I love free pens.
As a writer who is always scribbling something, free pens are akin to being a sponsored athlete. My pen is my tennis racket, my baseball glove, fundamental to the game. So, free is good.
If I had a sponsorship deal it would be with TD Bank — their green plastic pens are my go-to writing tool. I grab two every time I pop in to deposit a check. They are stashed in my car, my computer bag, alongside my notebooks and in my front right pocket.
And like any sponsorship deal, in return TD Bank gets advertising: I was in line at the post office the other day and a woman needed a pen. I pulled a green TD from my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it,” I said, “I get them for free.”
But I usually hold onto them, use them for work. I like to try to write them dry. As a writer there’s no feeling more satisfying than running a pen out of ink, writing until there’s nothing left in it but scratches. It gives a sense of accomplishment, measurable proof of time devoted to a craft. I never used to run pens dry, I would lose them before that, but these days it occurs regularly. I take it as evidence of my dedication.
I used to take pleasure dropping them in the trash after their last word, but lately I’ve begun wondering about all those discarded pens. A pen running dry is like a car out of gas: Everything about it still works — the spring mechanism, the plastic shell, even the ink cartridge — but when a pen’s gas tank, its inkwell, is empty, it becomes useless. With no ink fill-up station, the mechanics become meaningless. With no way to recharge, it’s time to throw away the car. The only thing to do is swing by TD Bank for two more.
Their pen jar, after all, is always full.
When I lost my pens, I never had to ponder all this, but running them dry, bleeding them to the point they have nothing more to give, I am forced to question their untimely deaths, the wasting of a perfectly good machine.
Plastic pens, after all, are not apples. They do not grow on trees. It takes more than sunlight and rainwater to grow ballpoint and ink. Pens are plastic, an oil-based technology. They require fossil fuel to make, and like all things plastic when they find their way into the garbage they do not decompose.
And plastic, scientists are discovering, is turning up everywhere: not just filling landfills but clogging oceans and, most recently, the bellies of fish.
A study released last week found that the tiny shards of plastics coursing throughout the world’s waterways are stunting the growth of some fish and killing others.
“Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources,” an article in the Guardian newspaper reported, “effectively starving them before they can reproduce.”
“The growing problem of microplastics — tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry — has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.”
“Microplastics are near-indestructible in natural environments,” the article continues. “They enter the oceans through litter, when waste such as plastic bags, packaging and other convenience materials are discarded. Vast amounts of these end up in the sea, through inadequate waste disposal systems and sewage outfall.”
“Convenience materials.” That sounds like my pens. And my grocery bags. (I have fabric bags, but I don’t always remember them.) And the packaging my food comes in. It sounds like so many everyday things we all buy: toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes, sunscreen bottles, electronic accessories and that new ice scraper. Kayaks. Car parts. Tupperware. Printers. Plastics everywhere, literally everywhere.
In the Pacific Ocean there is a patch of floating garbage roughly the size of Texas. It is called the Pacific Trash Vortex, a place where discarded refuse goes to swim. Most of it is plastic, so while it might break down into smaller pieces, it doesn’t decompose. It will swim forever.
But in exchange we get free pens, free grocery bags and green peppers shielded by plastic wrap. So it’s convenient at least.
What does “disposable” mean? Where does “disposable” go? These are questions we don’t often wrestle with. There is not time to wrestle with them. They are big and unwieldy and, quite frankly, depressing. They seem too overwhelming to tackle, societal problems so much bigger than us they will never get solved.
But we better solve them, and fast: Trash Texas is growing. If our search for convenience remains unchanged it will eventually cover the Earth.
I read a book by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli recently. In the final chapter he wrote:
“I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct.”
“What’s more,” he said, “we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed.”
Watching one more pen fall into the trash I can’t help but wonder if he’s right.
Erik Eisele is a reporter for The Conway Daily Sun.