A technophile lawyer rediscovers the joys of pen and paper

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eco-mania: Are fountain pens as eco-friendly as aficionados claim?

This post was triggered by Heather's recent self-labeled "rant" at A Penchant for Paper, in which she took issue with the "green" claims made for a pen made of recycled water bottles.  She urged persons concerned about the environment to use fountain pens, pencils (especially those made of recycled materials), or pens made with biodegradable plastics. While I don't agree with everything in her post, I agree wholeheartedly most of her final paragraph:

Don't be sucked into buying an item (a pen or anything else) just because the manufacturer has labelled it as "green."  If the environment is that important to you (and I hope it is!), think carefully before you buy and remember that the old fountain pen and ink may still be the best option.
Like Heather, I'll ask you to excuse me if this post likewise turns into a bit of a rant.

Let's start with this: I do not use fountain pens because they are eco-friendly, and I do not know if they are or not. What bothers me is blind acceptance of "green" claims.

Here's the problem: nobody thinks about trade-offs. There are trade-offs for everything. Everything. Ev... er...y...thing. (Including the options Heather advocates.) That's what engineering is about, folks. Compromise. I may have barely passed in my electrical engineering major, but I learned that much.

Let's say an engineer is trying to build a better widget by giving it more tensile strength. No engineer can just think, "How do I design more tensile strength into this widget?" Instead the engineer has to ask, "How do I design more tensile strength into this widget without unacceptably increasing manufacturing costs, reducing other good qualities, or introducing or increasing bad ones?" Maybe you can increase tensile strength quite easily, but at exorbitant cost in money or at the cost of losing flexibility, which you also need, or at the cost of increasing undesirable qualities like size, weight, or susceptibility to corrosion.

Trade-offs. If we didn't have them, we could design a perpetual motion machine.

So, let's take a closer look at the eco-friendliness of fountain pens.

The good: 

Re-usable. Re-fillable. Non-disposable. (I guess those are all the same thing.) I think that's about it.

The bad: 

Water. You need water to flush them between inks. With some pens (I'm thinking piston fillers), quite a bit of water. And I live in California, so huge amounts of energy are used to get that water to me. 

Metal. Famously anti-green mining activity was required to make at least part of each of my pens. Even if the barrel isn't brass, that steel or gold nib didn't just pop up out of a dispenser. In fact, if it's steel, it required a steel plant to form the steel after the iron was mined. And if your barrel is brass, then odds are the copper for it came from an open-pit mine, a huge scar in the earth.

Plastic. Use cartridges or a plastic converter? There's a 99% chance the plastic was synthesized from oil. 

Multiplicity. Lots of fountain pen users like to collect them. Real eco-friendliness would mean owning one pen. Count me among those who own several and will buy more. (On the other hand, this desire to acquire and own is the same thing that keeps us from throwing them out, so that's good.)

I'm not saying that fountain pens are NOT eco-friendly. I have no idea whether they are or not. I'm just saying we shouldn't assume they're eco-friendly just because they're refillable.

In fact, I'd love to hear from others about any eco-friendly facts I missed.



  1. Excellent post. It got me thinking.

    I do agree that products are being labeled "green" without much evidence to back it up and people will buy it just because of the "green" claims. (I do take that as a positive sign, however, that people are beginning to be enviornmentally concerned.) Like the terms used in foods: Light vs. Lite, I believe there will be some regulation coming on who can put "green" on their labels and who cannot.

    As for the tradeoffs, I face that everyday. One silly example: paper towels made of recycled paper vs an old cloth towel that I end up washing. Both use water at some point. The paper towel, manufactured with lots of water, will end up in the landfill - only used once by me. The cloth towel will be reused, but will go through many wash cycles. More water, detergent, energy to swish it around, etc.


  2. I really enjoyed this post. Thought provoking and measured. The difficult calculus of responsible resource usage may not be known right now. That dies not mean that it is unknowable. If only we all thought more deeply about all if our usage like this every day.

  3. I would agree about the manufacturing of the fountain pens themselves to be non-eco-friendly, but I would think if one owned a couple of fountain pens and kept them throughout their life just simply refilling them, it would be more eco-friendly than going through dozens and dozens of pencils/disposable pens. I could be wrong of course... look at the tradeoff for a hybrid car for example, with all of the mining and ecological destruction caused by the production of the batteries in those... I've heard it's better just to buy a car with a gas engine that gets decent gas mileage than it would be to get better gas mileage with one of those.

  4. Very true, especially if you consider the extraction of rare earths metals like Platinum, which are used in some pen designs. I have a post going up tomorrow on the Goldspot blog that talks a bit about the use of cartridges vs. converters and refers back to the eco-friendly point. In general, marketers (not only of pens) know that "GREEN" is in and are trying to position themselves as being eco-friendly as possible to appeal to the general populace. It is a good rule of thumb not to buy something just because its eco-friendly. The definition of eco-friendly is so broad and misconstrued.

    ThirdeYe - I've heard that you have to drive a Prius for 100,000 to make it more eco friendly than a regular petroleum automobile.

  5. There are some good points here, and yet another reminder that no choice can be completely without its impacts on the environment. Everything we humans do has an effect and, sadly, it is usually negative. Most often, we simply must choose the lesser of multiple evils

    One choice is to buy secondhand items - whether these items be fountain pens, clothing, books, or whatever. This way we are not supporting the manufacturing of new items and helping to reduce the amount of stuff that gets thrown away.

  6. Interesting post. As a Geologist working in the conservation sector, nearly everything in our work (and lives!) gets analysed at some point, ad I've discussed the pen issue with colleagues before. I guess in an ideal world we'd all write with pencils made locally from sustainably sourced wood, grown by foresters with sound biodiversity practices in place. Bonus points if each pencil is made by hand... Since most of the world doesn't seem to take these issues seriously at present (given the fact we're having this discussion I'm not including anyone reading your post or Heather's!), I think one well-sourced fountain pen has a lower environmental footprint than buying a pack of disposable biros. But, you're right that there are caveats. Don't buy a fountain pen made with rare metals, for example, and but one that is manufactured in your own continent (at least - not all countries make fountain pens well!). There's loads more to consider, as you've discussed, but it's a start until those local pencils are made!