If you’ve been paying any significant attention at all over the last several years, you’ve undoubtedly heard or seen advertisements for businesses that promise to save you money on printer ink cartridges. Specifically, by letting you refill the ink once it runs out, rather than forcing you to buy an entirely new cartridge. A quick Google search turns up tons of options, some from
high-profile places like Walgreen’s, and many others with instructions on how to do it yourself. And it’s easy to see why that idea is so attractive: You replace the only part of the cartridge that’s spent, and pay only a fraction of the price you’d spend on a full replacement. What could possibly be wrong with the setup?
Well for one thing, HP reps told me last week that, at least with their products, it doesn’t work.
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s exactly what you’d expect people to say if they work for one of the largest printer manufacturers in the world.” To which I can only reply: Uh, yeah, you’re right. A company in HP’s position has every reason to downplay this cost-cutting measure, so anything you hear about it from someone at the company itself deservedly needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I brought my shaker from the kitchen and put it right next to the computer.
I must admit, HP’s reasoning here made some sense to me. While I was touring the company’s North American cartridge recycling plant in Smyrna, Tennessee (a suburb of Nashville), during the typical dog-and-pony presentation before the main event, the subject came up and our guides were remarkably willing to discuss (and defend) their position when we seemed (at first, anyway) to be more interested in that than in the actual recycling process we’d been invited to witness.
Jean Gingras, environmental program manager of the Americas Environmental Leadership Team, explained it this way: “For example, if you have a glass and you drink water out of it every day, as long as you wash it the quality of the water doesn’t change. But with a cartridge, we’ve done studies that show when you remanufacture or you refill [it], the quality does change. And so that quality change can cause customers to reprint.”
How does the quality change, I wondered?
“Because the print heads or the nozzles on the print cartridge,” she said, “after you’ve used them until the ink is gone in the cartridge, the quality of those change. They’re not going to print necessarily the same way as they did for the first run.” Gingras then touted an HP-commissioned study of business customers that showed reprinting inspired by the resulting poor quality offset the environmental savings of reusing or remanufacturing that cartridge.
At this point Jeff Walter, director of Worldwide Environmental Solutions for the HP Imaging and Printing Group, chimed in. “If you look at cartridges, for example, there’s a massive amount of technology both in the print heads as well as there is some physics associated with the foam and the way the ink flows through the print heads, and over time the foam degrades, gets film, et cetera, and what we’ve found is that, of refilled cartridges, about a third of them wind up failing.”
Even Walter admitted the allure of the idea. “Trust me, we’ve looked again and again and again: Can we refill? Can we remanufacture?”
“Yeah,” Gingras laughed. “Because we want to know: Can we do it, too?”
“We look at this all the time,” Walter continued, “and we cannot figure out a way to do it that provides the same quality. Customers expect, fundamentally, 100% of the time, that the printer’s gonna work. So every time you get the failure rates, you get the poor quality, which then offsets any manufacturing benefits of the remanufacturing or refilling.”
So why not just replace the print heads?
“It depends on the system,” Walter told me, “and then you still have the ink flow, foam…”
Gingras added, “And for printing, much of the technology, I think 70% of the technology, is actually in the print cartridge, because that’s where the nozzles are fired at four, six picoliters, very small drops.”
Rich Wirick, the plant manager for the Smyrna facility, took this opportunity to join in the conversation. “You can only refill something, even the [remanufactured ink cartridges], you can only refill a certain amount, once or twice or whatever it is… Even they can’t get it to work after that.”
“And if they can’t refill it, it’s going to a landfill,” said Walter. “Versus us, nothing goes into a landfill.”
It was up to Gingras to steer the discussion back on point. “The great thing about [HP’s process] is that we can recycle a cartridge an infinite number of times.”
Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to prove this, particularly on the tour Wirick gave us through the 80,000-square-foot facility. Though I didn’t love all the protective gear I had to wear — a fluorescent vest, a hard hat, steel shoe tips (for climbing onto the machines), earplugs, and rubber gloves (I’d rather, gasp, wear a suit to the office) — it was fascinating to explore how the cartridges are received, sorted (almost entirely by machine, to the tune of tens of thousands per hour), then either disassembled or shredded before the pieces are sent off to be mixed with other resins and additives (such as recycled plastic water bottles) to form new print cartridges. And, Wirick was careful to note, because of the “closed-loop” recycling process, very few — if any — of the cartridge parts end up in landfills the way HP does things. So that’s good.
But the chances are good that the refilling conversation won’t be going away anytime soon. It’s been persisting for years. HP devotes pages on its website to its anti-refill arguments. And The New York Times reported back in 2006 that HP “went after Cartridge World [a seller of refilled ink cartridges]… for using ink that infringes on patents for its Vivera line of inks” and filed a lawsuit against a company called InkCycle, which made refilled cartridges for Staples, “asserting that the company had violated three patents covering fast-drying ink for plain paper and methods for preventing color from bleeding on paper.”
“So if the ink used by the reputable refillers is good enough to provoke Hewlett’s lawyers,” the Times story concluded, “it should be O.K. to use with confidence, right?”
Six years on, that remains a good question. And given the high price of new cartridges (just on Amazon, a single new cartridge of one style costs about $15, for which you can get three or four remanufactured units from other companies), it’s one that HP — and other printer companies — will continue to have to deal with, now and in the future.
Have you had good luck (or any luck) buying refilled or remanufactured print cartridges, or even refilling your own cartridges? Leave a comment below and let me know. Or, if you’ve successfully pursued the optimal solution — readjusting your computing life as much as possible so you need to print rarely if ever — let me know that, too. I’ve been working on that for a while, though more owing to issues of convenience than of environmental awareness or outrage over the price of ink.