• Sue Walder-Davis

When my printer ink ran out, I had an environmental awakening...

It’s week six of lockdown, and week four of school-from-home. My boys are doing amazingly really, fortunately my 10 year old has ‘finished’ the primary school curriculum and is firmly in revision and reinforcement mode so can work independently. My 6 year old however? Well it took 2 hours of all the patience I could muster yesterday to teach him about how to find and calculate thirds for his maths. I’m amazed I didn’t end up demonstrating by downing a third of a bottle of gin!

One thing that has come hand in hand with school-from-home has been a shed load printing. Worksheets, colouring sheets, various types of graph paper...our printer has gone into overdrive and at the same time it’s started to go a bit wonky. Every day, yes every day, it has a paper jam. I’ve had to take bits of the printer off to unblock it and have cried internally as I move the unusable crumpled and torn printer paper that has got stuck to the recycling bin. Little slices of tree that I’m throwing out just because my hardware is having a middle-aged hissy fit. The irony is that the jam occurs most often when I am doing double-sided printing to save paper.

And then last weekend...the dreaded ‘out of ink’ error message came. Our printer has 5 separate cartridges; black, grey, cyan, magenta and yellow. But when I looked in my small stash of cartridges, looking back at me was the bizarre situation of 1 grey and 3 magenta cartridges - the remnants of ‘full sets’ I’ve bought because that’s the cheapest way to buy the consumables. The truth is we haven’t printed in colour for ages because we’ve run out of all the other colours, and I’ve been dismissing the ’ink running low’ message on the bigger black cartridge ever since home-schooling began.

For this particular printer we’ve never got on with ink cartridge refills from our local refill shop. They have leaked or created errors and the print quality has been pretty rubbish. But I’ve also never bought Epson branded inks (mainly because I don’t want to remortgage my house just to print off my invoices) opting instead for non-branded replacements. But again, these haven’t always proven great. Either running out very quickly or clogging up for no particular reason leaving me with streaky prints and endless nozzle cleaning runs which in turn use more bloody ink.

So faced with the need to replace my ink, and not having been particularly pleased with the last knock-off brand I tried, I put in a call to my brother. He’s the technical help desk of our family. I don’t think he’d mind me referring to him as a computer geek, he’s ridiculously, mensa-level clever and has worked in IT since before it was called IT. I knew he’d have done all the research and leg work, and know exactly which replacement non-brand I should try next. But his answer wasn’t what I expected, his reply was “well to be honest I haven’t used ink cartridges for about 18 months because I have an ink-tank printer”. He then went on to blow my home-printing and eco-conscious mind.

So as it turns out, my brother made the decision last time he needed to replace his printer, to go down a different route. He has two teenage children with school printing needs and my lovely sister-in-law, a speech therapist, also has to print a lot materials for her work. He was fed up of printers only lasting 2-3 years and spending a small fortune on ink. He explained that he’d chosen to invest in an eco-tank printer, one that costs more up front for the hardware, but that saves huge amounts of money in the long run because instead of highly consumable cartridges, you fill large tanks with bottled ink. in the 18 months that he has had his printer, even with heavy use, he hasn’t yet gone through the ink that came with his original purchase. He’s adamant that this choice has more than paid for itself...and he’ll have definitely done the maths.

I was intrigued by this idea, not just from a financial perspective, but also from an environmental one. 900 million ink cartridges are sold worldwide each year, 65 million of which are in the UK. 900 million! Just think of all the waste that comes with that; even though cartridges can be recycled, only around 15% of them are. And most cartridges are made from engineering grade polymers which are the cockroaches of plastics, taking an estimated 1000 years to decompose.

In talking to my brother, I learned a huge amount about the business model around printers and printing. Tech companies have adopted the razor-blade business model when it comes to making money in this area. Despite their complexity and relatively high manufacture cost, printers are sold at a very low (often loss-leading) price, locking purchasers into then having to spend exponential further spondoolies on the consumable ink. Printers are shipped with ‘demo’ cartridges which are only around 1/3 full, so you are almost immediately compelled to buy your next batch.

