We all know the cognitive benefits of writing/drawing/colouring. In addition, multiple researchers have proven that any creative exercise by hand not only tickles your creative desire but could also provide powerful cognitive benefits. But to accomplish that, we need a tool. A tool to write/draw/colour.
As a kid, we all started with crayon colours. It’s colourful, safe and easy to use. Then we moved to pencils and then graduated to pens. As a design professional, I used many Sharpies/markers for the whiteboard, but that was before COVID. It happens online, but I still use the pencil/pen often. You’ll always find a pencil or pen in my hand if you observe. It’s just that I love writing down things to understand, memorise, clear my thoughts and sketch solutions.
A few years back, my daughter and I wanted to buy a refill for our few roller pens. We decided not to buy new pens because we were happy with our current pens. So the hunt began… and we checked a few stationery shops to see if they had refills for our pens. Instead of refills, we found they were selling the same new pens but not refills. To my surprise, the shopkeeper said, “Sir, hardly 10% of customers ask for refills. Everyone buys new pens.” I was curious, so I asked what they do with old pens. He said, "I guess they just throw them away and buy new ones.” So far, there has been no luck. So I explored e-commerce platforms like Amazon and saw they would sell mainly in large quantities. If you want just 1–2 refills, it’ll cost you more than a new pen. Considering the Environmental Impact, I decided not to buy online and continued my hunt in stores. Finally, I found refills in one store. I observed lots of stores were selling pens but weren’t selling refills. If any store does, they have limited refills. I understand people buy new pens because finding refills is faster, easier, cheaper, or less frustrating. That made me curious, what happens to those pens? Are they recyclable? Where do they go?
I started digging into pens and went through multiple resources to understand their types, how they are made, how long their serviceable life might be and what happens when we retire them. I found lots of reports & articles talking about how pens impact the climate. There are multiple types of pens, and every type has good and evil sides. The biggest challenge is disposable pens (use and throw), which we sometimes get in offices, hotels, conferences or buy because they are inexpensive. According to greenlivingtips.com’s article, BIC sold in early September 2005 its 100 billionths disposable ballpoint pen.
Just to put that figure into perspective, here are some quick calculations greenlivingtips ran:
Each pen is approximately 5.5 inches long
Multiplied by 100 billion = 8,680,555 miles
The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,900 miles
100 billion pens laid end to end would circle the earth 348 times
According to The Ohio state university, Bic or any disposable pens are out of luck regarding recycling. Because they are composed of many materials assembled, it is difficult and inconvenient for consumers to separate and recycle them. In addition, only polypropylene and brass are genuinely recyclable, even if they make an effort.
Now imagine where these 100 billion disposable pens might be right now. Surprised?
Everything has a serviceable life, and so do the pens. Unfortunately, today most pens and refills are designed to work until they stop. At the end of their lives, they don’t disappear; they land in landfills because most pens are not recyclable and are made with multiple plastics and metals. And no organisation has the patience to take out each part and send it for recycling because they aim to grow. I would say ‘Pollution for profit’.
If I take this pen, refill and package as an example, it has mainly two types of materials: plastic and metal. There are two types of plastics here. According to my friend who worked in a plastics manufacturing company, companies mainly use two types of plastic to make pens: Polypropylene and Polystyrene. Polypropylene can be recycled, but that is a tedious and expensive process. According to my friend and a few reports, different chemically processed pen finishes make recycling hard. Polystyrene is a type of plastic which is not commonly recycled and should be placed in a waste bin. Imagine a simple $1–3 pen with a substantial environmental cost.
According to sustainable-living.blog — Society has used disposable plastic pens for over 50 years. It’s estimated that the USA throws away 1.6 billion pens a year. If we imagine the number of pens thrown away each year by the collective people of the world — it’s mind-boggling.
What about crayons? According to naparecycling.com — The paper wrapper will break down with time, but crayons are made of a petroleum by-product called paraffin, which isn’t biodegradable and will sit in the landfill forever. Between 45,000 and 75,000 pounds of broken crayons are annually thrown into landfills.
Now take a step back and think of how many pens, markers, sharpies etc., you have used or thrown away in your school, college and professional life, and where those pens are. Well, they might be lying somewhere in landfills.
It’s sad, isn’t it?
What you can do is up to you. But I hope you understand how pens are messing with our beautiful planet. So let me share what I’m doing.
I first observed my behaviour when I used a pen and asked myself, was it necessary to use it for the task? Most of the time, it was ‘no’. It was just pens that were always in front of me, and I picked them up and used them.
I changed my habit and replaced pens with mechanical pencils. Environmentally, the mechanical pencil is the better option as it can last a very long time: you use up the lead in a wooden pencil, and you need to get another pencil; you use up the lead in a mechanical pencil, refill it—zero or minimal waist, at least from your end.
But why pencil? Well, it depends on the profession, but as a designer, I used a pen mostly to sign documents, take notes or sketch solutions. I do note-taking primarily digitally; if I have to write notes or sketch, I use a pencil. I use a pen only if I need to sign. I still have a few plastic pens I have held for the past couple of years. I use them only to sign. My last pen purchase was a fountain pen which I plan to keep as long as possible. Fountain pens are timeless classics.
If you want to use a pen, I suggest getting a good quality fountain pen, making an emotional connection with it, and using it as long as possible. Then, you can pass it on to future generations :). The fountain pen is the perfect green alternative. Recycling and landfills should be the last option. So be mindful of disposable pens. A word of caution… there are disposable fountain pens on the market. Please stay away from them.
Last but not least, I wish companies could be more honest. I wish they had started informing the consumers about what the end of the product looks like. I think consumers should have a right to know the end. Companies should introduce ‘Not Recyclable’ and ‘Landfill’ marks (icons) on products similar to recycle icons.
There are lots of NGOs working on this. However, we all know that changing companies’ business models are not easy. All we can do is change our habits, be mindful of what we buy and how we use it, and, most importantly, imagine what the end might look like.
I hope it was helpful. Happy writing.
By Howard Zinn