Can you recycle pens? Yes and no…

  • Date: July 27, 2022

Despite a move to technology and being paper-free in the last few years, we still go through an astronomical number of disposable pens. Often, if these have not been lost in drawers during their lifetime, they end up in landfill where they will persist indefinitely. In terms of their disposal, is recycling an option? Unfortunately, not in (typical) curbside collections, but there are specialist services available to ensure that throwing them in the trash is not the only option. There are an increasing number of other, more eco-friendly pen options available too. Here we will take a look into the finer details…  

What are pens made from?

Pens are made from multiple materials and can include plastic, metal (for example, tungsten for the ballpoint) and rubber. The plastic tends to be Polypropylene Copolymer (PPC) – it is lightweight, so it makes a great material for pens. But it comes with its environmental costs. For one, it is not biodegradable and if it ends up in landfill it will not break down naturally into its component parts. Instead, it will break into smaller and smaller pieces over time that can cause havoc for soils, animals and plants.

So, can you recycle pens?

Pens present problems for your standard curbside collection. One of the issues is the multiple different parts that they contain – recycling these mixed materials at your local recycling plant would be too time-consuming.  As a result, they are generally not accepted.  However, as always check out your local areas’ rules and regulations for the most up-to-date details.

But don’t worry – this does not mean that all your pens are destined to spend eternity in landfill – there are other options available. BIC have joined forces with TerraCycle to provide a free recycling program for pens and other stationary products. Simply collect your old writing instruments (till you have enough to fill a decent sized box – to reduce the transport related emissions), print a postage label and send them off. You can send in any brand, it doesn’t have to be BIC – and it is totally free for you to use the service, they pick up the bill!

Depending on where you live, you might find a local recycling service that is even easier than the TerraCycle one. UK-based office supplies store Ryman, for example, offer a pen recycling service – to date, they have collected over a million pens which they have converted to charity donations.  

Are there more eco-friendly pens available?

Cardboard pens are becoming an increasingly popular eco-friendly alternative to plastic pens. Not only do they reduce the need for plastic, they are also much easier to dispose of when you are finished with them. In some areas, the cardboard part will be recyclable at curbside along with all your other household cardboard. Generally, the cardboard part is just the pen barrel – the nib is still metal, and the ink will still usually be contained in a plastic tube.

Again, check with your local center before adding, if the guidelines are unclear.

Another advantage of a cardboard-barreled pen is that they are biodegradable – they come from a natural source and, essentially, can return to nature after use. Assuming that it hasn’t come into any contact with nasty chemicals etc., it is even suitable to be added to your compost pile to add some much-needed carbon to the mix.

If a cardboard pen isn’t your thing, why not opt for a refillable pen instead? Although a fountain pen is the most traditional option, you can opt for a more modern refillable rollerball style too. Even better, ones made from a sustainable material (such as the extremely fast-growing grass, bamboo) will reduce the need for more harmful plastics to be produced in the first instance.

The bottom line

Standard pens are not recyclable at curbside – but there are specialist services available (such as TerraCycle) that make it possible to divert them from landfill.  Alternatively, why not opt for an eco-friendly pen option? In addition to reducing the amount of plastic needed to make the pens in the first instance, re-fillable or cardboard pens will significantly reduce the amount of waste too. Reducing the number of pens we send to landfill is vital. Despite not being as widely talked about as disposable items such as plastic straws, the environmental impact that the 1.6 billion (yes, billion) pens sent to landfill in the US every year is huge.