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  

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Discussion with Ann Thorpe

No posts here for the next week or so, as I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ann Thorpe, author of “The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability”

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posted by jet at 15:57  

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hugh Graham Essay on Aspirational Consumerism

Hugh Graham has an excellent essay on design and aspirational consumer culture. I think he’s on to something and that his idea of artisanal design — convincing people to buy ugly, flavorful heirloom tomatoes instead of perfect, bland grocery store tomatoes — is going to be quite important in the future. Well, if we want to survive as a species and all that. If we just want to consume ourselves to death, we’re already on the right track for that.

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posted by jet at 11:56  

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: _Why Things Don’t Work_, Papanek and Hennessey

Every now and then, I find a book that I wish I had discovered much earlier in my life. _Why Things Don’t Work_ is such a book, but I think it’s just as useful to read now as when it was published in 1977.

Papanek and Hennessey’s primary focus is on both needless consumption and poorly designed things that people really don’t need. However, instead of a long rant against conspicuous consumption and designed-in obsolescence, they point out flaws in products and systems then suggest alternatives. Starting with the home bath and ending with community-level resources (like fire engines), many things we take for granted or assume cannot be improved upon are looked at with a critical eye. Their line of questioning includes things like, “how can this be improved?”, “why don’t we do this the way people in another country do?” to “do you really need this thing in the first place?”

These questions are ones that I think anyone interested in design or sustainability should be learning to ask about everything they encounter. An interesting proposal in response to over-consumption is shared ownership of resources and objects that one only occasionally uses. We do this for all sorts of things, from fire engines to library books, but why do we stop with institutions created in the past century?

For example, why don’t we share lawnmowers?

I own two — a reel mower that I normally use and a gas mower given to us by a relative. Both of my neighbors also own gas mowers, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption that any of my neighbors who don’t hire a gardener probably own a gas mower. When I use my mower, it’s rarely for more than 20-30 minutes every other week or so; the same is true for all the mowers my neighbors own.

So why do we all have to own our own mower, each requiring a fair amount of regular maintenance even though we only use each for a few hours a week? What if we each put a few bucks a week into the “mower fund” and were able to check a mower out from a local storage shed? (Similar arguments are made for shared deep freezers in apartment buildings and other shared appliances.)

And if we are all going to own so many mowers, do we all need gas mowers? I’ve mowed my yard with both the reel mower and the gas mower, and the reel mower tends to be faster, quieter, and easier to store. Factor in down-time for refueling, tweaking the spark plug, and the cost of gas/oil, and the reel mower starts to make a lot more sense, at least for smaller lawns. I’m pretty certain that my reel mower will also last much longer than the gas mower, and it cost about half what a new gas mower would cost.

Taking their argument a step further, why do we have grass lawns that require so much maintenance to begin with? Just because they were popular with the Victorians doesn’t mean we need to waste water growing plants just to keep them closely cropped. On a personal level, we’ve started redesigning our own front yard so that we will no longer need to mow or water it other than occasional spot watering during a drought. It just doesn’t make sense for us to water and maintain 500 square feet of grass simply because it’s green.

It’s this sort of process and thinking that makes the book of value. While many of the specific suggestions they make are irrelevant today (such as rethinking typewriters), the processes Papanek and Hennessey use to critically look at the world around us and improve things for the better.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Why Things Don’t Work, Pantheon Books, 1977, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 15:16  

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Review: Nomadic Furniture

[EDIT:  James Hennessey points out the book is in print again from Schiffer, ISBN 0764330241.]

An area I get distracted by often is tools for nomadic living. I grew up moving around a fair bit and I’ve spent much of my adult life dragging around a portable office of one sort or another. It used to be a leather Day Runner(tm), notebooks, a Sony Walkman(tm) and random art supplies; these days it’s a laptop, tri-band ham radio, sketchbook, iPod(tm), and random tools for safety and personal care.

What I haven’t thought enough about is the next step up from the overstuffed courier bag, actually taking my entire house and all my possessions from place to place on a regular basis. It’s one thing to move my office from home to cafe every day, but moving all my stuff from town to town on a regular basis? That’s something a bit more complicated, especially given how much crap I (as well as everyone else) tend to own.

Becoming a truly nomadic person seems to boil down to two simple steps:

Step 1: Get rid of all the crap you don’t need or put it in some permanent place. You’re going to need to do this before you get to the next step…

Step 2: Own only those things that are easily transported and that you absolutely need. One thing that most of us absolutely need is a bare minimum of furniture, and that’s where Nomadic Furniture comes into play.

Nomadic Furniture , by designers James Hennessey and Victor Papanek, is by not an exhaustive examination of all nomadic furniture but a basic overview of the fundamental types of furniture that people need and how those living the nomadic lifestyle can travel with the furniture they need.

It’s an interesting read now, as it was written in the 70s during the first big oil crunch. The attitude is dated but at the same time completely relevant in terms of the need to conserve energy, reduce consumption of resources, and follow the general model of reduce, reuse, recycle. (If you’ve read Cradle to Cradle, some of this will seem oddly familiar.)

Hennessey and Papanek don’t just show you pictures of furniture you can buy, rather they show you how you can make most furniture on your own. The diagrams are simple and straightforward and are such that they are easily modified and scaled to meet individual needs. Some of the plans are very much in the style of Danish Modern (or IKEA) while others seem a little quaint by contemporary standards. I doubt the dimensions for LPs and cassettes will be useful for many people making storage shelves in this century.

There are a couple of groups of people that I think would greatly benefit from reading this and photocopying some of the plans. The first group are college students who move on a regular basis and for whom saving every penny possible on furniture is worth a little labor. The second group are the true nomadic types, say hardcore burning man participants or people who travel and camp for weeks at a time. There are some creative sleeping and storage solutions in Nomadic Furniture that I will be trying out before our next trip to the playa.

There are only two problems with Nomadic Furniture that I feel the need to point out. The first is that it’s no longer in print, but used copies are easily found on and The second problem is the nearly unreadable typography. I’ve been a huge fan of hand-illustrated and lettered manuals since my first copy of Muir’s How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot, but the strange typeface used in Nomadic Furniture is too much for me. It’s alien enough that the book is an amazingly difficult read, a distraction from the quite clean and readable illustrations.

Find it used, photocopy what you need, then sell/trade/give it to someone else who would find the information useful.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Nomadic Furniture, Pantheon Books, 1973, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 18:07  
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