Finding Eco-Friendly Writing Tools

Throughout my journey as a conscious consumer, I have slowly refined various elements of my lifestyle. As a young girl, my mother taught me the value of investing in quality, using things gently, making do when possible, and repairing or repurposing rather than tossing. However, it wasn’t until learning about minimalism over a decade ago that I became truly dedicated to a lifestyle of minimal negative impact while maintaining that which brings me the deepest joy and nourishment.

That last bit is essential to finding balance and longevity within a conscious lifestyle. Considering everything and challenging ourselves to adopt conscious alternatives is a social responsibility. But we must also have compassion for our own circumstances and customize our efforts rather than blindly or burdensomely aspire to the conscious lifestyle of others.

While there are countless conscious considerations to be made, this post will focus on finding eco-friendly writing tools—something I’ve been curious about lately.

••• The Dilemmas •••

Being a supporter of the zero waste movement and a lover of writing by hand, I proudly purchased my first fountain pen while traveling in Germany last fall. All the zero wasters had them and it made sense—the pen could be refilled with ink over and over again using an ink converter, the only waste being the eventual empty bottle, which could be repurposed or in some cases recycled.

Since I still have an array of compostable, refillable, and disposable writing tools, my fountain pen has been solely dedicated to my journaling practice for now. As I have adjusted to using my fountain pen, I have considered every aspect of the experience, sometimes telling myself that the ultimate eco-friendliness of this tool was worth accepting the things that bothered me—the limited fineness of nibs, the sometimes feathering or splotching ink on the page, the limited capacity of ink converters, and the seemingly necessary awkwardness of my hand position.

This imperfect experience inspired me to more thoroughly question the eco-friendliness of fountain pens. Not because I was in disbelief, but because I wanted to fully understand the benefits that were supposedly outweighing my struggle.

What I found in my research is that fountain pens are actually not the most eco-friendly writing tool when one considers every phase of its existence—from production to use to disposal. To be honest, the whole thing is quite complicated and this post reflects only the initial layer of my research. That said, I feel like I have a good enough grasp on the benefits and detriments of an array of writing tools to share the beginning of what will be a continued exploration. Some of the things I’m considering are:

  1. Detriments of production, use, and disposal.
  2. Longevity, recyclability, and compostability.
  3. Effectiveness, experience, and benefits of use.

••• The Choices •••

Here, I will review the benefits and detriments of each tool.

Fountain Pens: The Pen Economics blog post “Are Fountain Pens Good for the Environment?” is what sent me down this rabbit hole of research. A fountain pen, if properly cared for and not lost, could be used for a lifetime, and maybe more than one lifetime. If a fountain pen is thrifted rather than purchased firsthand, that is even better, as the production impact would be irrelevant. As far as I can tell, one would only need to purchase bottles of ink to maintain the use of a fountain pen. Though, I do wonder about the longevity of the nib, particularly if extra fine like mine. If the nib is at risk of being damaged, I would say it’s best to invest in a fountain pen that allows for changeability of nibs. Assuming it’s indeed possible to use a fountain pen indefinitely, disposal impact would seem to be of minor concern. And since fountain pens are made of either plastic or metal, I would imagine they are recyclable under the right circumstances if disposal were necessary.

One must also consider the permanence and toxicity of the ink. From what I understand, the more eco-friendly the ink, the more easily it fades with time. And then there is the limited fineness of nibs (Japanese nibs come slightly finer), the sometimes feathering or splotching ink on the page (everything from paper to ink to nib plays a role), the limited capacity of ink converters (I can only write about 1,400 words on one converter refill), the drying time and potential to smudge, the resistance of ink to water and the potential to run (there are water-resistant inks, but they present the question of toxicity), and the seemingly necessary awkwardness of my hand position (this could be a result of the wrong fit or the fact that a fountain pen must be held at a certain angle for ink to flow properly from the nib).

