Pens and the planet

I shudder to think of the number of disposable pens I’ve bought and consequently discarded over the years up until a decade ago when I was given a nice refillable stainless steel pen.

In the ten years I’ve had it, I’ve only had to buy a new replacement cartridge for the pen a couple of times – due mainly to my increasing use of a keyboard.

Even with my decreasing amount of writing with pen and paper, without the refillable pen I would have certainly gone through at least a hundred disposables by now – many of them would have wound up in the bottom of a drawer and dried out, or left in various places around the country.

Disposable pen consumption

Here’s a startling bit of info – according to this article, in early September 2005 Bic sold its 100 billionth disposable ballpoint pen.

Just to put that figure into perspective, some quick calculations I 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

While Bic is the largest manufacturer of disposable pens, it’s certainly not the only one, so the number of disposable pens floating around the planet must be truly astronomical – and by “floating” I mean it pretty much literally.

Another frightening figure I’ve seen bandied around the Internet regarding the number of disposable pens used each year in the USA is a staggering 106 billion.

Environmental considerations

Once a pen has finished its serviceable life, or lost – which is most often the case, it doesn’t simply disappear into thin air, although it may seem that way the rate they seem to vanish when you need one.

These disposable pens ultimately wind up in landfills and in waterways. Being made of plastic, they don’t break down quickly and plastics are also usually made from crude oil.

A good refillable pen can last a lifetime. However, they do use cartridges which need to be disposed of. The cartridges are metallic, so they can be recycled.

Disposable vs. refillable – comparing costs

An entry level refillable pen will cost you around $10 including the first cartridge. The refills cost around $5. A pack of 12 disposable pens are around $5.

The refills last a good deal longer than a single disposable pen and given the throw away mentality we have in connection with disposables, we tend not to take good care of them, increasing consumption. So, with care, I think you’ll find the costs of buying refills to be comparable with disposable pens.

By the way, you can also get refillable whyteboard pens (aka white board – depending on which country you’re from) these days.

Keeping track of your refillable pen.

I never lose things, but I do misplace a lot of stuff that I never find again :).

Pens are *really* easy to lose. I’m very surprised that I’ve managed to hang onto my refillable pen for so many years – throughout quite a few job changes and house moves.

I think the key is that this pen means something to me. It was given to me by my coaches who had the words “Go Michael!” engraved on it. It immediately became my “lucky” pen and subconsciously I’ve taken better care of it than previous writing instruments.

If you’re going to buy a refillable pen, if you lose one every few months there will hardly be any environmental benefit and certainly no financial incentive. It sounds corny, but give your pen a name, assign a personality to it or have it engraved with something that has importance to you. By spending a few bucks on a good quality pen you’ll be far more likely to hang on to it. Bond with your pen :)

Putting disposable pens to good use

There doesn’t appear to be options to recycle disposable pens as yet – and I’m not even sure of the plastic resin code used for most pen bodies. I’d love to see pen manufacturers implement takeback programs.

Currently, the only option seems to be to reuse them to help keep these items out of landfill for a while. If you’ve got a ton of pens to get rid of, consider sending them to The Pen Guy who uses old pens for rather interesting art projects. Similarly, you could probably give the pen bodies to school crafts departments for the kids to use in their projects.

If you have any ideas for reusing disposable pens, please add them below!