What do you do when you’ve finished with a used ink pen – toss it in the trash? Probably, because that’s what we all do. It’s about the only thing you can do with an old pen.
Complete pens can’t go into normal plastic recycling bins because they contain bits of metal, as well as the remainder of the ink. The barrels themselves are typically “Type 5 recyclable plastic,” according to Pilot, but all metal components and the refills have to be removed before recycling.
So, even if you disassembled every pen you use, you would still be left with a pile of clips, plungers, springs, barrel rings, screw-on tips, and refills. So, where does that leave the rest of us who use disposable, or even refillable, pens? There are a few choices.
One is a company called Terracycle, which has what it calls Writing Instruments Brigades. The way it works is that groups sign up, collect used pens, pencils, markers, etc. and send them into Terracycle. The company says it can remake them into everything from park benches to trashcans. Each brigade gets points for collecting the used pens, and those points can be redeemed for charitable donations to non-profits and schools.
Unfortunately, there are no open brigade slots in the US right now, so you would have to join the waiting list. However, Terracycle and Bic recently announced a UK partnership to collect used pens. So far, they’ve taken in more than 100,000 writing instruments and have slots open for 77 more brigades, according to the website.
Other than that, there aren’t a whole lot of other options.
The World Environmental Organization recommends disassembling pens and using the various parts for, among other things, making bird cage perches, allowing older children to play with them as toys, and turning them into homemade decorations.
Yeah, not terribly helpful.
Of course, you could always send your used pens to Costas Schuler, otherwise known as The Pen Guy. He has collected more than 10,000 used pens as an art project that covers his 1981 Mercedes 300SD. And he’s still collecting, hoping to end up with more than 1 MILLION pens to use for giant murals.
Meanwhile, Lexmark has been making some technological advances in recycling ink. The printer manufacturer works with a company called Close the Loop to turn used inkjet cartridges into new ink pens. Last year, they released a rollerball version and have now come out with an updated pen that is more like a felt-tip marker.
In India students from over 25 schools collected over a tonne of used ball point pens and handed them over to Green Worms . a waste management venture in Kozhikode, to be recycled. This is a great idea and perhaps other countries could follow suit and set up similar projects.
A student in China has even started collecting empty ink pen refills in an attempt to keep them from ending up in landfills.
Dong Yufei told China Daily:
He came up with the idea after he took the college entrance examinations last June. He noticed that many students, himself included, just threw away empty refills after the examinations.
He made a quick calculation.
“I would chuck away about 100 refills each year if I used up one in three days. The several thousand students in my school would consume hundreds of thousands in a year. Then how about our city, or our province?”
He learned that refills contain pollutants including volatile substances, ink and plastics that cannot fully break down if not recycled.
“Without recycling, numberless waste refills will cause great pollution,” said Dong, who decided to collect enough of them so that at least the plastic refill tubes could be recycled.
The only problem is, now he has more than 150,000 refills – and nothing to do with them. The recycling factories he’s approached have turned him down. And an experiment to remove the ink from each refill with a needle failed.
The Sustainable Attorney highlighted the difficulty in recycling pens.
“Pens, highlighters and markers are difficult to recycle because they are small and constructed of various metals, plastics and chemicals. It may seem like a small amount of waste but it adds up. According to Green Seal’s Choose Green Report published in January 1998, “every year Americans discard 1.6 million pens. Placed end to end, they would stretch 151 miles — equivalent to crossing the state of Rhode Island almost 4 times!”
What are the options?
1. Reduce the number of pens used. In other words, don’t lose your pens, don’t leave the lid off your marker, and write with them until the very last drop.
2. Buy reuseable, refillable pens rather than disposable pens.
3. Recycle the component parts. I suppose it is technically possible to disassemble each pen and separately recycle the metal and plastic. This extremely time consuming process would likely still result in certain parts such as the used pen cartridge ending up in the landfill.
4. Upcycle the pens by creating interesting artwork or by covering your car. There is a small blue recycling bin in my office where my co-workers can place their used pens. I’m not exactly sure what we are going to do with the pens yet but I’m confident we will have a recycler or upcycler before the bin is full.”
Maybe along the way, they’ll figure out a feasible method for reusing old ink pens.
Until then, you can try sending pens to some of the collectors mentioned above…or just store them in a big bin in the garage until something better comes along.