not just a box of ink, it has a dozen precision drilled holes to spray the ink, using a piezo crystal to send the ink out, all the electronics, you can see it as a ribbon cable with circuit tracings are in the cartridge itself, the printer doesn’t really do anything. Heck, in the old old days, the printer had to interpret word processing codes to switch it’s modes (boldface, font switch, etc.), now the operating system does all that.

Plus, yeah, like everyone said above, supply-demand, consumable offsetting cost of free printer, etc.

And like it was alreay said, pennies per page, a laser printer is more cost effective.

Yes, the printers are like the discounted first hit you get from a crack dealer and the cartridges are there to keep the cash flowing freely. I didn’t even consider printer price when buying my printer, just cartridge price and page count. Of course, page counts aren’t [del]always[/del] at all accurate and they jacked up the cartridge prices shortly after I bought it, so…

Even so I’ve noticed they’re not too terribly expensive. I think buying a reasonably high-end printer with its own print head (instead of built into the cartridge) cuts costs a little, plus you get a nicer printer. Though I guess not everyone needs a nice printer.

Edit: It’s also nice when a printer lets you override their decisions, so you can squeeze out a few more pages after it tells you the cartridge is empty :wink: Apparently this risks damaging the print head though, so don’t get carried away.

I work for one of the biggest ‘ink’ manufacturers in the world (not saying who :slight_smile: )

I am the inventory analyst/buyer for my workplace.

Most of the materials used to make the ink have a cost that is negligible (compared to the finished product). However, the raw pigment used to make colors is VERY expensive. I source several different manufacturers for pigment, and depending upon which way the wind is blowing go with the cheapest. But even the cheapest is still very expensive.

Bottom line: the raw pigment used in the ink is what makes your ink cartridge so costly.

Can you give us a clue about how the costs break down per cartridge?

I’m wondering if it’s like gold or saffron or something.

If it’s really all because of this shady ink cartel controlling the supply, what is to stop someone from creating third-party generic knockoff cartridges which will work with the various brands of printers and swooping in to undercut the proprietary stuff? Patents?

So why then is a CISS so cheap, relatively speaking? For much the same price as a set of cartridges you get a whole system with many times the capacity. And refills are much cheaper. £3 for 100ml instead of £12 for a cartridge with rather less.

Hmm…also, why are pens dirt cheap?

They do. Try Googling “ink cartridges”. Of course, every printer has a different design of cartridge (and, as pointed out above, usually quite a bit of the printers mechanism is built into the cartridge), so the price is not dirt cheap, but still a good deal cheaper than buying the “official” brand.

You can also buy refill kits for just a few dollars. Half an hour or so spent refilling your cartridge every few months can save you a lot of money. I do it, and it works fine. I think these days some cartridges may be designed with special electronics built in just to stop you doing this, but with my old printer I can refill the same cartridge several times over.

No way is the issue the cost of pigment.

This is not true for all printers. For example, Epson cartridges are just a container for the ink. The piezoelectric injectors are on the printer itself.

The small circuit board on Epson cartridges is basically just a counter; each time the printer draws ink from the cartridge it decreases the value on that chip so you can have an indication of the ink level. There is no way to measure the ink level directly.

A number of manufacturers (Lexmark prime among them) use encryption on the chips to prevent cartridge refilling/3rd party recycling. And those use-counter chips can be notoriously inaccurate, shutting down a cartridge as empty with as much as a third of the ink remaining.

But in the manufacturers defense, a decent ink for an inkjet is not trivial. It has to flow, form regular sized droplets, stick to media in a defined pattern, not flow when applied, dry very fast, and last for years. They put in years of R&D on the inks, and like to recoup those costs. And the integrated print heads, while capable of printing more than a single cart worth of ink, are not designed for endless use - they are designed to be disposable.

I saw a review of printed photos, where the photos were displayed for a year. The manufacturers inks all lasted better than the refills, and the more you payed for the ink, the better the photos lasted (Canon Pixma won, as I recall, comparable to a processing house dye-sub).


Ditto what si_blakely said. Think for a minute how often you get a glob of ink at the tip of a ball-point pen, and then think of the gazillions of individual drops that are placed by the computer printer.

Think also about how finely those drops are positioned when a straight line is printed on the page.

Yes, I’m sure there’s some “free printer and ripoff ink” logic to the pricing, but also, let’s all take a deep breath and appreciate how well this technology works.