A Closer Look At Remanufactured Ink Cartridges—A Bargain Or Not?

Call it what you will—remanufacturing or refilling—the practice of third-parties refilling and reselling ink and toner cartridges has always roused the ire of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)–as well as their legal staffs–and for good reason, of course, as these supplies represent important recurring revenue streams for OEMs.

In February 2010, computer-maker Dell decided to get in the remanufactured ink-cartridge business with Florida-based partner NextLife.  Together they launched a series of remanufactured ink cartridges for ink-jet printers and All-in-Ones marketed by Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, Canon and Epson.

Dell initially began selling the remanufactured ink cartridges (which bear a NextLife label) on the Dell Web site; the remanufactured cartridges are also sold on the NextLife Web site.  This week, Dell began selling the cartridges at office super-store Best Buy.  The marketing for the refilled ink cartridges relies heavily on the cartridges’ eco-friendly virtues.  For instance, NextLife’s Web site states one of its goals was to:  “Reduce environmental impact, such as global warming, caused by ink-cartridge production.”  Best Buy’s Web site even says the cartridges’ ink is recycled (fortunately, this is not true, for instance,  the ink is not scraped off printed pages and used again).

Dell states that the remanufactured ink cartridges yield up to 20-percent more pages than the original OEM cartridge.  But neither Dell nor NextLife provide page yields, so that it’s impossible to formulate cost per page, which is the true indicator of a supply item’s cost (see below for more on this).

Oddly, Dell isn’t making remanufactured ink cartridges available for its own ink-jet printers and All-in-Ones, although perhaps it will in the future.  While the cartridges available seem to be only for older printers and AiOs, Dell states that more will be on the way, as well as new retailers:  “NextLife Ink by Dell printer cartridges will be available for about 70% of the most popular ink-jet printers in use today through Dell.com immediately and several major retail outlets starting in Spring 2010.”

As for the NextLife cartridges’ eco-friendliness, NextLife states a bit of the obvious, noting that the remanufactured ink cartridges consist of “43% – 62% reclaimed materials.”  Interestingly, although Dell has a recycling program for its own Dell-brand ink and toner cartridges (as do Lexmark, Hewlett-Packard and Epson), Dell doesn’t have a recycling program for the NextLife cartridges.

Where Do Refilled Ink Cartridges Come From?

Just do a Google search for “ink cartridge recycling,” and pages and pages of ink-cartridge collectors will be displayed; these companies will purchase empty ink (and toner cartridges).  Average prices for empty ink cartridges are about five cents to a dollar.  “Virgin” cartridges (cartridges that were purchased new and never recycled) command up to $4.00.  Even Staples collects empty ink and toner cartridges (in return, customers receive “$3 in Staples Rewards”–see http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/products/3dollar_inkrecycle/).

These empty ink cartridges then serve as a source for ink-cartridge refillers, which they must label as remanufactured (when OEMs refill empty cartridges, they can label them as newly manufactured).  The legal aspects of refilling another manufacturer’s ink or toner cartridges and then reselling them has a long history.  OEMs typically patent and protect their cartridges, as well as their ink and toner formulations, and have gone to great lengths in protecting them.  In Lexmark International versus Static Control Components, Lexmark engineered a toner cartridge so that it would be difficult to refill; Static Control Components (SSC) managed to bypass the Lexmark controls.  Although Lexmark sued SSC, after several rounds in court, SSC ultimately won out.

Should I Buy A Remanufactured Cartridge?

Not necessarily.  Consider the following:

First – While you do not automatically void your printer or AiO’s product warranty when you use a remanufactured cartridge, if the manufacturer can show that the remanufactured cartridge caused damage to the printer, then the warranty may be void.

Second – There’s no guarantee you’ll actually save on ink or toner costs.  Just because the cartridge is cheaper, doesn’t mean you get a better deal.  In order to calculate cost per page, the seller must state the average page yield that’s determined using industry-standard test methods.  Only by obtaining cost per page can you actually be able to compare cartridge costs (cost per page = price of cartridge divided by page yield).  So think twice before you conclude that that $4.99 cartridge is such a great deal.

