Are Fountain Pens Good for the Environment?

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I saw a tweet the other day which got me thinking. It was a picture of the poster’s shiny new fountain pen, with an announcement that they had converted because FPs were better for environment. You’ve probably seen this claim a bunch of times before but are less likely to have seen anything backing it up. I had a good look around and found nothing. But it struck me as an interesting claim so today we’ll explore whether fountain pens are actually more environmentally friendly than a ballpoint. 

Before we get into it, you might be wondering what makes an economist qualified to discuss this topic. That’s a question that many environmental scientists ask when they move into public policy and find their advice challenged by economists who often lack specialist expertise. There are two main reasons: first, economists study how societies use their scarce resources and the environment is undeniably a scarce resource. Whether we use, conserve, or protect aspects of the environment is a major part of what we do. Second, every proposed policy has costs and benefits, and economists have a sophisticated set of tools for determining exactly what they are. With that information, we can figure out if something is worth doing. Not everyone likes to recognise the trade-offs, but they exist and should always be part of an informed policy debate.

My particular area of expertise is energy and resource markets, which is a subset of environmental economics. I’ve also taught our environmental economics course, which brings together students who are heading for careers in policy, business, scientific research, environmental management, and even environmental activism. It’s an odd mix and can be challenging to teach, but it’s also immensely rewarding when students start to see things from a different perspective. They may not always agree but they can understand and weigh up different views for themselves. That’s a little of what this post will be about. 

Waste and Disposal

When people argue that FPs are a better choice on environmental grounds, they are generally talking about waste and disposal costs. Obviously, ballpoints don’t perform terribly well on this metric. Even when they are used until the ink completely runs out, the lifespan is going to be measured in days or weeks. But of course the reality is that most pens are thrown away at the first sign of trouble or just lost after a single use. On the other hand, the lifespan of an FP like a Pilot Metropolitan is measured in years. Even with heavy daily use and minimal maintenance, it could easily hold up for two to five years. The ink bottle will need to be replaced from time to time but that’s still a product with serious longevity.

Given this comparison, it’s a complete no-brainer that the fountain is a better choice. Even if your Metro only lasts two years, it’s going to outlive more than 100 ballpoints and that means significantly less waste being generated. By swapping to FPs and reducing the amount of waste you generate, the environment undoubtedly wins. 

This is essentially the argument that gets made but it’s not one I find convincing. For starters, the focus is exclusively on the volume of waste and the question of materials (plastic ballpoint vs steel FP) is ignored. That’s important because some waste products have different environmental impact: some items can be recycled, some are stored in landfill, and some leech into the environment in undesirable ways. Only thinking about the volume of waste ignores that issue completely. But, more importantly, the focus is exclusively on waste and disposal: the environmental impact of raw materials, production, and transportation is ignored, each of which are important things to consider. 

Interestingly, a decade ago our friends at Bic considered this very question. They had a look at the environmental impact of a Bic ballpoint to determine exactly how much each of these factors mattered over the product’s lifecycle (p.13). Raw materials turned out to be the biggest source of impact by far — slightly less than 90% of the total. Which isn’t all that surprising, when you consider that the product is derived from oil. Production and distribution each account for roughly 5% of their impact, and disposal a mere 0.2%. It could be a rounding error. 

You can see the problem here: decisions are being made on the basis of one incomplete factor determining environmental impact while ignoring another factor which has almost 500 times more impact. It’s like trying to lose weight by swapping from full fat to low-fat milk but maintaining a lifestyle of junk food, beer, and no exercise. 

The same problem exists when people decide to buy locally-grown produce because it saves on carbon emissions in food transportation. Sure, on that particular metric it’s a good decision. But it ignores the fact that small, local farms tend to generate far more carbon than very large-scale mega-farms. If you focus on one detail rather than the big picture, it’s unlikely that you’ll end up making the best choices. 

The Role of Prices

What really matters is the impact of acquiring raw materials and that’s where FPs start to struggle. In the same document as above, Bic claim that their basic Cristal ballpoints use five grams of plastic and a small amount of metal for the tip. On top of that, we can include a small quantity of ink and whatever packaging is used, typically a small cardboard box. All relatively straightforward. 

On the other hand, the Pilot Metropolitan would use five grams of plastic in the converter alone. Then there’s the steel nib, whatever mystery metals has been mixed together in the tipping, the plastic feed and section, and maybe 20g of brass comprising the pen barrel and cap. Brass is primarily a product of copper and zinc but can also include aluminium, iron, and manganese. We’ll also need to consider the ink and the glass or plastic bottle.

If we were making a one-to-one comparison between a Cristal and a Metropolitan, it’s obvious that the FP is going to perform worse. Much worse. But if we’re assuming the Metro will last two years, the appropriate comparison is whether it’s worse than, say, 100 Cristals. And that’s where things get trickier: to know the answer with certainty, we’d need to do a full environmental impact assessment and precisely quantify the impact of each. That’s not a realistic option for a blog post so we need a quick and dirty estimate. Fortunately, economics has a solution for that.  

