Each ink cartridge contains one or more partitioned ink reservoirs; certain manufacturers also add electronic contacts and a chip that communicates with the printer.
Most consumer inkjet printers, such as those made by Canon, HP, and Lexmark (but not Epson) use a thermal inkjet; inside each partition of the ink reservoir is a heating element with a tiny metal plate or resistor. In response to a signal given by the printer, a tiny current flows through the metal or resistor making it warm, and the ink in contact with the heated resistor is vaporized into a tiny steam bubble inside the nozzle. As a consequence, an ink droplet is forced out of the cartridge nozzle onto the paper. This process takes a fraction of a millisecond.
The printing depends on the smooth flow of ink, which can be hindered if the ink begins to dry at the print head, as can happen when an ink level becomes low. Dried ink can be cleaned from a cartridge print head by gentle rubbing with isopropyl alcohol on a swab or folded paper towel.
Isopropyl alcohol will damage the printing head and melt the plastic at the connections, however. Luke warm water will delodge the dried ink at 90% of the time.
The ink also acts as a coolant to protect the metal-plate heating elements − when the ink supply is depleted, and printing is attempted, the heating elements in thermal cartridges often burn out, permanently damaging the print head. When the ink first begins to run low, the cartridge should be refilled or replaced, to avoid overheating damage to the print head.
All Epson printers use a piezoelectric crystal in each nozzle instead of a heating element. When current is applied, the crystal changes shape or size, forcing a droplet of ink from the nozzle. This allows use of inks which react badly when heated, and can produce a smaller ink drop in some situations than thermal inkjet schemes.
- Typically, two separate cartridges are inserted into a printer: one containing black ink and one with each of the three primary colors. Alternatively, each primary color may have a dedicated cartridge.
- Some cartridges contain ink specially formulated for printing photographs.
- All printer suppliers produce their own type of ink cartridges. Cartridges for different printers may be incompatible — either physically or electrically.
- Some cartridges have incorporated the printer's head (examples include HP, Dell, and Lexmark). The precision parts required generally make the cartridges more expensive, but the printers are cheaper since they don't include the precision print head. Other cartridges don't include the print head and so can cost less, though the printers tend to be somewhat more expensive (Epson is an example).
Ink cartridges are typically more expensive than consumers might expect – sometimes a substantial fraction of the cost of the printer. To save money, many people use compatible ink cartridges from a vendor other than the printer manufacturer. The high cost of cartridges has also provided an incentive for counterfeiters to supply cartridges falsely claiming to be made by the original manufacturer. Another alternative involves modifications of an original cartridge allowing use of continuous ink systems with external ink tanks. Others use aftermarket inks, refilling their own ink cartridges using a kit that includes bulk ink.
Some printer manufacturers set up their cartridges to interact with the printer, preventing operation when the ink level is low, or when the cartridge has been refilled. One researcher with the magazine "Which?" over-rode such an interlocked system and found that in one case he could print up to 38% more good quality pages, after the chip stated that the cartridge was empty. In the United Kingdom, in 2003, the cost of ink has been the subject of an Office of Fair Trading investigation, as Which? magazine has accused manufacturers of a lack of transparency about the price of ink and called for an industry standard for measuring ink cartridge performance. Which? stated that color HP cartridges cost over seven times more per milliliter than 1985 Dom Perignon.
It can sometimes be cheaper to buy a new printer than to replace the set of ink cartridges supplied with the printer. The major printer manufacturers − Hewlett Packard, Lexmark, Dell, Canon, Epson and Brother − use a "razor and blades" business model, often breaking even or losing money selling printers while expecting to make a profit by selling cartridges over the life of the printer. Since much of the printer manufacturers' profits are from ink and toner cartridge sales, some of these companies have taken various actions against aftermarket cartridges.
 Refills and third party replacements
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Because printer cartridges from the original manufacturer are often expensive, demand exists for cheaper third party options. These include ink sold in bulk, cartridge refill kits, machines in stores that automatically refill cartridges, remanufactured cartridges, and cartridges made by an entity other than the original manufacturer.
Consumers can refill ink cartridges themselves with a kit, or they can take the cartridge to a refiller or remanufacturer where ink is pumped back into the cartridge. PC World reports that refilled cartridges have higher failure rates, print fewer pages than new cartridges, and demonstrate more on-page problems like streaking, curling, and color bleed.
Another option is for the consumer to purchase "bulk ink" (in pints, quarts, or gallons) and refill the cartridges themselves. This can be extremely cost-effective if the consumer is a heavy user of cartridges. One US pint is sufficient to fill about 15 to 17 large-capacity cartridges (or 32 to 36 per litre).
