Images provided by author. Top: an Epson Workforce 845 printer.
107 million units sold in 2020. 1.3 billion cartridges per year, 300 million in the US alone. 150 million pounds in landfills. Sales of printers continue, both in offices and at home. Printer companies have been continuously advertising to the public. Epson in particular has worked with celebrities to advertise their own printers, including Usain Bolt and Shaquille O’Neal. With printers a mainstay of both offices and schools, it seems like paper copies are in higher demand than ever. However, with the internet providing an easy method of communication, why do printers need to be as common as they are?
It is no secret that printer ink is extremely expensive. Epson’s cheapest inkjet printer (at the time of writing) is sold at $79.99. However, a refill of standard ink cartridges is sold at $40.95, over half of the price of the printer itself, with a single black ink cartridge, advertised as “high capacity,” sold at $39.99. Even with the high capacity cartridge, the printer is only rated to print 500 ISO pages before needing replacement, making it expensive to distribute physical copies in large numbers. Trying to find an alternative, some users may try to use third-party remanufactured ink cartridges, old cartridges that are refilled with more ink. However, companies refuse to let this happen. My own experiences with remanufactured ink cartridges led to being told that the cartridge could not be detected. Poking at the chip, I tried to see if something was wrong, but there was no indicator other than a message that gave little information. After asking the company who sent me the cartridges, they sent over another box. The new box worked, and in the end, the things printed with the third party ink looked the same as anything printed with official ink cartridges. But even with a new ink cartridge, not all of that will go into printing things that are actually useful.
Personal experience has revealed another way printers waste the materials they are given. When a printer fails to print clearly, the user is recommended to run maintenance functions, such as a “nozzle check pattern,” and a function called “print head cleaning.” These patterns usually require a full sheet of paper, as stated by manuals taken from Epson and Canon. Both request for paper to be loaded, and for a test pattern to be printed on a full sheet of paper. However, these tend to waste most of the sheet. The image on the left is an example of a test pattern from an EPSON Workforce 845 printer. While there is clearly a lot of room to reuse the paper, neither the printer nor the manual give instructions to reuse the paper for a second or possibly 3rd test pattern, or to use the other side of the paper. I myself was trying to find a problem with a printer. It would ask to run a nozzle check pattern, then ask for cleaning, then another nozzle check pattern, then another print head cleaning again and again until I gave up and accepted the missing lines on anything printed.
However, digital distribution has given anyone who needs to get information an alternative. With small amounts of data being copied at a moment’s notice, the reason to print information that can be downloaded by nearly anyone seems unnecessary. The WHS daily bulletin for December 9, 2022 only took 74 KB, able to be copied hundreds of thousands of times before even exceeding one gigabyte of storage. For perspective, a 1 gigabyte USB flash drive sells for 2 or 3 dollars, and a 2 terabyte (or 2000 gigabyte) hard drive sells for 50 dollars. While completely impractical, having every daily bulletin printed out would create a large stack of papers which nobody would want to search, while a single hard drive could store a copy of every daily bulletin from every school in the district, for years.
This does not mean printing does not have its strengths. Worksheets, tests, and anything that needs to remain private will have to stay on a piece of paper that can easily be shredded. However, for a simple announcement or informational piece, a download link remains a viable option, making printers being this common seem unnecessary.
Why are printers seen so frequently? Within Washington High School, a printer can be found in nearly every building on campus. While in the past, having physical copies was vital to both getting information to students and for keeping information from leaking to people with malicious intent, now only the latter holds. The need to print something out, just to find a printer has run out of ink or has stopped working for an unknown reason, is a common fear and even the focus of one of Epson’s advertisement campaigns. Is society ready to phase out paper when only getting information from A to B, or is there something else keeping printers alive? Unlike a printed document, this issue is less clear than black and white.
Richard Pang is a senior at Washington who was born and raised in Fremont. He is a reporter in his first year with The Hatchet. You might find him looking at aspects of student culture that get overlooked. On his off hours, you can find him organizing events on online platforms or doing some research on whatever topic caught his interest this week. He’s not sure where life will take him or how college will go, but there’s no fun in knowing what will happen.