One pen, one more drop in the bucket

Bea Johnson – queen of zero waste – has been my new zero waste super hero. Her blog and book are an invaluable resource for reducing unnecessary waste and simplifying your life.

She mentioned in her book the incredible waste that disposable pens have become. They are everywhere and at work someone is always trying to give you their promotional pen. My husband and I looked through our drawers at home (not even our office yet) and found about a hundred of them – most of them dried up and not even used.

I have also recently become addicted to using these lovely little disposables that we have in the supply cabinet at work. They are slim and write with a smooth fountain like ink. I have felt guilty for a while as I write my notes in meetings about our zero waste program and all the fabulous things we are going to do to save waste – with my disposable pen.


I have heard climate change activists and policy experts say that small lifestyle changes are meaningless because the scale of change required to stop catastrophic climate change is so huge that small things like driving less and turning your lights off are just drops in a bucket. These same people will say that nothing less than the decarbonization of our society, and a revolution in thought and culture will get us out of the mess we are in.

I agree that people can get fooled into thinking they are doing more good than they are, and patting themselves on the back for doing ridiculously small things (oh look I bought eco hand soap in a plastic disposable container!) But I believe that when someone commits fully to being a part of the societal shift (one that brings human culture and the planet into sustainable balance) by trying to live the principles of simplicity and sustainable living, all these little actions (many many drops in the bucket worldwide) reflect and reinforce a mindset shift and are powerful steps forward in the revolution away from our consumer disposable culture and toward a durable, resilient and healthy one. When people become active actors in their lives and engaged citizens by changing the way they interact with the system, they change that system and send ripples across it.

Many of us are living our lives on auto-pilot. We do things the way we do things and we make choices because it is what is expected of us, because “that is just the way that it is”. But when we begin to question why things are the way the way they are, and begin to act in ways that are counter to the norm we can make change. We can change ourselves, those around us and our society.

Nothing can be more freeing than feeling like you have control over your life and are contributing to positive change at the same time. Tackling my disposable pen problem made me feel (don’t laugh) exactly this way. I’ll tell you how I came to find the one pen that will replace thousands in a second, but for now I’ll say that finding an actual legitimate (not just green washed and good feeling type) of solution gave me the energy and courage to tackle all the disposable parts of my lifestyle and this is more important than the one pen.

But the pen story is an interesting life cycle story and might be interesting if you are looking for a solution also.

It all started with a visit to the pen shop across from our campus downtown. I explained to the salesman that I wanted a pen that wrote and felt like the disposable I loved, but that was made of all metal, would last (nearly) forever, and wasn’t too expensive to refill. We looked at a few pens that had the same type of ink that I liked and we took a look at the refills. The salesman explained that this type of water based ink went fast, and that I’d have to buy refills almost monthly. I didn’t think that was financially sustainable, and I noticed that the inserts were made of plastic.

We looked at the ball point pens (which I have always disliked, but was willing to make the sacrifice to go disposable free) and the inserts lasted much longer and came in metal versions, but it still bothered me that I’d be tossing something out so often (every few months). Finally, he asked me if I had ever considered a fountain pen. They have the fluid ink and the sharp tip that I like, come with a converter that is permanent in the pen (replaces the refills) and uses ink that you draw up into the pen from a glass jar. The only thing that is plastic and disposable is the cap (so I’ll be looking for refills with metal caps for recyclability).

I have the pen now and look forward to never buying or using a disposable pen again. Small action perhaps you might say, but in my mind it was a huge win and thanks to buying it from a local Canadian vendor my investment will help out a small business owner who pays taxes locally and hires people (also locals who pay taxes) who are more than willing to answer all my questions about the zero waste potential of their products!

Each time I find more alternatives to my disposable products I feel like I have a little more control over my footprint, and has encouraged me to take on a disposable free challenge. Can you imagine if we all used durable reusable p

roducts? What a difference that would make – not only in the landfills – but also in the way we all think about things and their place in

our lives.

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