Generally speaking, Canon, Dell, HP, and Lexmark cartridges are not difficult to refill, though some Lexmark cartridges employ a built-in counter chip that can't be reset; Epson cartridges also have a built-in counter chip, however it is possible to purchase a chip resetter. As Brother cartridges generally lack any chip and consist of merely a sack of ink, they can be readily refilled. Since refilling involves handling ink, it can be a messy process for inexperienced people.
Some third party manufacturers have been offering refillable cartridges with an auto reset chip to simplify the refilling process. These refillable cartridges are less harmful to the environment and often easy to further refill.
Perhaps the easiest, most trouble-free method of refilling ink cartridges is through the use of a CISS (Continuous Ink Supply System). A CISS consists of a set of cartridges that have tubes connected to them, through which the ink continuously flows from ink reservoirs on the outside of the printer. Instead of refilling the cartridges themselves, the user simply refills the bottles on the outside of the printer. Early CIS systems were composed of OEM cartridges that had been drilled and outfitted with fittings to accept the ink delivery tubes, a set of 'ribbon' tubes, and plastic bottles with holes drilled in the caps for the tubes and the vents. Today's CIS systems are mass-produced in China, often incorporating all ink bottles into one partitioned container. They typically utilize auto-reset chips, which means the cartridges rarely have to be removed from the printer.
Laser toner or inkjet cartridges sold as "remanufactured" are usually re-filled cartridges, although many third party newly manufactured "compatible" cartridges exist. Inkjet cartridges sold as "compatible" are typically newly manufactured cartridges. Inkjet cartridges sold as "remanufactured" are cartridges that have been used at least once by a consumer and then refilled by a third party.
The legality of this industry was brought to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in the case of Lexmark Int'l v. Static Control Components. The Court ruled that reverse-engineering the handshaking procedure to enable compatibility did not violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
HP has fiercely defended its printing interests from the refill industry, including filing patent complaints and false advertising lawsuits which allege that inferior ink is not properly differentiated from the original HP ink.
 Environmental impact
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The list below outlines a few facts about toner/ink cartridges and the impact they have on the environment.
- GHGs (green house gases) emissions from manufacturing a single mono toner cartridge have been calculated to approximately 4.8 kg CO2; per cartridge. This is for the cartridge only and excludes the toner inside. The Life Cycle Assessment of toner reveals that the GHG emissions are approximately 16 metric tons per 1 metric ton toner produced. On average a cartridge with a yield of 5000 pages contains 200 grams toner. This equals 3.2 kg CO2 emission per cartridge.
- Each year over 350 million cartridges are thrown out to landfills.
- By 2012 500 million laser cartridges and 1.8 billion ink cartridges will be dumped in landfills.
- Each cartridge becomes 3.5 pounds of solid waste sitting in a landfill and can take up to 450 to 1000 years to decompose.
 New laws
Many programs have been implemented in the United States and Europe to encourage the recycling of ink cartridges. New York has implemented a recycling law for businesses and consumers regarding toner and ink cartridges. In California the Public Contract Code (PCC) section 12156 encourages businesses to purchase recycled ink and toner cartridges. In the UK, large compatible cartridge manufacturers have implemented recycling programmes in order to receive back empty cartridges for refilling of HP, Lexmark, Dell, etc. cartridges, as no compatible version is readily available.
 See also
- Arizona Cartridge Remanufacturers Association Inc. v. Lexmark International Inc.
- Cartridge (electronics)
- Inkjet refill kit
- Razor and blades business model
- Damaged goods (business strategy)
- Remanufactured Ink Cartridge
- Toner cartridge
- Ecofont (inksaving font)
- Castle Ink
- 'Raw deal' on printer ink, BBC, 3 July 2003
- "Printers: Refills or new cartridges?". PCWorld.ca. 2007-04-03. Archived from the original on 2007-06-05. Retrieved 2009-07-22.
- "Information on refillable cartridges with auto reset chip". Ecbinkjet.com.au. Retrieved 2009-07-22.
- "Article on Compatible, Recycled and Remanufactured Inkjet Cartridges". inkmasters.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-04-28.
- A Decade Later: Prebate is Out ... And That Isn't All Recharger Magazine, June 2009
- Whitney, Lance (2010-03-18). "HP settles inkjet cartridge patent complaints". cnet.com. Retrieved 2010-09-13.
- Environmental Effects of Ink Cartridges
- Source: Ahamadi, A, et al, Life-cycle inventory of toner produced for xerographic processes, J Cleaner Production, 2001
- Printer-makers hit by new EU law (2002)
- NYC WasteLess Program
- California Public Contract Code (PCC) section 12156
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- BBC Radio 4 You and Yours - Hewlett Packard accused of misleading advertising in the UK, 26 April 2007
- HP Ink Costs More Than Human Blood, Booze Gizmodo, the Gadget Guide, 2006