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The peculiar lifecycle of pens

Each pen that has found its way into my collection, I believe has its very own unique journey with a past and an uncertain future...

More than most, I have an unusually fond connection with the slender, often plastic writing devices that I hold in my grip, which exceeds more than just an appreciation between a craftswomen and her tool — I’ve been told. This is my disclaimer before you read on, scratching your head. 

Have you ever looked down at a pen you were holding and thought, “Where did this pen come from? I don’t remember seeing it before.” For myself, this happens frequently even though I haven’t bought a pen or pencil in over a decade.  

And still, my pencil cases, pen holders and drawers are filled with miscellaneous writing utensils with origins that are unfamiliar to me. These instruments that I just cannot bring myself to discard, were most likely given to me as gifts in company swag bags or left behind in empty classrooms or picked up off the ground over the years.  

Each pen that has found its way into my collection (or more accurately my junk drawer), I believe has its very own unique journey with a past and an uncertain future.  

I am usually left thinking, what happens to this plastic pen when ink dries up or runs out? Is it strange to think that a simple pen deserves more than being forgotten about and left in a landfill? A pen in which I have scribbled out countless stories.  “Yes, that is crazy,” is the most common response I receive to these questions. 

But over time, the pile of pens with empty cartridges grew as my notebooks filled with information and doodles, but something didn’t feel right about tossing out the vessel for the ink that my hand had grown so attached to marking paper with. 

That is when I started looking into the product life of a pen, only to discover that I wasn’t the only crazy person who wanted more for my drained plastic companion. Around the world different organizations and social enterprises are focusing on and finding ways to incentivize the recycling of complex plastic products, including pens. One challenge with keeping multi-component plastic items out of the trash is that they require deconstruction before they can be processed and reformed into new products. 

Through partnerships with the office supply giant Staples and stationary producer Bic, Terracyle is among a small handful of companies that specialize in the recycling of writing instruments, giving these products a second life. 

Regardless of brand, pens and pen caps, mechanical pencils, markers, highlighters and permanent markers, can indeed continue on their consumer product life cycle. However, this is done at a fairly high cost. 

Once collected, writing instruments are first separated by material composition and the separated items must be cleaned and shredded before they can be made into new recycled products, according to steps and procedures outlined Terracycle. 

The majority of recycling businesses operate as a for-profit enterprise, causing them to balance the cost of collecting and recycling a product with amount raw materials can be sold for. The profitability of recycling an item often plays a role in deciding which products are worth recycling and which are rerouted to landfills.  

This is typically the case with pens and other writing materials. They are small, have a multitude of materials and components and most unfortunately, are far more costly to recycle than to produce. 

So, I say to my fellow old fashioned handwriting folks out there, perhaps consider the peculiar life of the pen you hold from time to time. It may not be financially practical to recycle these used writing instruments, however, there are crazier people than just me out there who are currently spending the time to disassemble and recycle these products. Why not support them by donating your old pens to the recycling process instead of “writing” them off.  

Jazmin Tremblay

About the Author: Jazmin Tremblay

Jazmin completed a minor in journalism at Hanze University in the Netherlands and completed her Communication Studies degree from MacEwan University with a major in journalism.
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