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The Life of Pens


After 5 minutes of me talking, she turned to me and asked, "Are you talking about pens? Pens, as in the things we write with?"

Yes I am… and I am also aware of the fact that this may seem to be going overboard for buying pens. Part of my job here at The Castle (among other things, thankfully) is purchasing bulk orders of items that we use on a daily basis. There was a time when it took a very short amount of time and all I had to worry about was how much it cost in £’s. Over the last few years, things have changed around here (for the better).

Now, before I commit to buying anything for company use I need to ask several questions:

  • How does it fit in with our environmental policies?
  • How and where is it made?
  • How is it transported from beginning to end point?
  • Are the materials used sustainable?
  • Do we really need it in order for our business to continue and to grow. Will our customers suffer if we do not provide it?
  • Is there a better option, if we really do need it and it doesn’t fit into our environmental ideals then are there any better alternatives?
  • At what point do you have to accept that there are things we cannot do without even though they fly in the face of what we are trying to do?

Those of you that are regular customers with us would have undoubtedly have come into contact with our current model of pens. Three years ago at the beginning of our journey we wanted to tackle a seemingly simple issue of buying branded pens that were as environmental friendly as possible. After some weeks, we found a solution that seemed to answer our needs. Pens whose casings were made from recycled post-consumer waste. Not a 100% compostable but at least the nib and inside could be removed from the casing and it could be chucked in the compost. We ordered them (around 5000 of them) and we very pleased with our efforts. At this point I can see you sitting there saying to yourself, but those pens are terrible, they do not work. What is the point of having pens that don’t work even if they a compostable? Agreed; we made further efforts with the pens and contacted the supplier who then offered us a pen with a metal nib and supposedly better quality. We tested them and they seemed to be fine, we ordered another 5000… Winter at The Castle, and the pens cannot cope with the low temperatures; Summer at The Castle and the pens stop working In the heat. We are finally at the end of the supply, thankfully; and I have sat down and given consideration to this problem.

My first reaction was a lets return to plastic pens that work. Buying expensive products that are overpriced only for the fact that they claim to be ‘eco’ friendly and yet are of poor quality doesn’t do our efforts justice. It makes a mockery of the whole issue of what sustainability actually means and allows companies to go on producing things and for us to continue purchasing them without having any further thought on the issue. It also makes it easier for those who wish, to weaken the arguments for making the effort to ‘buy green’. I began the task of researching which type of plastic pens would be best… Oh dear.

The UK uses over 5 million tonnes of plastic each year of which an estimated 24% is currently being recovered or recycled. There are basically 3 types of so called environmentally friendly of plastic for me to consider using.

  • Bio plastics made from natural materials such as corn starch.
  • Biodegradable plastics made from traditional petrochemicals, which are engineered to break down more quickly.
  • Eco/recycled plastics, which are simply plastics made from recycled plastic materials rather than raw petrochemicals.

One night at home I began my research (yes that’s right I actually did this). It only took me 3 hours to come to my decision. I put the pros and cons of each plastic type next to each other.

Bio plastics


  • Uses between 20 and 60% less fossil fuel energy to produce (depending on type of energy the producers use (i.e. is it sustainable energy?)
  • Uses renewable bio mass sources such as vegetable fats/oil and various starches.
  • Bio plastics generally do not produce a net increase in carbon dioxide gas when they break down (because the plants that were used to make them absorbed the same amount of carbon dioxide to begin with).
  • Coke is going to save the world with their new plant bottle, which can be recycled with PET.
  • Pricing is not dependant on crude oil prices and therefore currently more stable.


  • Still uses fossil fuels in the process.
  • Could contribute to an increase in the pace of deforestation.
  • Generally cannot be recycled with current PLA plastics.
  • Will encourage the use of GM crops as demand for cheap corn/sugar starch grows.
  • Will mean that as the demand grows, we will see a rise in ‘cash crops’ rather than food growing which will have an impact on world hunger.
  • Most do not biodegrade quickly enough to be called biodegradable.
  • Not easily identifiable as bio plastic therefore may cause contamination when mixed in the wrong recycling system, rendering the batch useless.  The debate on recycling bio plastics, specifically PLA, with mainstream PET continues to rage on, and studies on the subject seem to contradict each other.



  • Engineered to degrade over a faster period under certain atmospheric conditions.
  • Used in various medicinal applications such as for dissolvable suture material.


