by Rebecca Rockefeller
Writing is one of those Big Events in human history – our ability to write things down allowed for a new depth and breadth of communication. The single-use plastic pen is a far cry from the original stones, reeds, sticks, quills, and then metal tools people used. I’m hoping this post will inspire you to choose a writing implement worthy of the task, and give new life to your out-of-ink plastic pens.
The ballpoint pen has its own tumultuous history exciting enough to inspire books about the subject. You can read a brief history of it here, complete with international patent theft and the initial collapse of the industry. Since then, of course, things have changed: Bic announced on Thursday, September 8th, 2005 that they had sold their 100,000,000,000th (that’s 100 billionth) “disposable” plastic pen since 1950 – That’s 57 pens every second of every day.
Why did I put those quotes around “disposable”? Because while we can throw plastic pens like this into our trash, they’re not going away in any real sense. We’ve said it here before so I’ll spare you the details, but plastic is forever and that holds true for pens, too. Instead of “disposable” I prefer “single-use” as that sums up the reality of products designed to last a short while with no second life planned for by the manufacturer.
Single-use pens might not be the most pressing issue of our time, but we make a big difference one word at a time when we choose more durable writing implements. Fortunately, practical alternatives to the single-use pen exist. I’ve logged hours of research to put together the following suggestions. If I’ve left out your personal favorite, please let me know in the comments below – The more, the merrier when it comes to alternatives!
REDUCE YOUR USE – Alternatives to the single-use petroleum plastic pen:
Pencils: You know that moment when you need to write a quick note and you grab a pen and it’s out of ink? And then so is the next pen? And maybe even the one after that? I’ll tell you what that never happens with. Pencils. Pencils never run out of ink, and you can get lines from soft and smudgy to sharp and clean-edged from each one. Carry a pencil in your pocket, purse, backpack, or briefcase, toss in a tiny metal sharpener like this one if you don’t already carry a tiny pocket knife (bonus: the pencil sharpener won’t be confiscated by the TSA if you bring it on an airplane), and you’ll be the one people turn to when their pockets’ pens are out of ink.
When you absolutely need to immortalize your words in ink, on your rent check, for instance, a pen is handy and there are some durable options for legal ink signatures – The classic refillable metal pen is still around and with the addition of a converter, you’ll be able to refill your pen with glass-bottled archival-quality ink. You can spend a whole lot of money, yes, but it’s not necessary.
A durable metal or biodegradable resin pen is certainly more of an investment than a pack of petroleum plastic pens that cannot be refilled, so I wondered if anyone had done a cost comparison between single-use plastic pens and refillable pens and ink…Of course someone has. More than one someone, actually (see The Fountain Pen Network if you’d like to take a deep dive into the refillable pen community) There are many discussions of this online, and this is my favorite to date: Noodler’s Ink took apart popular roller ball pens, measured their ink and did a cost comparison to their “bulletproof” ink and found that the refillable pen and ink came out way ahead – Check their math and see what you think makes more sense.
I can hear you naysayers groaning and reminding me about ink spots and stains, about the muss and fuss of refilling pens. You have a point – Refillable pens are famous for ink issues of all sorts, but that doesn’t have to be the case with modern pens. It does take time to fill them, yes, but that’s time you can spend at home or in the office instead of trekking to the store for new single-use pens. OfficeSupplyGeek.com has this photo tutorial on filling a pen with less mess and there’s this short video as well. I can’t promise you won’t get some ink on your fingers, but look at what you get in return – I challenge you to watch this and this from Leighpod, an artist who loves pens and ink, and come away without a desire to take a refillable fountain pen for a test write.
Try a refillable pen like these:
- Rite in the Rain makes a durable all-metal refillable pen that inspires great loyalty. Pete Athans, seven times Mount Everest summiter, North Face athlete, and National Geographic explorer called me and sent a photo to sing the praises of Rite in the Rain pens. These are the pens he takes with him during his regular expeditions to Mustang, Nepal and he uses them every day at his sea level home. Pete loves them because they work even in extremes of altitude, weather, and dust, they’re practically indestructible, they’re made from recyclable materials, and they’re refillable via neat and tidy metal cartridges.