Third – The ink in OEM cartridges is specially formulated for two critical archival properties: 1) resistance to exposure to liquids (water-fastness); and 2) resistance to exposure to light (light-fastness).  If the third party’s ink formulation doesn’t match that of the OEM ink, this can result in premature aging of prints, so that within a year or so, all of the luminance is drained from the picture and/or there’s an overall yellowish appearance to the photo.

Fourth – There’s a good chance you won’t obtain the same image quality that you will with the OEM cartridge, especially if you use paper that’s been recommended for use with this particular ink formulation.  Wirth Consulting’s Terry Wirth, who has been testing ink- and toner-based printers, AiOs and MFPs for over 30 years, says that the odds of getting comparable image quality are about 50-50.

There are several reasons why this is so.  First, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be getting the same exact same ink formulation as provided by the OEM cartridge, as the OEM ink is typically patent-protected.  OEMs expend vast resources in developing inks, and it’s virtually impossible for a third-party refiller to be able to copy molecule-by-molecule the exact ink formulation.  For example, if one ink is slightly different than the OEM ink, color-fidelity problems may occur when printing color photos (the printed colors don’t match the actual colors in the photo).  For instance, all of the colors in the photo may display a greenish caste (something not very attractive when printing photos of people, for instance).  You may be able to reduce the green caste using by experimenting with the printer’s color-management software, but you’ll be printing more and consuming more ink.

Also consider that when you’re printing presentation materials or color photos, you’ll probably be using papers and media sold by the OEM–media that’s been designed in particular for your printer or All-in-One.  The OEMs themselves generally don’t manufacture this media.  Instead, paper companies submit samples to the OEM, which in turn tests and then re-brands or recommends the media that delivers the best image quality and reliability when used with the printer.  However, once the formulation of the ink is changed (when you use a refilled cartridge), that recommendation goes out the window, because you’re using a different ink.  Moreover, even though you may find a refilled cartridge that you like, the cartridge refiller may change ink sources down the road–it’s a decision of price over performance that may result in a a different ink formulation, so you’re almost guaranteed to get different results.

Fifth – OEM ink is developed to provide the best performance when used with a particular printer or series of printers.  The physical characteristics of third-party ink may not match that of the OEM ink—in more extreme cases, third-party ink may evaporate too quickly (dry too soon) or remain wet too long.  This can cause reliability problems (as well as wasted ink), and result in clogged print-head nozzles, caked-up buildup on the print head, or ink smeared on prints and paper-feed rollers (the last of which which will cause misfeeds if ignored over time).  Moreover, the printer’s cleaning mechanism hasn’t been designed to work with this slower- or faster-drying ink.  Ink-jet printers must periodically clean their print heads; but if enough waste ink has accumulated, the cleaning mechanism may be overwhelmed, and won’t be able to clear the accumulated ink.   Once periodic cleaning can’t be performed correctly, image quality will invariably suffer.

Recommendation

The bottom line is that although we all like to save money, there’s no guarantee that remanufactured ink cartridges are the best way to go, and in the long run, may not save you money, and in some cases may actually cause you more problems than they’re worth.

The safest thing to do is to use OEM ink.  And if you research cost-per-page beforehand, you may realize that you may not be saving much with remanufactured ink cartridges.

There are also several easy ways for you to save on OEM ink-cartridge costs without having to purchase refilled cartridges:

  1. Set the printer default to grayscale printing.  Some printers allow you to set a network default on the device, while others require that you set the default print settings in the printer folder on all of your computer workstations.  When you set grayscale printing as the default, users will quickly find out that they must execute several more “clicks” in order to print in color.  This forces them to make a decision about whether they really need a color print.  We feel that more often than not, they will print with the default grayscale setting, which will save them considerably on color and black black ink.
  2. Buy high-yield ink cartridges when ever possible (particularly high-yield black ink cartridges).  High-yield cartridges may initially cost more, but deliver a lower cost-per-page and higher replacement intervals, which in turn minimizes the cost of shopping, shipping and physical replacement.
  3. Take advantage of OEM free shipping, rebates, and rewards programs for lowest prices.
  4. Keep enough ink in stock so that it saves you the time and costs of running out to the store (usually at the worst possible moment); it’s more cost-effective to have on hand ink that’s been delivered free to you (and as part of a rewards program).
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