Ballpoint, Rollerball, or Gel Pens: During my travels in Switzerland last spring, I also acquired a compact, refillable, wood ballpoint pen from Japan with an extremely fine nib. While I haven’t personally tested how many words one could write with a ballpoint, rollerball, or gel pen before it would run dry—and I’m still in search of a solid answer—I’m certain a disposable ink cartridge refill for any one of these pens would last many more words than an ink converter refill for a fountain pen. However, then there is the consideration of the waste from disposable ink cartridges versus the potential reusability or recyclability of fountain pen ink bottles. This may seem trivial since disposable ink cartridges can be fairly small, but it all adds up in the landfill.

When it comes to writability and water resistance, YiLing Chen-Josephson shares the following in her Slate article “To Put a Fine Point On It“:

Ballpoints, which use the same mechanism as a roll-on antiperspirant, contain an oil-based ink, which is relatively thick and pastelike. They are water-resistant and last longer than rollerballs (a typical Bic is good for up to two miles of writing) but tend to spot and can take a while to get started. Rollerballs use a thin, water-based ink, which means not only that they write more smoothly and with less pressure than ballpoints, but also that they blur when wet and smudge and bleed in the best of circumstances. Followers of etiquette favor them over ballpoints for formal correspondence. Gel ink, developed in the 1980s, is a hybrid of oil- and water-based inks: Gel pens are water-resistant like ballpoints but write with the smoothness of rollerballs. They’re fade-proof and thus good for archival projects, but they smudge egregiously before they dry.

Felt Pens: Sometimes all you want is the traction and saturation of a felt hard point pen or the artistry and whimsy of a felt brush pen. On the whole, felt pens are made to throw away, though you’ll find various online sources of writers and artists hacking the system and refilling the ink, sometimes through a bit of a messy process. While refillable felt pens are out there (including highlighters), they are rare, and the challenge then comes in the delicacy and eventual degradation of the felt nib. And while there are some replacement nib options out there, what I’ve found thus far seems to either be made for a stylus or are attached to a plastic connector.

Since felt pens aren’t terribly eco-friendly, an alternative for felt brush pens (depending on the project) would be a watercolor brush with a wood handle. Alternatives for felt highlighters would be a neon pencil or the combination of a ruler and eco-friendly writing tool to underline text (this is my preference for distraction-free reading). There really is no alternative for a felt hard point pen, at least that I have found.

Pencils: There is something simple, lovely, and tactile about writing with a pencil, be it wood or mechanical. Whatever you scribe can be erased, though my scientist sister would argue for the use of pens and striking errors with a single line so as to have a reference of one’s process. Even though graphite is erasable and therefore not entirely permanent, I reckon the chances of unintentional or malicious erasure to be slim. And while graphite isn’t permanent, it also doesn’t fade like ink does, though graphite can smudge. Wood pencil shavings are compostable and can even be used as a form of garden pest control. I’m not yet sure how many trees are cut down each year to produce wood pencils, many of which seem to be tossed before fully used because they are too short, but there’s no doubt that a mechanical pencil, which like a fountain pen could potentially be used for a lifetime or more, only requires refillable sticks of graphite.

Digital Devices: Lastly, there is the option to go digital and use a phone, tablet, or computer to write. This is the solution of many minimalists and nomads, and tablets even have apps and styluses that create a simulated pen-and-paper writing experience. It makes sense that the energy required to charge a digital device, maintain a document in the cloud, or send an email would be less than that required to produce however much paper and whichever writing tool one might use. Where it gets tricky, in my mind, is when you consider the life of a digital device, how often it would need to be replaced, and the energy required to produce it. And then there’s the risk of carpal tunnel with typing, or the easily hunched posture with writing by hand.

••• The Decision •••

Something I was reminded of in my research is that no matter how alternative our lifestyle, we will always have a negative impact. And I was reminded of how critical it is to both understand our personal mission and to carry out comprehensive research—both in determining and effectively supporting our personal mission. As someone who has suffered from “compassion fatigue,” I have accepted my limitations and recognized that by focusing my efforts I can create the most meaningful impact.