Some non-economists understand that prices are a function of supply and demand but fewer realise that prices basically settle at the cost of production, provided a few assumptions are met. The first assumption is that the relevant markets are competitive — that there are plenty of buyers and sellers, not just in the retail market but also the markets for raw materials and intermediate production. This assumption is generally true. 

The second assumption is there are no externalities: that all of the firms involved in producing inputs, production, transportation and retail are bearing the full environmental costs and including those costs in the prices they charge. This is less likely to be true. Most environmental policy debates are essentially arguments over whether something is an externality and how the environmental cost should be incorporated. The debate over carbon pollution fits this exactly: people debate whether it imposes an environmental cost and, if so, whether a tax or other mechanism is the best way to price it (to ‘internalise the externality’, in econ jargon). The fact there are some unpriced externalities makes our analysis less than perfect but I nonetheless think it’s sufficient for this post. 

What I find fascinating about prices is that they send us signals about the scarcity of a product or its materials. When a product is made up of relatively scarce materials — say, a sterling silver pen barrel — the price will be higher than if it were made up of relatively abundant materials, like plastic or brass. Partly this is because of scarcity but it’s also partly because there are greater environmental costs which have been internalised by firms.

The higher price signals information to buyers and sellers which changes their behaviour: buyers consume less of it and sellers try to use less or find a cheaper, equally appealing substitute. These reactions mean that less of the scarce material is being used and so there is more leftover for anyone who can’t easily substitute away. As buyers, we don’t need any extra information to tell us that something is scarce or environmentally costly: once that is factored into the price, we will naturally adjust our consumption. As long as those externalities are priced in (as they are for many environmental impacts), the whole system basically works automatically. That’s a pretty marvellous thing and something which is not at all obvious to non-economists.

Comparisons 

So if your goal in life is to live as sustainably as possible, your focus should be on buying the cheapest goods possible. In that way, you’ll be buying the products with the lowest environmental impact. Just by wary of products which are artificially cheap because of unpriced externalities (and carbon might be the only significant one) or government support. One good example of this is cheap Chinese pens, which I’ve previously discussed as being the beneficiaries of government subsidies. The price of their pens are low because the cost is partly borne by Chinese taxpayers; if you had to pay the full cost of production those pens certainly would not be as cheap as they are.

With this in mind, we can look at pen prices to get an idea of what is the better environmental choice. Staples offer two dozen Cristals for $6.99 ($0.29ea) while a Metro and 50mL bottle of Sheaffer ink will run you about $25. Assuming the Metro and ink have a two-year life, the ballpoint would be the environmentally friendly option if you were to use a new pen every eight days. Any more frequently than that and the Metro would be preferable. 

Of course, that assumes that you’ll be using a single, cheap FP and ink. If you opt for a more expensive pen, such as one with a gold nib or more expensive materials, then I simply can’t see any way that it is the more sustainable choice. The same goes for anyone who has amassed even a small stash of pens and inks — remember that the environmental impact is in production not disposal — or who uses special, coated paper (such as Rhodia) for their FPs. 

That said, I’m not even convinced that ballpoints are the most sustainable choice. Staples also stock a 48-pack of pencils for $5.99 ($0.08ea), which is an even better option. But the most environmentally-friendly option — by far — is using a phone or laptop which you already own. By refusing to buy any pens at all, the only cost is electricity — probably only an extra $1-2 per year, even with your carbon emissions offset. 

Conclusion

Ultimately, understanding environmental impact is a complicated matter. To make effective decisions, we need to make sure we aren’t focussed on a single, potentially unimportant detail. Instead, we look at the bigger picture and, fortunately, prices can be a useful shortcut for helping us identify which products impose more costs on society. 

I have no problem with anyone using a fountain pen, even though they aren’t the most environmentally friendly option, but I think this choice can be defended on the grounds that it makes us happy — we simply don’t need any other reason for it. Claiming any environmental virtue strikes me as a post-hoc justification for doing something we would do anyway.

Before signing off, I want to note something important. People have become substantially more concerned about the environment in the last five years but most are completely unaware that the world is in better shape than its been for decades. Possibly better than any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution. There are still challenges, both at the local and global levels, but there’s also a lot of good news which doesn’t get publicised. Jesse Ausubel has a fantastic report which points out how the world is rebounding: food production is increasing even as farmland declines, forest coverage is increasing, the biosphere is growing, the world is using less materials (even though we have more stuff), and air and water pollution is improving (although, unfortunately, marine areas outside national jurisdictions still face many challenges and this situation is not really improving). These positives are mostly developments of the last one to two decades, so there’s plenty of reason to feel optimistic about the environment even if there are still problems left to solve. 

NB: The last paragraph of this post was edited for clarity.