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The Problem With Plastic Pens...

Research examining waste created by disposable pens and possibilities for what can be done to prevent waste created from pens.

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While researching possible ideas of where I could go for this challenge, I came across an article written by Fredica Rudell for titled What I Plan to Do About My Disposable Pen Pet Peeve. In the article, she states that 1.6 billion disposable pens are thrown away by American’s every year. It may seem like a miniscule issue at first, but the numbers add up. It is something that we may not even think at all about after using them, and it’s time to do something about the issue of waste created by our writing utensils.

It is thought that disposable pens are a must for any school student or office worker, but is it really a necessity? The appeal of an having a disposable pen is that unlike refillable pens, they do not have as much value and therefore the user will feel more safe losing the pen as he or she won’t feel like they have lost something valuable. They are very much a convenience, but because they are difficult to recycle, they may do more harm than good.

The concept of a disposable pen was thought of relatively recently. Pens were originally dipped in ink, and later refilled with the invention of the fountain pen. Previously, pens were never meant to be thrown away. Because disposable pens are so affordable, losing them doesn’t prove to be much of an issue, making them a bigger convenience for school or work.

In schools it is common to find writing utensils accidentally dropped by other students in the hallway. By personal experience, most of the pens I have used during school were found rather than purchased by myself and I’ve rarely ever used a pen to its fullest. Everyone who I have surveyed regarding pens has agreed that they have had the same experience. In this way, disposable pens are an example of something that is accidentally shared, while refillable pens are very personal.

While researching, another thought came to mind: why even have pens and paper at schools at all? I then asked my Facebook friend list a question: should schools ditch pens and paper in favor of electronics? The response surprised me, despite the young age of the majority of my Facebook friends, the results were more in favor of keeping the pen and paper tradition. Of course it is agreed that doing so would benefit the environment, but those who responded with no stated that writing with a pen helps process what is being told them, as it forces them to slow down. It has also been stated that it is very easy to cheat and go unnoticed with electronics, and that they may be distracting in a classroom environment. Furthermore, I received feedback from a former teacher of mine, who stated that the students in his computer science class use Chromebooks, but still use pen and paper to take notes.

Disposable pens being wasteful is not an ignored issue and actions are indeed being taken. As stated before, the world is becoming more reliant on computer technology, so pens are slowly becoming less and less of an issue. Bic has a series of Eco friendly pens under the Ecolutions name. My goal is to further the development of Eco friendly solutions to ink based pens, and come up with an idea to make them more popular and accessible.

Overall, the research that I have conducted has left me with ideas on how I can approach solving the issue of the wastefulness of disposable pens. Being an industrial design student, I am especially interested in exploring which ways I can create a pen that will make the public rethink refillable pens and make them more popular for use at school or work. I look forward to participating!

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

Disposable pens often use an unnecessary amount of plastic and usually use both metal and plastic as materials, making them very difficult to recycle. Why create something disposable if it cannot safely be disposed? The plastic exterior of a pen serves to contain the interior ink tube and add more grip to the pen. I want to create a refillable pen that has the convenience and accessibility of a disposable pen, greatly reducing plastic waste.

Tell us about yourself

My name is Benjamin McKenna. I am currently an Industrial Design student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and I will soon begin my third year. I enjoy designing solutions to problems using simple yet effective methods.


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If you want to go to the most sustainable, pencils are where to go. Either well-made and sustainable manufactured wooden pencils (the big German manufacturers are; I don't know about others simply because I live in Germany. Faber-Castell was one of the first German companies declared carbon neutral), or refillable mechanical ones (not the disposable ones from Bic, which are not writing implements at all, but the best example of toxic consumerism. Every teacher I know says they encounter more broken than functioning ones. They're not intended to be written with, but to be bought again and again). They last the longest (you can write much more with a wooden pencil than with ANY ink pen), and the waste is bio-degradable (if they're made well).

The next closest are fountain pens, but they either use cartridges (waste), or need to be refilled with open ink bottles. Way messier than pencils.

For legal reasons, I must use an ink pen from time to time. My current favorite for this is a Stabilo paintball, but I don't know if they're sold in the USA (there are trademark and counterfeiting issues with this particular brand). They sell for about €2.50 here in Germany, are made primarily from recycled plastic, and can take standard refill cartridges.

Felt tip pens are the devil. The felt tip always get damaged long before it runs out of ink.

I can't recall to ever used up a ballpoint cartridge, or disposable ink pen either. They always break before I can use them up.

Going full electronic is not the best solution either. Electronics need power, and the cloud consumes a surprising amount of electricity. Unless we (humanity) make our electricity eco-friendly (solar panels and wind, mostly. Everything else is problematic), it's not the best way to go.

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