For me, creative expression through tangible media is essential to my wellbeing and I could never give up tools for writing by hand entirely, even if it were proven that digital devices were indeed the most eco-friendly option. I do use my phone and laptop to write anything that will be transmitted digitally (e.g. emails, blog posts, paid written work), that requires endless editing (e.g. finetune planning), or that makes my life notably easier (e.g. scheduling). But I do my best to write by hand where it nourishes me through slowness, connection, and introspection (e.g. journaling, letter writing, brainstorming).

Based on this initial phase of my research, my decision is to rely on a mechanical pencil for personal writing, a fountain pen for interpersonal writing, and a laptop for professional writing. As I further my research, my decision might change slightly, but I have enough writing tools to easily get me through the next couple of years without making a single purchase.

Of course, the most eco-friendly option is to first use what you have. Then, when you are ready to purchase your preferred eco-friendly writing tool, consider the following:

  • Detriments of production, use, and disposal.
  • Longevity, recyclability, and compostability.
  • Effectiveness, experience, and benefits of use.

What have you found to be the most eco-friendly writing tool + why? 

6 comments

  1. I have a fountain pen I use for pen and ink artwork. You do have to be careful with the nibs. Also you can’t go too long without using them or they get gummy.

    1. I had no idea! How long have you had your fountain pen? That’s true about the nibs getting gummy when not used often enough. Sometimes mine even gets a bit dry when I have the cap off and am thinking too long between writing, and I end up having to get it going.

  2. I almost exclusively use mechanical pencils and have not personally bought pens in years – for those needs I use what’s currently available (read: hoarded by my husband).

  3. Hi, Jessica!

    What a fantastic article. It certainly spoke directly to the calligrapher and artist in me. In my own journey toward more mindful writing–both in my personal life and at work–I made two decisions about 6 months ago: 1) I will not buy any new pens and will use all the ones I own until they’ve run dry; and 2) in doing this, I will transition to one or two refillable fountain pens. I’ve enjoyed how deliberate I must be with my writing when using my fountain pen (it’s a Pilot Custom 74 with a fine nib, by the way). While I fully agree that there is energy consumed to produce the pen, and plastics are likely wasted in that production, I intend to keep the thing as long as possible.

    I’m not sure how else a modern, refillable pen could be created to increase durability, recyclability, and compostability, but the thought makes me reflect on the pens I inherited from my grandmother. Far more intentional and slow are the cartridge-free dip pens left off your list. Have you ever written with one? As a professional calligrapher, none of my Grandma’s writing was created with modern fountain pens. Instead, everything she wrote flowed from dip pens. From professional calligraphy to birthday cards, she used wooden-barrelled pens with reusable and interchangeable nibs. I learned the basics of calligraphy with these pens and still have many of the barrels and nibs, though I rarely use them these days–as evidenced by the only-once-used pen and neglected dip ink on my desk at work. Perhaps the route to minimizing production and disposal detriments, while increasing longevity, recyclability, and compostability, is to hearken back to the lowest low-tech pens. But I suspect the costs to speed and overall experience probably outweigh the ecological benefit for most practical people. I don’t want to be the officer that halts a battle staff meeting to dip my pen!

    Thanks again for always making us think about how we interact with the world!

    – Brandon

    1. Hello, Brandon!

      I am with you on this: “While I fully agree that there is energy consumed to produce the [fountain] pen, and plastics are likely wasted in that production, I intend to keep the thing as long as possible.” It is impossible to be free of negative impact; we must simply do our best. Reducing our consumption and then investing in durable, quality products and caring for them well is a good place to start.

      That’s so neat that you inherited pens from your grandmother! Also, I didn’t realize your grandmother was a professional calligrapher. I’d love to see some of her work.

      You are so right about the cartridge-free dip pens—how could I forget?! I have used them before, and even have a couple (ahem) plastic handles I bought years ago. I’ll admit I found the writing experience a bit challenging, though I wonder if it had to do with the quality of the nib, ink, and paper I was using at the time.

      This is so true: “But I suspect the costs to speed and overall experience probably outweigh the ecological benefit for most practical people. I don’t want to be the officer that halts a battle staff meeting to dip my pen!” We must strike a balance, no doubt, and I wonder if eco-friendly speedy writing is where the computer might be most useful.

      Kind regards,
      Jessica

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