  • Do not always readily decompose. Some need relatively high temperatures and, in some conditions, can still take many years to break down. Even then, they may leave behind toxic residues.
  • Biodegradable plastics are made of normal (petrochemical) plastics.
  • When some biodegradable plastics decompose in landfills, they produce methane gas. This is a very powerful greenhouse gas that adds to the problem of global warming.
  • Label suggests that it will just disappear in landfill (it will not – landfills are designed to compress and starve the product of air and water, the very things that are needed for something to decompose.



  • Recycling plastics with the code 1 to 6 is usually pretty straightforward, as each category correlates with a specific resin.
  • Uses less fossil fuels on production.
  • Has the potential to use less energy in production depending on type of energy used on collections and manufacture.
  • Closed loop recycling whereby certain bottles can be recycled into the same product is beginning to happen; although currently on a very small scale.


  • Not all plastics can be recycled in this country and so will need to be shipped elsewhere for recycling. This needs consideration when thinking about the efficiency of other countries recycling and waste management programs.
  • Each time a product is recycled it is used to make a lower grade product as it loses quality.
  • We are currently only recycling about 20 – 30 % of our PET plastics.
  • PET plastic can only be recycled from 1 to 3 times and then it goes to landfill.
  • PET plastics can take up to 500 years (apparently) to break down in landfill.

At this point in my research my brain began to ache and a radical thought occurred to me.My search for a good type of plastic is fruitless, there are not any ‘good’ types of plastic. All plastic has serious and terrible long lasting side effects and just like in any other industry driven by profit and convenience they will do their best to hide the facts from us under a pile of non-biodegradable hog wash. And we, made lethargic and blind by too much fat, salt, sugar, coffee and nicotine let them sooth our guilt away with heroic claims of saving the planet, saving the polar bears, saving the forests (saving their own arses).

(Here is the radical part) Where we can, we are going to stop buying into their rubbish… And we can stop this conversation right here. We do not need to buy pens that are branded. This makes them a desirable object. People come to The Castle, they have a great time; they then see the pens with our logo on them and ask ‘Can I have one?’ ‘Of course’, we say, and they take two or three and the rest of their groups take two or three and so on. Stop branding the pens and they become just a pen. Although we all end up with pens that we do not know where the hell we took them from… but nevertheless we can still cut down on the amount of pens we lose each day by this simple step.

The next step is to use them as if we knew the real cost of them. I.E. Not just the fact it cost us 30p per pen, but the actual cost, this is incalculable, but it shouldn’t stop us imagining it. We are not being tight and begrudging our customers a pen; we are just asking them if they really need to take it with them. Fair enough if after they considered it and they answered yes I do, then of course, take it.

How far we take this depends on us. Do we add string to the backboard where people write out the forms in order to stop them being taken away? And then just leave a couple out at a time for people that do need one?

If we go through the centre and collect all the old pens that are sitting in drawers not being used because they are not our branded recycled type, I have the feeling these will last for months (also due to the fact that they work). I guess it is the next logical step (but a long time coming) after we decided not to use plastic cards on reception any more. Some customers got upset by the cardboard cards seeing them as less valuable than the old plastic ones (which the ink rubbed off anyway and they became unreadable very quickly). They assume that the cardboard ones are temporary and we are going to go back to plastic. Again, we need to look at the real cost of convenience. We don’t really need a membership card at all, we can send the number via email and ask the customer to remember it or have it in their phone notes, all that is required is a change in the way of thinking about what we really need in order to get through the day. Does having a membership card made of plastic make a real difference to my climbing experience? Does The Castle having a branded pen I can take home and chuck in a draw or at the bottom of my bag make a difference to my life? Well it will, but not in the way we like to think about.

So, in conclusion, sorry for rallying the troops about getting ‘new pens that work’; ‘pens that we can be proud of’! I have changed my mind and think that we should use every pen we have in the centre, put them out in small amounts, tie a few to the backboard, when the time comes that we need to buy some more, we will go for recycled plastic, manufactured in the UK and unbranded. Seems like a big deal about pens I know, but we got through 5000 pens in a year, imagine this amount of plastic on the scale of Barclays and then times it by 100, 000 other companies in the UK alone and then times it again for the World.

Yes, I’ve just written a three page essay on pens, for those that got to the end, thanks for taking the time to think about it.