Q: Although I’m no luddite, I prefer to communicate the old fashioned way: pen and paper. Sure, I have an e-mail account (not AOL, thank you very much) and all that jazz, but when it comes to penning missives, making lists and other things that could be done on a PC, I enjoy utilizing the ancient art of writing by hand. I’ve long been using recycled content paper products — from fancy stationery to my daily journal to Post-it Notes — but never really thought about greening one rather important thing: my pens. I’ve amassed quite the collection of plastic pens of the ballpoint variety — nothing too fancy — and subsequently chuck a lot in the trash when the ink runs out. Are there any environmental stats about pen waste? And what are pen manufacturers doing to provide alternatives to landfill-clogging writing instruments?


Trying to do the write thing,


Arnie — Manchester, N.H.

A: Hey Arnie,

How novel! I spend so much time stringing together words on computers and mobile devices that sometimes when I pick up a pen and put it to paper, I’m at a complete loss. How do I do this thing again? Thank god I still write checks on occasion and send non-virtual greeting cards or else I’d be in big trouble.

You have a great point about ballpoints. Using recycled content paper products, whether it’s a sympathy card, printer paper or a notebook, is almost de rigueur nowadays. But eco-sensitive styluses? We don’t hear as much about ‘em since pens, like umbrellas, cheapo sunglasses and lighters, are considered as one of those cheap and ubiquitous use-and-toss, gain-and-loss items that many folks don’t seem to pay much mind to as long as they’re in working order.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of plastic, non-biodegradable ballpoint pens (caps included, I assume) that are landfilled each year worldwide but I’ve seen the figure 10 billion floating around the Internet. Once in landfills, pens, like other plastic objects, sit and sit and sit and sit for thousands of years. And if for some reason a pen doesn’t make it into the landfill, it can travel around the environment where it could potentially end up in the mouth of a hunger marine animal that mistakes it for a lunchtime snack.

Some good news for you, Arnie, to keep in mind the next time you’re on the hunt for a pen or two: Many pen manufacturers have indeed come to realize that eco-friendly paper needs an eco-friendly pen to complement it. A brand that should ring a bell, Paper Mate, offers the new-ish Biodegradable line of corn-based, compostable ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils that decompose within about a year. What’s more, Paper Mate, along with EXPO and Sharpie, has partnered with the always eco-inventive TerraCycle for the Writing Instruments Brigade pen recycling program. This initiative keeps plastic pens out of landfills, benefits nonprofit groups and allows TerraCycle to give an old pen a second lease on life through upcycling. 

Another big player in the pen biz, BIC, hasn’t unrolled biodegradable pens at this point but is dedicated to sustainable product development and offers the Ecolutions line of ballpoint pens, pencils, and other writing paraphernalia made from recycled materials. The BIC Ecolutions Clic Stic retractable pen, for example, is made from 62 percent recycled materials and is PVC-free. Pentel, another popular brand, uses a minimum of 50 percent post-consumer recycled material in all Recycology-branded products.

Perhaps the most exciting recent development on Planet Pen? DBA’s Biodegradable Pen, billed as the world’s only 98 percent biodegradable pen. This slick little stylus is made at a wind-powered factory in New York from a potato-based bio-plastic and is filled with simple, nontoxic ink. I haven’t tried one out myself yet but I’m crushing pretty hard.

So there, Arnie, a few options for Earth-friendly writing instruments. Biodegradable and recycled content pens aside, have you ever considered refillable pens and/or fountain pens? They’re more expensive than their disposable brethren (especially some fancy- pants fountain pens) and, thus, provide more of a bum out if you misplace one. However, you might consider investing if you’re an avid writer concerned about the amount of disposables you’re retiring. Going the non-disposable route’s probably crossed your cursive-loving mind but I thought I’d throw it out there.

Drop a line, the old-fashioned way, and let me know how things go.

— Matt

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Photo: AMagill/Flickr; MNN homepage photo: E_Y_E/iStockphoto

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.