It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How much oil did you destroy today?

Yesterday I threw away three ballpoint pens in a row. Normally I write with a fountain pen, but my workshop is grimy thanks to all the machine tools and no place for a schmancy fountain pen. I finally found a pen that worked, drew what I needed to draw and made some notes then went back into the house to throw away the empty pens.

I didn’t actually “throw away” three pens as much as “dispose” of them or, in essence, “destroy” them. They’re not recyclable that I’m aware of and not refillable, either. So there’s 1.5 oz (yes, I weighed them) of plastic and a tiny bit of metal that I destroyed by sending to a landfill.

How much oil did I just destroy? Probably not that much. But those pens came in boxes, factories needed to make the ink used to color the plastic, all of that had to be delivered somewhere. Still, probably not that much oil for three pens.

On the other hand, how many pens have I destroyed in my life? I remember buying disposable ballpoints by the box in college, so I’m guessing a lot of pens, so maybe, what, a gallon of oil? A barrel of oil? I’m not going to go all Jamais Cascio and calculate the amount of oil I’ve destroyed in the form of ballpoint pens, but I’m going to hazard a guess it’s a non-trivial amount, especially if you include the fully-loaded cost of the designing, making, and distributing of the pens.

Side note: Years ago I switched to mechanical pencils just because I like the feel more. I still have some of the same mechanical pencils I bought seven or eight years ago — including my favorite, Ohto Pro-Mecha architecture pencils. I have worn out four of the Ohotos (all .3, I guess I have a heavy hand?) and need to fix/replace/recycle them. Of note, they’re made almost entirely of aluminum with only a small amount of plastic. If I can’t fix them, I can always toss the metal bit in the recycling bin with all the other metal scrap that I take to the dealer once or twice a year.

So, I threw away — destroyed — three pens yesterday. How many have I destroyed in my life? How many have you destroyed? How many have we collectively destroyed? How much oil have we collectively destroyed in the form of disposable pens?

BIC says they sell “24 million BIC(tm) stationery products every day” (emph. mine). They also say, “BIC(tm) products are the choice for any consumer who wants to protect the environment.”

Say what? If I want to protect the environment, why would I buy disposable pens and disposable lighters and disposable razors, all made using oil and intended to be destroyed instead of recycled or reused? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe it’s actually bad for the environment (and a waste of money) to buy things knowing you’re just going to destroy them.

Ok, so how do I go about not destroying any more oil in the form of disposable pens? Let’s try the “reduce, re-use, recycle” solution.

Reduce: It’s difficult to reduce the amount of drawing and writing I need to do, but can I reduce the amount of pens I use? Is there an alternative to disposable pens? I like Prismacolor pencils, and they’re good for some of my drawing, and when I toss the shavings and the stub into the trash they’ll go to a landfill where maybe they’ll decompose. They are a bit of a pain to use on a plane or in a car as they have to be sharpened often and they’re also fragile — dropping them will break the core and make them useless. They also don’t work well with some paper and they aren’t as permanent as ink. Face it, I’m still going to need to use ink pens of some sort.

Reuse: Another option is to stop throwing away — destroying — the entire pen. Copic makes a number of pens that use refillable inserts and replaceable nibs. True, those go in the landfill once they’re empty/worn, but the body of the pen is metal and will last quite some time before getting tossed into the recycling bin. I’m still using one I bought several years ago, and I’ve replaced the ink and nib a few times now. (Copic also makes a wide variety of refillable/repairable markers along with disposable pens and markers.) When I was a kid, replacing the insert was pretty standard and I still have a couple of U.S.Gov. black ball-point pens that would work fine today had I a refill handy.

For note-taking in class and general writing, I’ve switched over completely to fountain pens that can be refilled from a bottle of ink. Yes, they can be a bit messy some times, but I’ve bought a few 3oz jars of Noodler’s water-resistant ink, enough to last me a kerjillion years. I suspect the nib on my pen will also last me most of the rest of my life as long as I don’t drop it on concrete or somesuch. If I didn’t like refilling I could buy ink cartridges, but again, I’m destroying oil when the cartridges are empty.

Recycle: Not an option with any of the disposable pens I’ve seen. If someone is making pens that I can put in with the #1 and #2 plastic (all my city takes), please let me know. I’m pretty certain none of the pens I destroyed yesterday were made of HDPE.

So, there’s my solution: fountain pens for most of my writing, Copic markers and Prismas for drawing. I suspect I can go the rest of my life without destroying nearly as much oil as I used to in the form of disposable pens.

Am I saying that people who use disposable pens are evil? No, and I’ll continue to use Sharpie Industrial disposable markers when I need to make semi-permanent marks in the shop. (However, I should buy them in bulk instead of in the three pack that uses paper and plastic packaging.)

What I am saying is that we destroy a lot of oil in the form of disposable pens, and that there are steps we can take to reduce the amount we’re destroying. Each of our solutions will be different, but collectively we can prevent a lot of oil from being destroyed.

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posted by jet at 12:24  


  1. I don’t know whether to be pleased or worried that my name gets invoked like this.

    Comment by Jamais Cascio — 2008/07/02 @ 16:13

  2. Why choose?

    On the subject of the actually topic- yeah, I should go back to good mechanical pencils at a minimum.

    Comment by Adam Burr — 2008/07/02 @ 16:53

  3. Packaging is a really good point. There’s so much of it, and so much is unnecessary. The paper backs are recyclable, sure, but how many plastic bubbles get recycled? Better to not make them in the first place, of course.
    Hm – I wonder if Costco, for all its encouragement of massive consumption, has been beneficial in this regard, by reducing the amount of individual packaging people buy.

    As a tangent, I’ve been seeing a lot of produce packaged ridiculously, especially by Trader Joe’s. I do not need my four apples plastic-wrapped on a styrofoam pad, thank you very much. What is up with that?

    Comment by Robynne — 2008/07/02 @ 17:41

  4. I am a huge fan of mechanical pencils; I hate pens and have been treating myself with nice, solid, geeky metal mechanical pencils for a few years now. My current favorite is a Pro-Use 0.5 Platinum. It’s entirely aluminum, but despite the cheezy name it has a great feel and is solid as a rock.

    Comment by Howard Berkey — 2008/07/09 @ 09:02

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