The average ink cartridge holds 11ml of ink, and costs around 50p to manufacture. Yet buying a single colour, proprietary brand replacement can cost £16. That’s a potential 3100% markup or £1450 per litre of ink. And yes sure, you can bulk buy and spend less per unit, but you will still pay an eye-watering markup. And while you can choose to go for non-branded alternatives, or indeed to refill your cartridges, you are still paying a huge amount of money - doing either for £5 a cartridge, you are still paying a markup of 900% or upwards of £450 per litre of ink!

And when it comes to printers, ink consumables are just one of many eco-woes. Bottom line, your printer is only designed to last 2-3 years. According to my brother, the reason I’m getting paper jams is because the rollers have probably gone. They are designed to go, and they cannot be replaced. Similarly, printers use waste tanks for ink, when you clean your print heads, a small amount of ink is used, and wasted in the process. This waste is stored in a tank inside the machine and once this is full - your printer is done. It’s another non-replaceable part. This is all part of the business model, as a consumer, you won’t mind having to replace your printer every 2-3 years because you can pick up a decent enough model for £60. And every time you do, you will have to buy different ink cartridges (so those ones you’ve stashed, because it was cheaper to buy in bulk, are defunct) and you’ve given printer manufacturers a couple of years to improve their chip technology so that ‘compatible’ cartridges are harder to produce or refill.

This business model, of selling you an initial product for a low cost and then consumables at an extortionate one started in the shaving sector - which is where the ‘razor-blade model’ name was born. You can buy a cheap enough razor, but the proprietary replacement blades that probably cost pennies to manufacture are sold at a ridiculous markup. The model is everywhere; coffee pod machines, swiffer type mops, water filters - and in every single case, the high-consumable parts required to make the products work create huge amounts of waste. But overall such products appeal both to our sense of convenience and to our love of a bargain (because who really takes the time to work our a long term cost of anything they buy? Apart from my brother that is!)

My brother’s printer in contrast to a standard cartridge one uses proprietary bottled ink that costs £9 for 70ml (£129 per litre) which represents a saving of over of 90% compared to using cartridges. On top of that, the ink dispensing system is highly efficient, meaning that one bottle will print 4,000 pages. An average ink cartridge of a similar price will print just 220. In addition that waste ink tank I talked about is a replaceable part, so the printer should last longer overall.

So talking it all through with my brother, I decided that rather than buying another bulk batch of expensive inks for a printer that’s probably about to die (as the paper jams are warning) that I too would make the jump to an ink tank printer. I have gone for an Epson Eco-Tank 3750 that came with 2 sets of bottled ink that will print up to 14,000 pages. The upfront cost wasn’t small, it cost £300, but the equivalent cartridge model would have been £105, would have come with demo cartridges and would cost £50 per set of replacements (printing just 300 sheets). I’d only have to replace the cartridges 4 times before I’ve spent the same money, but with the eco-tank I have 12,800 pages worth of ink still in hand. It really is a financial no brainer.

Less expensive versions of the Eco-Tank are available, but I paid extra to have a double-sided printing option as it saves hugely in precious paper. They start at £180 But those models do come with less upfront ink too, so it’s worth doing the long-term maths if you are able to stretch further up front.

But it is an environmental no-brainer too. While this razor-blade model makes excellent business sense, ethically and environmentally it is way behind the curve. With the convenience and low up-front costs come huge long term waste, a model that with every scheme under the sun we can’t recycle our way out of. Just remember, 900 million ink cartridges a year of which just 15% are recycled. Add in coffee, pods, razor blades, water’s mindblowing.

As consumers we need to be smarter, and vote with our wallets - when presented with alternative and less harmful models, we need to take them whenever we can. If we demonstrate to manufacturers that we would like more honesty, and better environmental solutions, they will come. And in a world where governments are making environmental commitments left, right and centre, legislation really should be forcing corporate hands here too.

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