Is Your Writing Disposable? Didn’t Think So.

So, here’s the thing

My interest in fountain pens is not the same as, say, a car enthusiast’s for cars. I don’t necessarily believe that more expensive is better (although that can be the case; for example, a gold nib will generally be of higher quality than a steel nib). I do feel a certain excitement at the prospect of trying new inks, but never to collect more than I need (“need” here being used loosely).

There are two primary reasons that I started using fountain pens: 1) they’re far healthier for my carpal tunnel, and 2) they’re sustainable, re-usable, and environmentally friendly!

I know that “sustainability” is being thrown around these days till it’s nearly lost its meaning, but I really do believe in its original conception: that the things we do (and buy, and throw away) now shouldn’t jeopardize the next generation’s ability to live healthily and comfortably in the future. Thus, I rarely buy new items, and prefer to shop at Goodwill. Not only has this saved me a ton of money, but I’m pretty proud to have a unique wardrobe at a school where ten girls own the same $100 dress.

The Epiphany (without the beam of light)

screen-captureBasically, the epiphany occurred one day after buying a handful of new pens (yes, even though the fountain pen fetish is new, the office supply fetish goes way, way back). I suddenly pictured landfills absolutely stuffed with thrown-away pens, pencils, and office supplies. This moment was sort of akin to the day when I learned how many pads and tampons end up in the landfill (ahem, 14 billion?!)– and the thought of all those piling up somewhere made me a little sick.

2958701281_34fcc15976Anyways, take a second to think about it: almost every single item in the school supply aisle ends up in the trash after a year. Multiply that by the number of stores that carry school supplies, even just in the US, and that’s a pretty overwhelming number.  Even if you don’t lose your pens (bless your little heart), you still throw them away when the ink is gone– because they’re designed that way. Up until a hundred years ago, all pens and pencils were reusable because, heck, they were expensive! Better yet, if you lived in a time that used quills, you weren’t putting any pollution into the environment through the production of your pen. That Shakespeare knew his natural recycling, aye?

Rick Conner has a good history of the pen on his site, which documents the transition from quality pen-making to a disposable industry based on cheap labor, high production, and chic packaging. The industry often promotes economic inequality through the quest for cheap labor, puts a ton of pollution into the environment, and hey! all of the goods end up right back in the landfill. Seems like a stupid plan in the big picture, right?

The fountain pen community offers lots of opportunities for frugality, despite the actual pens costing up to hundreds of dollars. For example, Fountain Pen Network members can swap pens or even ink samples on the site’s Trading forum. There are several good online resources that specialize in pen restoration, so a broken fountain pen never means that it’s lost forever. I feel fairly confident saying that most fountain pen users would never throw away a fountain pen.

What Prompted This?

So basically, I got a little peeved when The Pen Addict reviewed a disposable fountain pen. Of course I’m not peeved at the writer, or even the blog in general (which offers great reviews, and which I totally read). No, mostly I was annoyed that disposable fountain pens seem to be increasing in popularity, and let’s face it: they make no sense. They completely collapse the distinction between a quality-made, environmentally-responsible pen and the cheap, disposable pens that are destined for the dump.

I was also annoyed at myself, for being curious about how the pen would write. Most of the time, my political and social beliefs align with my small-scale interests, i.e. I eat a delicious heirloom tomato because I believe in preserving healthy agriculture. But in this case, I’m most certainly at odds. Disposable fountain pens defeat the purpose of a fountain pen. And certainly, they give us one more excuse not to invest in the future, but simply to buy for the moment.

281659324_d511fcf23fAnd hey, I know that it’s a little silly making a whole post about a pen. There are “bigger political battles” out there, after all. But quite frankly, I’m not going to end sexism or racism or big industry on this blog (though I can help confront it). The bright side is that making small decisions–like not buying a disposable fountain pen– helps me create a more sturdy, more genuine, big-picture belief.

Recommended reading:

The Non-Consumer Advocate

Disposable Containers for a Disposable Environment

Refillable vs. Disposable Pens

Flickr image credits:
Real Quill Pens by GeorgieR
Trash Slope by Roadchubbs
Fountain Pen by Bright Meadow
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4 Responses to “Is Your Writing Disposable? Didn’t Think So.”


  1. 1 Missive Maven July 22, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    I do not dispose of my “disposable” fountain pens. I pull the nibs of Pilot Varsities and V-Pens and make them eyedropper pens, filled with bottled ink, and I do the same with Platinum Preppies and Pilot Petit1s. The inexpensive plastic pens are an excellent way to try out a lot of ink colors for those of us that do not have the budget for a lot of expensive pens. Likewise, I travel with Platinum Preppies and Pilot Varsities. I am famous for losing or misplacing a pen – and I’d rather lose a $4 Preppy than a $40 Waterman Phileas.

    (Incidentally, some of the disposables write quite well. I am very fond of them.)

  2. 2 Cole July 22, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    I’ve heard a lot of people hacking their Varsities or Preppies to make them refillable– which I think is totally awesome. And you make a good point about traveling. Though, while I hear what you’re saying about the budget, I do think that people underestimate how much money they spend on disposable pens, even if they do refill some of them. I work on a verylow budget, and I’ve been more frugal with a few well-made pens than in the days when I spontaneously bought pens fairly frequently.

    I used to be a rabid pen-loser (seriously, rabid), but when I bought a more expensive pen it made me discipline myself to take care of my belongings. Plus, it’s a bit of a conscience issue, isn’t it? I’d rather own a few things that will last, and know that I’m not putting a lot of random waste materials back into the earth.

  3. 3 JPB December 1, 2009 at 7:19 am

    I was listening to Nick Cave. He mentions Berryman in one of his excellent songs which may be titled, “We called upon the author to explain.” Then I looked for a review of this Berryman character and ended up at your blog which seemed conflicted, at least the part about Berryman. I decided learn more about the person before I run out and spend hard-fought cash on a book of poetry by an unknown author (unknown to me at least). Thanks to you and Nick Cave I will soon be the proud owner of 77 dream songs. I would like to give something back so here is a photo link http://www.eco-coral.com/tirereef.jpg. Of course there are humans in the photo! Not even a pile of submerged tires is interesting enough to look at without humans. These were supposed to help the environment by creating an artificial reef, but I’m guessing that is just an excuse to dump tires in the ocean. Hopefully I’m wrong about that but maybe you can use the photo for one of you blogs?

  4. 4 Cole December 1, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    What an eerie/powerful photo! I’ll have to look more into how they justified that one.. thanks for the link!

    And I certainly hope you enjoy 77 Dream Songs. I was completely overwhelmed the first time I read them– by the use of blackface dialect and minstrelsy, the references to Berryman’s own life and his father’s suicide, by the endless stream of sing-songy dialects… But now I’ve written two or three lengthy academic papers on 77 DS, and I keep getting more out of them each time. Do let me know how you like them!


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