Why Printer Ink Is The Other 'Black Gold'

Printer ink is more expensive per unit than some pricy vintage champagnes. Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish explore why that is.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to the liquid gold that has long sustained HP: printer ink. These days, the cost of just a few cartridges can quickly exceed the cost of the printer itself. In fact, Audie, ink is so expensive...

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How expensive is it, Robert?

SIEGEL: So expensive, Audie, that back in 2003, PC World magazine reported that at $22 per quarter-ounce, a Hewlett-Packard color inkjet cartridge was more costly by weight than imported Russian caviar. Or here's how Eduardo Porter puts it. He's an economics columnist at The New York Times.

EDUARDO PORTER: $4,731 a gallon of printer ink. And that was more expensive than a 1985 vintage Krug champagne.

SIEGEL: That said, the street value of printer ink may be a bit inflated.

PORTER: I could assure you that that has very little to do with the cost of making the ink. It's more to do with what they can charge you for it.

CORNISH: And that's because the printer industry has adopted the same business model as, say, the razor industry. Again, Eduardo Porter.

PORTER: Printer ink is so expensive in order for printers to be so cheap.

CORNISH: In other words, give away the razor so people will buy the blades - again and again and again.

PORTER: Trap a customer into a format and once that customer has already sunk in some decent amount of money and/or, you know, effort into getting that format, well, you can charge a lot for the little thingies that need to go with it.

CORNISH: In 2010, Hewlett-Packard spent roughly $1 billion a year on ink research and development. And here are some fun ink facts. According to a story that appeared on computerworld.com, printer ink must be able to withstand intense heating and some very fast squirting - 30 miles per hour through a nozzle one-third the size of a human hair. Oh, and it has to dry instantly on paper.

SIEGEL: And here's some trivia you can impress your friends, at least your impressionable friends with: Ink dates back to ancient Egypt and China. Back then, ingredients included soot and lamp oil mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin.

CORNISH: These days, the ingredients - besides water - sound slightly less organic. A story last year in Wired magazine lists a few: Reactive Red 23 dye, Direct Blue 199 dye, Acid Yellow 23 dye. The last one, we should note, can reportedly trigger asthma attacks and hives. So if you print out a picture of a lemon, the article advises, don't try and take a taste.

SIEGEL: And in that sense, at least, perhaps your money is better spent on Russian caviar or Krug champagne than on a cartridge of ink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I DIDN'T CARE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) If I didn't care more than words can say, if I didn't care, would I feel this way? If this isn't love, then why do I thrill?

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