Consumers who feel they get a raw deal on the price of inkjet cartridges look set to get some unexpected help from legislation aimed at cleaning up the environment.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which became law on 13 February, is likely to end anti-competitive behaviour and bring down prices.
The aim of the directive is to halt the growing volume of electrical and electronic waste dumped in landfill sites, by making manufacturers recycle or dispose of their goods.
However, sifting through thousands of cartidges to return them to the manufacturer is impractical, so unless a printer contains cartridges when it is thrown out by a consumer printer companies are not obliged to deal with the spent cartridges.
This means that, every year, over one million cartridges will end up in landfill sites in the UK.
One way of cutting waste is to take advantage of the growing ink cartridge remanufacturing industry. But to do this the re-manufacturers that collect, clean and refill spent cartridges for resale must be offered a level playing field.
Politicians have therefore taken issue with the growing number of so-called 'smart chips' put into ink cartridges by original equipment manufacturers, aimed at making it difficult to refill cartridges
Hewlett Packard and Epson told vnunet.com that their chips merely let consumers know when ink levels in their cartridges are low so that they can refill them. But Lexmark has developed a chip that blocks the cartridge from working once it is empty, even if refilled.
To stop this, a clause has been added to the WEEE directive to ban the use of such chips. This will make it easier for consumers to use more cost-effective refillable and recycled inkjet cartridges in printers.
Nearly 94 per cent of consumer PC owners have an inkjet printer, according to Office of Fair Trading (OFT) figures released last December.
Printers themselves can range in price from as little as £50 to over £400, but some £315m is spent on inkjet cartridges each year.
Around 78 per cent of these sales go on original manufacturers' branded inkjet cartridges, with the worldwide market dominated by Canon, Epson, Lexmark and HP.
Branded cartridges cost up to 50 per cent more than non-branded cartridges, but the power wielded by the large players over the market has caused serious concern.
The OFT has criticised printer manufacturers for using customer loyalty and trust to "effectively set prices" in the post-sale market, after it found that 75 per cent of people it surveyed had no idea of printing costs.
It has ordered the industry to address the confusing and conflicting costs and quality advice given to consumers, demanding that within a year information is accurate and reliable.
Building on work already undertaken by the Consumers' Association magazine Which?, the OFT has called for a common test standard that will help consumers make an informed choice.
Meanwhile the European Competition Commission has requested submissions on pricing policies from the inkjet industry before it decides whether or not to investigate it for anti-competitive behaviour.
If found guilty, companies could be fined up to 10 per cent of their sales.
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