Americans waste $10 billion each year on name-brand ink. So we tested low-cost options including remanufactured cartridges, ink injection kits — and even making our own.
July 12, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
But you can fight back. Printer companies push a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt about using anything other than their own supplies. So I tested a few alternatives on my own popular printer, an HP OfficeJet Pro, from aftermarket cartridges to ink bottles you re-inject with needles. I even tried making my own ink in the kitchen — major mess alert. (I tested ink not laser toner, a market that isn’t quite as awful.)
My takeaway: You can absolutely save money with alternative inks, and you probably wouldn’t even notice the difference in print quality. Below, you’ll find a cheat sheet on compatible ink alternatives, along with some print samples you can judge for yourself.
But I did learn one hard lesson that’s important to highlight: To maximize your ink options, turn off your printer’s automatic software updates. I know, I know: For almost everything else, software patches are important — but printer makers are abusing them to make printers less compatible with cheaper ink. (HP says its updates protect your security, but shame on them for making us choose between a working printer and a safe one.)
To spend less on ink, it helps to know a bit about the printer industry’s shenanigans and how to work around them.
Why is printer ink so expensive?
Printer makers say developing their technology is expensive, and name-brand inks have been specially formulated for high performance. I don’t deny inkjets are a technological marvel, dispersing thousands of drops per second without turning into a soggy mess. “The quality and reliability of our cartridges is a big reason why we are the world’s #1 printing company,” HP spokesman Jeff Dahncke said in an email.
But the truth is, these companies are using the same high-profit tactics as razor and blade makers. They sell you printer hardware at a loss and get you to pay it off (and then some) over time with the ink refills. That’s why my $123 refill was almost half the cost of my printer.
Once you’ve brought home their printer, it’s not in the companies’ interest to help you economize on ink. When they flash a “low ink” warning, it doesn’t mean the cartridge is actually out of ink — there could be a few pages left, or a few hundred. And as much as half of the ink in a cartridge can get wasted just by your printer running maintenance cycles, according to a Consumer Reports investigation.
“The printer companies created a perverse business model,” says Aaron Leon, the CEO of LD Products, which has been selling printer supplies for two decades. So much of the industry’s R&D effort, he says, goes into stopping companies like his from making and selling aftermarket ink.
The industry’s number one nasty trick: embedding microchips in the ink cartridges. The companies say it’s to ensure the quality of your print and track when you’re running low on supplies. But they also use the microchips to make it harder (or at least scarier) for you to try to use compatible ink from other makers.
Beware of ink subscriptions
Printer companies claim they offer a simpler refill option: ink subscriptions. The idea is you sign up for a service that automatically mails you new ink when you’re getting low. HP, which now claims 12 million subscribers to its Instant Ink program, says the program could save you up to 50 percent.
But buyer beware: You could save money if you print a lot and if stay within your prepaid monthly allotment of pages. However, that’s a lot of ifs. You pay whether you print or not — and how are you supposed to know in advance exactly how much you’ll print?
And there’s a creepy element: These programs often mean you have to allow the printer companies to remotely monitor how you use your printer. Stop paying the bill or change your credit card number, and your printer might suddenly lose the ability to print. (It has really happened.) Who really owns this printer, you or them? For my money, I’d rather be able to buy my own compatible cartridge for half the price when I need it, which isn’t usually very often.
Fortunately, the law is on our side for the option of buying ink from somebody else. The Supreme Court ruled that it’s legal for companies to refill existing printer toner in used cartridges. And a law called the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act means you won’t void your printer’s warranty by using third-party ink.
Here’s what’s good — and bad — about your alternatives:
Remanufactured or compatible cartridges
What it is: These aftermarket supplies look just like the name-brand cartridges and are sold by online retailers and office supply stories. But in many cases, they’re actually old cartridges sent in for recycling that have been remanufactured by being opened up, cleaned out and refilled with compatible ink. Doing this doesn’t violate intellectual property rights, though often remanufacturers need to reprogram a chip on the cartridge to keep printers from rejecting it on a second use.
Bonus: Remanufactured cartridges are even better for the environment than recycling because it keeps the containers out of the waste stream entirely.
The cost: About half of the price of name-brand ink. For an equivalent to my $123 original HP ink, I tested two options, one pack from LD Products that cost $70 and another from a brand called GreenSky that cost $67.
The performance: I could spot slightly more color banding on the GreenSky, but the print quality on both of my test cartridges was also more than sufficient for my everyday printing needs. Tiny text looked crisp, even when I got out a magnifying glass.
The downside: Both of my test samples popped into my printer like regular cartridges, though the first time, my printer popped up a message saying: “Altered or Cloned: HP cannot guarantee the quality or reliability of cartridges with non-HP chips or electronic circuitry.” That was easily dismissed.
But when I tried a second remanufactured cartridge, I discovered a recent HP software update caused the printer to fritz and display an error message. I was able to reset my printer, but it was annoying and a waste of time. This is why it’s important to turn off your printer’s automatic updates — and buy only cartridges that offer a refund if they don’t work.
A few more pro tips: Make sure to search your exact model number’s compatibility with any ink you buy. Some printers, including so-called HP+ models with an E at the end of their name, contain software locks that won’t ever let them take anything other than ink from the original manufacturer.
I have heard from people who complain that over time, remanufactured ink doesn’t perform as well, though I haven’t experienced the same. Look for cartridges with lots of happy user reviews for that specific model. The good news is, this industry is now mature enough that many companies are really good at remanufacturing cartridges and also have access to high-quality ink.
What it is: You can buy bottles of ink that you squeeze into existing cartridges using a syringe. Injecting ink into a cartridge is not for the faint of heart — definitely put down some newspaper to soak up the overflow, and watch a few online instructional videos about how to do it with your exact cartridges.
Major retailers including Walgreens and Costco used to offer low-cost cartridge refilling services at their stores, but these have started to disappear.
The cost: $13 — an astounding 90% off the name-brand price — for a JetSir-brand kit I found on Amazon that included five 100-milliliter bottles of ink, syringes, plugs and instructions. It was more than enough ink to refill my empty existing cartridges multiple times.
The performance: Print quality was more of a problem. Most of the pages looked fine for everyday needs until blobs of black ink started spilling onto different parts of pages. It’s possible some of my black ink didn’t go into exactly the right part of the cartridge and was oozing out — and the problem didn’t go away after multiple prints.
The downside: I got another easy-to-dismiss warning message from the printer, this one saying: “You should only use this cartridge if you believe it to not be depleted.”
Injecting ink in just the right way can be a delicate operation in the latest cartridges that are designed to dissuade aftermarket use. It’s possible you could learn how to hit it at just the right angle — but the professionals often have machines that help them do it in a vacuum environment.
What’s the worst thing that could happen? If it really goes awry, you could waste your money or damage your printer.
What it is: I found a recipe online for making black printer ink out of bits of carbon from a candle, an egg, honey and gum arabic. It required more than an hour of scraping away the black burnt bits left by a candle (also known as “lamp black”).
The cost: $20 for a big bag of gum arabic, which is used in lots of processed foods.
The performance: I couldn’t get my home-brew black ink any darker than the taupe color you see in wet cement. I also couldn’t get it to print after injecting it into an old black cartridge. So count this method as a complete failure.
The downside: I got carbon dust everywhere and could have gummed up my delicate printer heads. Don’t try this at home unless it’s for the science fair.