New Lexmark project turns inkjets into ink pens

The newest version of Lexmark International's recycled pen contains 94 percent recycled products.
The newest version of Lexmark International's recycled pen contains 94 percent recycled products. Photo courtesy Lexmark International

Lexmark International has penned a new addition to its efforts to be a good environmental citizen: an updated version of its ink pen, created from recycled inkjet cartridges.

It's the latest sustainability effort by the company, which is gaining renown globally for those efforts.

The new pen is crafted through a partnership between the Lexington-based printer maker and Close the Loop, which operates in Hebron in Northern Kentucky. Close the Loop, which also operates in Australia, is hired by printer companies to recycle inkjet and toner cartridges and other materials. The company sorts the used cartridges and separates them into component parts — plastics, metals, foams and ink — for recycling. Ink had previously posed a problem.

After months of work with Lexmark, the companies produced the first model of the pen in 2010. The new version is "felt-tipped more in line with the Sharpie design," said John Gagel, sustainability manager at Lexmark.

"It's a completely new design that's more functional," he said. "The ink flow is better, and the felt tip is better than the classic roller-ball design that we had first."

All of the plastic in the pen is recycled, as are 94 percent of all materials in it, Gagel said. The first shipment of 300 pens arrived at Lexmark last month; they're being given to customers and sold at its company store, inside its sprawling campus along West New Circle Road in Lexington.

Close the Loop has partnered with AusPen in Australia to sell the pen there, Close the Loop president Jim Tocash said. He said the company is working with a retail partner in the United States, too, and hopes to launch it here commercially early next year.

It will be the first commercial foray for the pen. Close the Loop used the first version only as a promotional item for customers, Tocash said.

The pen is the latest in a series of moves that Lexmark has made in recent years to expand its sustainability efforts.

"There's not a portion of the business that we don't get involved with or touch," Gagel said. "That's what makes the job interesting and cool."

Gagel emphasized that Lexmark is the only printer manufacturer with a closed-loop approach for both laser and inkjet products, meaning it takes its used products and recycles them into new ones.

For instance, 10 percent of the company's laser toner cartridges are being reused.

"From the design of the product to the end of life, we have some level of interaction or influence," he said of his sustainability staff. "You come in with an initial focus on saving trees, cleaning water and keeping the air clean, but when you dig into it and see how that applies to your business, you realize this is more about taking waste out of the business."

The pen is an example of that, he said.

"We got the subject-matter experts thinking about sustainability and what can we do with our technology that makes our product more sustainable," he said.

He said the efforts have paid off for the company, because their commitment helps generate new customers that are likewise concerned about sustainability.

For some customers, Lexmark "wouldn't even be at the table if we didn't have the capability to do a product like that."

Gagel said the company often tells of its sustainability stories in requests for proposals to potential customers.

"In almost every bid now, we have to tell our story," he said. "It might be as much as 35 pages where you have to describe all your efforts around sustainability, and that's a piece of the competitive landscape we have to claim."

The company's efforts have been noticed and praised. Last year, it ranked seventh overall in the United States in the Maplecroft Climate Innovation Index. The company was ranked first in the technology sector and first in the computers sub-sector.

Lexmark also was ranked 60th in the most recent 100 Best Corporate Citizens list by Corporate Responsibility Magazine. The company ranked sixth overall in the environment criteria and eighth in climate-change criteria.

Software maker SAP selected Lexmark to be one of four companies to help it develop new technology to track sustainability practices. The software, Sustainability Performance Management, or SuPM, debuted in December 2009, and a new update was released in December 2010.

"It really has been a great win-win relationship for both of us," said Neil Krefsky, SAP's senior director of solution marketing for sustainability reporting and analytics.

Chris Zerlaut, SAP's director of solution management for SuPM, said the company was attracted to Lexmark because "it's one of the mature companies when it comes to incorporating sustainability into its operations."

"It was everything, from the fact that Lexmark is huge into recycling ... to their goal of being a thought leader in the space," he said. "It was a very solid fit from the very beginning."

And for Gagel and his team, the software that they provided feedback on in the development process is now making it easier for them to measure their efforts and produce reports.

"We were spreadsheets before that and Lotus Notes databases," he said with a laugh.