"Where Did all My Pens Go?"
  • Richard

"Where Did all My Pens Go?"

They always seem to get lost and you can never find one when you really need it. Despite ubiquitous technology, we still rely on the humble pen (the promise of a paperless office doesn't appear any closer), which it makes it all the more frustrating when they seem to disappear. Instead of built-in obsolescence, it’s almost like they have built-in vanishing properties.

Yet, all that plastic, metal alloy and other components has to go somewhere. Bic, the largest manufacturer, has produced over 100 billion ballpoint (or 'biro') pens globally (The Guardian, 2008). Placed end-to-end, this would circle the Earth 348 Times (Bloch, 2008).

Meanwhile, 38 billion are produced in China each year, representing over 80 % of production globally (The Washington Post, 2017). Many will end up in landfill; eventually the oceans.

We are swimming in pens (ironic, then, that we can't find them; or at least one that works). A slightly-better alternative for the environment is pens made from recycled materials - cardboard, for example. These are at least biodegradable, for the most part. Lastly there's pens with replaceable cartridges. But do they fare any better when it comes to environmental impact? Let’s take a closer look.

Figure 1: Finch, F. 2017. Pen accepting Parker-style refills.

From looking at the evidence, it appears that going slightly upmarket, in this case, really has it's benefits - over the long run:

  • Like any product, there's a production and distribution cost attached. In this case, however, a single unit could well last you a lifetime. Materials will generally be highly durable.

  • Being of high quality, suiting your style, and perhaps even customised, they are an item you'll value - which means it's much less likely to get lost. It cuts down on the throw-away mentality too.

  • Apart from being more susceptible to drying out and clogging, it's estimated a single use ballpoint pen may provide up to 1 km writing length (depending on character size, pressure and so on). Refill cartridges, depending on the option chosen, are estimated to write from 3 km up to approximately 12 km. That disregards output quality and reliability as factors, of course.

  • Numerous manufacturers -- such as the Parker Pen Company -- still make the bulk of their products in Europe. Therefore, more stringent environmental (and labour) standards are adhered to in comparison to, say, China.

  • It's a great chance to make a good first impression (!) :

Unfortunately, recycling systems are very few and far between. Whole (disposable) pens are especially problematic. Because of the plastic resin used along with disparate parts, they aren't considered worth the effort and expense. For now, it seems, the best option available to us is to reduce waste.

Perhaps one day, the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) -- including end-of-life product take-back -- will become the norm. Nature works in cycles. We haven't learnt that lesson, yet.


Bloch, M. 2008. "Pens and the Planet". [Accessed: 24.01.18] https://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/refillable-vs-disposable-pens.html

Flinch, F. 2017. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons [Accessed: 24.01.18] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJinhao_182_twist_action_ballpoint_pen_disassembled.jpg

The Guardian. Smith, D. 2008. "It's 70 today, but our favourite pen just keeps rolling along". [Accessed: 24.01.18] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2008/jun/15/news

The Washington Post. Taylor, A. 2017. "Finally, China manufactures a ballpoint pen all by itself". [Accessed: 24.01.18] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/01/18/finally-china-manufactures-a-ballpoint-pen-all-by-itself/?utm_term=.6a88b276f40f

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