- Noodler’s makes the Flex and Ahab pens using a “celluloid derivative” that they describe as “technically biodegradable and formed from a “renewable resource” even though our resin and our ebonite can last more than a lifetime...” These pens are much beloved and praised in online reviews by people looking for durable, refillable pens that are a pleasure to write with.
- The Lamy AL-Star aluminum pen with a steel nib and optional converter gets high marks in online reviews from people who are living plastic-pen-free.
Biodegradable Single Use Pens:
While I was researching pens, I came across an invention from a company that had a lot going on – The 98 rollerball pen from DBA. DBA’s pens were 98% biodegradable (made from a potato-based plastic), designed to be composted (excepting the stainless steel nib), filled with non-toxic ink, and produced in the USA at a wind-powered factory. They still have their short video that sums up the global impact of single-use pens in lovely animation up on their site, but they seem to have stopped production.
Sadly, this was the only single-use pen I was excited to recommend. Yes, there are others that are made of some amount of pre- and post-consumer recycled plastic, and others with some components made of biodegradable material such as corn plastic, bamboo, or paper. But I cannot find a single-use pen that is truly designed to be a cradle-to-cradle product. I’m looking for something that uses no virgin petroleum plastic, and that’s either certified to biodegrade or can be upcycled (not downcycled) using existing, widely-available technology. Until someone starts producing pens like this, we’re going to keep finding them in our watersheds and oceans; it doesn’t matter much at that point how much recycled content a pen has. Even recycled plastic is forever. If you know of such a pen, please do share. My vote is for pencils and sturdy refillable pens.
REPURPOSE AND REUSE – What to do with the plastic pens you already have:
- Keep your eyes open for lost pens and reuse them. Start checking the gutters and sidewalks around you – You will find free pens.
- Use pens as pegs to hang tools or other items with help from this Curbly tutorial.
- Make a sewing caddy for your thread and bobbins with help from another Curbly tutorial.
- Create a sprinkler from your dead pens and an empty single-use plastic bottle with yet another Curbly tutorial.
- Create prints with your old pens and discarded styrofoam food trays with this tutorial from Poppytalk. Inkless pens make the perfect tool for “carving” your design into the tray.
- Turn your pen into an engraving tool to make prints using ink and an empty metal soda can with help from Atomic Shrimp’s tutorial.
- Use your pen as a scribe to turn an empty soda can into a beautiful box under the guidance of Atomic Shrimp.
- Give yourself an updo using an empty pen as a hair stick – You can get fancy and decorate your pens, or use them as-is to proclaim yourself a proud reuse fashionista.
- Turn your old pens into custom crochet hook holders with help from this tutorial by LadyWillow’s Treehouse.
- Old pens make perfect small dowels for all sorts of projects – Keep a handful with your tools and you’ll find ways to use them.
- Stash an old pen under each of your sinks next to an old toothbrush – This dynamic reuse duo will help you clean all the dirty corners and cracks of your home.
- Turn your dead pens over to your favorite children past the small-items-are-choking-hazards age and see what they make of them. They come in handy as kid construction and craft materials.
- Save your empty pens and create your own version of a pick up sticks game.
- Keep one in your kids’ dress-up box so they can become Marian the Librarian.
- When you are well and truly done using and reusing your plastic pens, send them to Costas Schuler, aka The Pen Guy. He’s working on large art projects using old pens, and he’d like to add yours to his materials - His address with more information is here.
Still looking for pen reuse or or reduce inspirations? Check out our Trash Backwards Web app for more ideas on how to reduce, reuse, recycle just about everything.
If you have a favorite transformation or second life for single-use plastic pens, or a reusable writing implement I didn’t mention, please let us know. We’d love to showcase other innovations and help people re-think writing, waste, and reuse.