The most expensive smelly substance this side of ambergris: printer ink.

Printer ink costs $4,285 per liter, almost double the cost of even the most expensive perfumes.

Why not package it like Chanel No.5 then?

As a way of highlighting the absurd cost of printer ink, Australian artist Celeste Watson has subversively redesigned the packaging of Hewlett Packard printing ink to resemble perfume.

The boxes highlight some of the very real controversies surrounding printer ink.

If they knew ahead of time what they were buying, who would pay $126 an ounce for ink?

Co.Design

Why Printer Ink Should Be Packaged Like Chanel No. 5

It's not as absurd as you think. You won't believe what printer ink is actually costing you.

There are few liquids on Earth that cost more than printer ink. In fact, at a cost of $4,285 per liter, it's almost double the cost of even the most expensive perfumes. Put that way, there are few people on Earth who would argue that printer ink is actually worth that much, yet that is what the vast majority of us pay, ounce by ounce, and cent by cent. As a way of highlighting the absurd cost of printer ink, Australian artist Celeste Watson has subversively redesigned the packaging of Hewlett Packard printing ink to resemble Chanel No. 5.

There's a reason we live in an era of $40 computer printers: companies are making all of their money off the ink, and not even particularly honestly. They can afford to give the hardware away at cost to get you hooked. Even if you believe that printer ink is worth thousands per liter, the cartridge industry routinely pulls shady tricks such as building chips into their cartridges that report empty long before the ink has run dry, or for colors that are more likely to be used.

These are the shady practices of the inkjet printer industry that Watson's work skewers. Removed from the opaque plastic cartridges that obscure the volume of the fluid inside and put inside clear glass perfume vials, the price of printer ink takes on a laughable air of luxury.

In Watson's design, each color of ink sold by Hewlett Packard has a label on the back, warning consumers about what's inside. The packaging of the blue ink, for example, points out that while HP will claim that there is "technology" in ink, it is made up of 70% water (and as previously mentioned, the technology that is built into many cartridges exists to cheat). The red packaging, on the other hand, points out HP's (very real, and still happening) policy of testing the toxicity of ink on lab animals, which may be a good thing, because printer ink contains "confirmed animal carcinogen with unknown relevance to humans." Finally, the yellow ink box points out what we already know: that HP will put less ink in the cartridges of colors consumers use more.

In the grand scheme of things, there are few women in the world who wear Chanel No. 5. It's an expensive product that many would consider an unnecessary extravagance. Yet how many of the same people are paying twice as much for a far less precious fluid, drop by drop? If they knew ahead of time what they were buying, who would pay $126 an ounce for ink? This isn't a joke: it's practically a crime.

You can see more of Watson's work here.

[Images: Courtesy of Celeste Watson]

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8 Comments

  • Daryl Smith

    I use a 14 year old HP DeskJet 722C. It uses large ink cartridges with print heads built on them. I can get a brand new genuine "expired" No. 45 black cartridge online for less than $11 each. 99% of the time they work just as good as non-expired genuine cartridges that sell for nearly $40 or more. Also, I can get up to four refills on these "new" cartridges which can hold up to 42ml of ink. So basically I can get $160 worth of printing off of one cartridge for less than $15 total investment. The printer will work with any version of Windows from version 3.1 to windows 7 64-bit. (Unfortunately the drivers don't work in Windows 8). The printer will even work with every version of Mac OSX from 10.2 to 10.9 (a USB to parallel adapter/cable is required for Mac)

  • Daryl Smith

    This is why I use a 14 year old HP DeskJet 722C inkjet printer. I can buy new expired genuine cartridges online for a fraction of the price of new cartridges at the store. The printer uses large 42ml ink tanks (No. 45, Black) with print heads on the cartridge. Plus these "new, old stock" cartridges can be refilled a number of times before the print heads wear out completely. So I can get about $120 USD worth of printing out of these cartridges for an investment of usually no more than $14 USD.

    The only downside is is the printer is incompatible with 64-Bit versions of Windows 8. But it will work fine in every version of windows from 3.1 to 7 (even 64-bit versions) and any version of Mac OSX from 10.2 to 10.9.

  • Great idea - it's crazy how expensive these brand-name replacements can be. I only use recycled and compatible ink cartridges, which cuts down on the cost considerably.

  • Kristin Adams

    It's not acutally the "ink" that is so costly, but rather the delivery system of the ink, aka the print head. You're addressing a small portion of the ink market: cartridges. With cartridge-based printers, you're throwing out the printhead when the ink supply is empty. With most commerical printers, the print head is stationary, and the ink is a consumable that ranges from $9.00/liter, upwards of $200/liter. 'That's a big range' you're thinking. Yes, it is and what detemines which end of the specrum the ink cost is, is the type of print head. Typically, when the delivery system is epxensive, the ink is not, and vice versa. Unfortunately, as you said, for us consumers in the SOHO marketin, desktop printers are cheap, so the ink is not.

  • Daniel Kim

    Whether the costly part of the cartridge is the print head or the ink or the little sponge, the fact is that the cartridge and print head are able to reliably print through a huge amount of ink. Much more than is sold in the cartridge. In addition, new cartridges often have that damn chip that reports to the printer that they are empty, even if they are refilled. In fact, the cartridge will report empty even if there is plenty of ink still inside it.
    The consumer inkjet printer system is designed to necessitate the continual purchase of ink. I have a three-function machine that refuses to scan and send a fax unless all of the ink cartridges are 'full', even if I enable the option not to print out a fax report. Fortunately, it will continue to scan.
    So, even if the ink is as cheap as tap water, it is the consumable product that we believe we are paying for. For all I know, the most expensive thing in a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is the gold leaf bit that says "Chanel", but the consumer sees the liquid perfume as the pricey bit.

  • Kristianus Ligara

    In Indonesia, (in SE asia really), people have been refilling inks themselves for a long time. it is messy however.

    a more recent innovation is the aftermarket bulk refill tank, where you can install a tank system on the side of your printer and fill it using bottled inks.

    this however will void your printer from warranty and if not done correctly will break your printer.

    After that, EPSON did what was unthinkable, that is, to take this Idea and actually build an ink tank system for their printers. at only $5/bottle of ink it is perfect. the printer stays in warranty, it's a great system, and at $5/bottle? hell it might as well comes in a soft plastic bag like capri sun!

    search for Epson_L110